The lesson of Massachusetts? Anger


You can bet that political strategists in both parties will be parsing the meaning of the Massachusetts senatorial struggle for some time to come. If there was a slam dunk left in American politics, it should’ve been the Democrats’ ability to easily retain a Senate seat they’d held for 57 years in what has become essentially a sea-blue state. Instead, they lost.

Given its importance in the issue of the moment, the Massachusetts vote is going to be analyzed as a referendum on President Obama’s healthcare reforms. Increasingly, it does seem as if this first-year president made a profound strategic mistake by pressing forward on healthcare while simultaneously trying to contend with the worst global economic crisis since the Depression, exit one war in Iraq and gear up to fight another in Afghanistan.

Truth to tell, the president and his surrogates have done a lousy job selling the electorate on reform. Social Security and Medicare are our most popular social programs because they have two crucial attributes: they cover everybody, and their benefit to the individual can be explained in one declarative sentence. By contrast, the benefits of healthcare reform are diffuse. In this nation of 300 million, only 30 million people are without health insurance. That’s a scandal and, frequently, a tragedy for the uninsured. In political terms, however, the problem is that most of what the other 270 million will gain from reform seems marginal and remote.

But if the lessons gleaned from Massachusetts stop with healthcare, something far more profound and potentially disruptive will have been missed. There is a deep and increasingly restive anger stirring in the country. Its focal points at the moment may seem to be healthcare and “big government,” but if there were a Republican in the White House, they might just as well be tax cuts and “limited government.” The fact is that the president and both parties’ congressional delegations have approval ratings under 50%. (So do California’s Republican governor and Los Angeles’ Democratic mayor; the Legislature doesn’t even have a rating.)

Much of the disaffection in Massachusetts came from self-described independents. That’s significant because independents are concentrated in middle-class suburbs where physical and economic security are overriding preoccupations. Today, those anxieties are both real and justified, though not as critiques of Obama’s first year.

The truth of the matter is that, if you adjust for inflation, the average income of American males has not grown in real terms since the 1970s. Most families have compensated for that by sending mom to work outside the home. (The simultaneous push for equality by the women’s movement masked the fact that significant numbers of women now in the workforce were drafted by economic necessity.)

The mass unemployment that followed Wall Street’s meltdown upset even that precarious balance, and the situation is even worse than the unemployment figures suggest. According to work done by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who chairs the congressional panel appointed to oversee the bank bailout, 20% of all Americans are either jobless, underemployed or simply have given up looking for work. One out of every eight Americans is on food stamps, and one out of every eight U.S. mortgages is in default or foreclosure. The wholesale flight of American employers from the responsibility of maintaining traditional pension plans forced tens of millions of 401(k) participants into the equity markets to secure their retirements. The crash erased $5 trillion from their accounts.

Scolds would have you believe that middle-class Americans were complicit in the financial collapse because of their profligacy. Warren points out that the numbers state a different case. “By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago,” she wrote recently, “for a house that was, on average, only 10% bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance. . . . Families today spend less than they did a generation ago on food, clothing, furniture, appliances and other flexible purchases, but it hasn’t been enough to save them.”

As employers have come to regard their employees as little more than another fixed expense, layoffs have become a routine tool for manicuring quarterly profits. Thus, even those lucky enough to have full-time jobs have little security in their current positions -- in which, as the current productivity numbers show, they’re forced to work ever harder for less -- and none about their future, including retirement. This shift of economic risk onto the backs of the middle class has allowed the top 5% of income earners to amass a share of the country’s wealth unmatched for a century.

There’s the real source of the country’s anger.