Sun, Mar 27, 2016 - Page 9 News List

US electorate wracked by anxiety and anger seek easy targets

By Richard Haass

The US presidential election is still six months away and it is impossible to know with any certainty who will be nominated to represent the major parties, much less who will be the 45th occupant of the White House.

However, it is not too soon to assess the mood of the country’s more than 320 million inhabitants and what it would mean for the man or woman who ultimately prevails in what must seem to most people around the world to be an endless political soap opera.

The dominant mood in the US is one of considerable anxiety, if not outright anger. The Washington Post recently published a four-part series of articles revealing popular fury aimed at Wall Street, Muslims, trade deals, Washington, police shootings, US President Barack Obama, Republicans, immigrants and other targets.

One of the worst descriptions to be applied to a person nowadays is “professional politician.” The beneficiaries of this state of mind are anti-establishment candidates who espouse policies in opposition to free trade and immigration reform and who call for a radical overhaul of current tax and spending policies. The details of what they advocate might well differ, but their platforms share a promise of radical departure from the “status quo.”

The basis of this mood is hardly self-evident, as the country is better off economically than it was six years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 and 2008 economic crisis. More than 9 million jobs have been created since then, interest rates are low — making loans for homes and cars more affordable — and the fall in the price of gasoline is the equivalent of a US$700 tax cut for the average US family. In addition, the stock market has risen about 200 percent since its low of seven years ago and millions of people who were without health insurance are now covered.

However, this good economic news is offset in many cases by weak growth in household incomes, which have stagnated in real — inflation-adjusted — terms for about 15 years. The percentage of Americans working full time has still not reached the level it was at seven years ago, and many fear that their jobs will disappear because of foreign competition, new technologies, or outsourcing.

A large number of Americans are living longer, but are anxious, as they have failed to set aside the funds needed to ensure that their retirement would allow them to live comfortably into old age. Some are paying health-insurance premiums that they previously had avoided because of mandates in the reform enacted under Obama.

There is also the issue of inequality. This causes real anger, but the problem is not so much inequality, which, although worse, is nothing inherently new, as it is the decline in opportunity. The “American Dream” is giving way to class consciousness — a profound change for a country founded on the ideal that anyone can improve his or her lot through hard work.

However, the reasons for anxiety and anger transcend economic realities and worries. There is also physical insecurity, whether because of crime or the fear of terrorism. In many communities, there is concern, too, about where the culture and the society are heading.

Modern media tend to make things worse. Ours is an age of “narrowcasting,” not broadcasting. People increasingly tune in to cable channels or Web sites that reinforce their views and ideologies.

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