On one level, American politics looks amazingly stable. President Barack Obama’s approval rating is about 47 percent, and it hasn’t changed much in well over a year. Health care reform is mildly unpopular, and the public’s view hasn’t shifted much since before it was passed.
According to Pew Research Center polls, the public is evenly divided over which party can do a better job of handling foreign policy, the job situation, Social Security reform, health care reform and many other issues. It looks like we’re back to the 50-50 stasis that has been the norm for the past few decades.
Moreover, the two parties are about to run utterly familiar political campaigns. The Democrats are going to promise to raise taxes on the rich to preserve the welfare state, just as they have since 1980. The Republicans are going to vow to cut taxes and introduce market mechanisms to reform the welfare state, just as they have since 1980.
From this you could easily get the impression that American politics are trundling along as usual. But this stability is misleading. The current arrangements are stagnant but also fragile. American politics is like a boxing match atop a platform. Once you’re on the platform, everything looks normal. But when you step back, you see that the beams and pillars supporting the platform are cracking and rotting.
This cracking and rotting is originally caused by a series of structural problems that transcend any economic cycle: There are structural problems in the economy as growth slows and the middle class incomes stagnate. There are structural problems in the welfare state as baby boomers spend lavishly on themselves and impose horrendous costs on future generations. There are structural problems in energy markets as the rise of China and chronic instability in the Middle East leads to volatile gas prices. There are structural problems with immigration policy and tax policy and on and on.
As these problems have gone unaddressed, Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system, which is the one resource the entire regime is predicated upon. This loss of faith has contributed to a complex but dark national mood. The country is anxious, pessimistic, ashamed, helpless and defensive.
The share of Americans who say they trust government to do the right thing most of the time is scuttling along at historic lows. Approval of Congress and most other institutions has slid. Seventy percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, according to a New York Times/CBS poll. Nearly two-thirds believe the nation is in decline, according to a variety of surveys.
Over the past months, we’ve seen a fascinating phenomenon. The public mood has detached from the economic cycle. In normal times, economic recoveries produce psychological recoveries.
The U.S. has experienced nine straight months of slow economic growth. The unemployment rate has fallen, and, in March, the U.S. economy added a robust 216,000 jobs. Yet the public mood is darkening, not brightening. The New York Times/CBS poll showed a 13 percentage point increase in the number of Americans who believe things are getting worse. The Gallup Economic Confidence Index is now as low as it has been since the height of the recession.
At some point something is going to happen to topple the political platform—maybe a debt crisis, maybe when China passes the United States as the world’s largest economy, perhaps as early as 2016. At that point, we could see changes that are unimaginable today.
New political forces will emerge from the outside or the inside. A semi-crackpot outsider like Donald Trump could storm the gates and achieve astonishing political stature. Alternatively, insiders like the Simpson-Bowles commission or the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” could assert authority and recreate a strong centrist political establishment, such as the nation enjoyed in the 1950s.
Neither seems likely now. But in these circumstances, rule out nothing.•
Brooks is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.