Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens. Yet politicians take care of themselves and party interests, while government grows remote and unresponsive, leaving people feeling powerless. ...All this is powerful, if not entirely novel, stuff, but I'd give it a slightly different spin. In a word, ring-fencing: we seem to have created a system that protects entrenched insiders and let everybody else fend for themselves. That would include Wall Street bankers and their "elected" minions,, but it would also include disparate other constituencies as well: public employees who have been around since the first big hiring freezes; pensioners old enough that they will be lucky enough to die before the money runs out (that would be me, your honor); hell, throw in Californians foresighted enough to have bought their homes before 1978, and even a range of private-sector workers who bought their homes early, stayed on the job for a while, and kept their nose clean. These are the constituencies not specifically rich enough but better described as connected enough so it looks like their particular bowls of gruel will stay full. Everyone else can go hang.
In our recent Web survey of 2,000 respondents, voters respond strongly to Democratic messages on the economy only when a party leader declares, “We have to start by changing Washington. ... The middle class won’t catch a break until we confront the power of money and the lobbyists.”
Why is that?
You do not have to look very far. If there is an article of faith among contemporary center-left leaders, it is that investment in education will pay dividends with increased productivity and increased income. And yet the evidence is piling up that the economy is not working for the middle class. Productivity and education increase but wages do not follow.
When presented with vivid descriptions of income inequality in America, people are deflated, rather than empowered to bring change. In surveys, they tell me that they think the politicians and the chief executives are “piggybacking off each other.” They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter.
That government and the elite appear blithely to promote globalization and economic integration, while the working population loses income, makes the frustration more intense.
Our research shows that the growth of self-identified conservatives began in the fall of 2008 with the Wall Street bailout, well before Mr. Obama embarked on his recovery and spending program. The public watched the elite and leaders of both parties rush to the rescue. The government saved irresponsible executives who bankrupted their own companies, hurt many people and threatened the welfare of the country. When Mr. Obama championed the bailout of the auto companies and allowed senior executives at bailed-out companies to take bonuses, voters concluded that he was part of the operating elite consensus. If you owned a small business that was in trouble or a home or pension that lost much of its value, you were on your own. As people across the country told me, the average citizen doesn’t “get money for free.” Their conclusion: Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible.
Everything they witness affirms the public’s developing view of how government really works. They see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations, that makes these outcomes irresistible. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama’s Washington.
More: I may not be well-informed enough to judge, but my guess is that this is one factor that pervades the current malaise across a bunch of countries. The specifically financial crisis takes different forms in, say, Greece, Ireland, Italy. Problems like youth un (or under) employment, like the off-the-books shadow economy--these seem to prevail more generally. I suppose there are differences of degree. In Spain, with perhaps a longer history of systemic unemployment, one hears reports of what amounts to a fully-developed two-tier economy, one of which is doing quite well, thank you, and one, scratching for bits. I wouldn't say we've got quite to that point at home yet, but one might argue that we seem to be on our way.
Greenberg follows up with a set of positive recommendations which you can find here. Some of them may sound like same-old same-old; some (immigration) perhaps more appealing, albeit probably utopian. But none of them seem very ambitious --none betray an understanding that we seem to face a widening gap here, not so much between rich and poor as between already-got-mine and still-trying to get on board. It's one of those instabilities which, like the San Andreas fault, will only get more dangerous until it cracks.