Halfway through the debates this election season, it is clear that it pays to be aggressive in 2012. Forceful, even domineering, performances by Governor Romney and Vice President Biden in their respective showcases earned them more plaudits than the substance of their proposals (although the listless turn by President Obama was the defining counterpoint).
But it has not always been this way. Just ask Al Gore, who was branded as rude for interjecting and sighing when George W. Bush introduced questionable points in the first debate in 2000, or Bob Dole, who was deemed a “hatchet man” for suggesting that Democratic administrations were to blame for America’s 20th century wars during the 1976 vice presidential debate. So why are the “nice guys” (in terms of more circumscribed debate performances) finishing last this time around?
The American voter is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, whether they are Tea Partiers on the right or Occupiers on the left. Congress, as Vice President Biden noted, has an unprecedented low approval rating in the single digits. At President Obama’s highest point since shortly after assuming office, the killing of Osama bin Laden, his approvals never climbed past the mid 50s. Compare that with President Clinton who hit his highest point – 70% approval – on the day that he was impeached, or either of the Bushes who both cracked 90% in the face of Middle East violence.
One reason is certainly economics. But more than just current joblessness, there is anxiety that Pax Americana and attendant presumptions of personal upward mobility have finally come to an end (after previous bouts of declinism in the 1970s and 1990s). Certainly, as the threatened government shutdowns and near default on debt payments in 2011 demonstrate, Washington has evidenced an unprecedented incapacity to accomplish anything. The health care reform law was passed only by invoking arcane legislative procedures (the same, it must be noted that were required to pass the signature legislation of the previous administration) and Congress has not actually been able to approve a budget for years, and not for most of the past decade. And – particularly Republican – senators use the filibuster with abandon, preventing votes from ever occurring by using a parliamentary tactic to require supermajorities never intended by the constitutional framers.
Another reason, and one that drives the resentment politics of anti-immigration and “birtherism” on the far right, is rapidly shifting demographics: the first black chief executive has presided over a term in which Protestants ceased to be the majority in America and the overall proportion of the population who identify as non-Hispanic whites fell below two out of three.
It is no coincidence that ammunition stores nationwide unexpectedly sold out of their stocks at the end of 2008, and that the number of active militias and hate groups, which had been declining for years, tripled by 2010. Some, affiliated with the “Christian Identity Movement” endorse eschatological prophecy to embrace a violent End Times agenda calling for racial and religious wars. The shot fired into the Denver Obama campaign office this past week is an ominous indicator.
Also, political polarisation has reached its highest levels in modern political history. Members of Congress are more ideologically divided than they have been at any point in decades, as measured by the dwindling number of members who vote for legislation sponsored by colleagues in the other party and by votes on major legislation involving socially divisive issues. The process began in the 1970s, along with the introduction of party primary elections in which grassroots party activists selected general election candidates rather than “smoke-filled rooms” of party bosses.
Candidates have since had to run to the right or left to win the nomination, and this might explain the decline in moderates actually holding office. More recently, “netroots” activists on both sides have been successful in interjecting national fundraising and narrative shaping efforts to deliver primary election defeats to centrist career politicians deemed insufficiently loyal to the cause. Journalism has also glorified consistency as a greater virtue than flexibility. The exemplary but not unique case was the late Tim Russert on Meet the Press, who showed politicians video clips of themselves taking (sometimes only arguably) different positions in the past and then accused them of flip-flopping.
Finally, ideology – which can be thought of as a constellation of issue preferences that create cognitive shortcuts in absorbing new information and forming further preferences – always becomes most salient during periods of social upheaval when old institutions fail to provide solutions to changing circumstances. As noted above, economics and demography are shifting in America. One in five Americans now describe themselves as having no religion. The number of unaffiliated voters now eclipses registered Democrats and Republicans. Rapacious banks are protected as “too big to fail” but few other jobs seem secure, particularly in the face of likely austerity measures in the coming year.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Americans are anxious. A year ago, Gallup Polling found only 16% believed the country to be on the “right track”. The number is now up to 38%, but probably that is because of Obama partisans, which is to say they are voting right track because they are with Obama and not voting Obama because they are on the right track.
With normal political institutions seeming paralysed, there is a value in appearing tougher than the system, and there are few voters left to offend by coming on too strong. Both campaigns are running ‘turn out the base’ strategies this year rather than focusing on the shrinking sliver of (ostensibly moderate) swing voters available for persuasion. As in the primaries – and evident in this year’s Republican primary in particular – ideological purity and aggressive attacks against the other side are what motivate base voters to turn out, donate money and conduct vital volunteer groundwork. So long as turnout remains only half to two-thirds of eligible voters in even hotly contested presidential elections, the strategy usually works.
So as we head into the final two debates, look for a chastened Barack Obama to be a more combative one, and do not expect Mitt Romney to ease up with his improved electoral fortunes. There is no congeniality award in the race for the White House, and the public is itching for a fight and not a beauty contest. The causes are partly long-term structural and partly near-term situational, but either way all signs point to the vitriol ramping up in the remaining weeks of the contest.