Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Culture of Contentment and the Election of 2012

Those critical of the thrust of American policy have in recent decades frequently found themselves at a loss to explain the voting behavior of the electorate--why, for instance, the middle-class would vote against tax increases on the rich at times of fiscal strain. C. Wright Mills offered a portrait of Americans as alienated, but also atomized, distracted and uncomprehending. Another view, recently updated by Thomas Frank, analyzed the roles of "market populism" and culture war in rallying them to such positions. Morris Berman, likewise updating a longer tradition, offered the view of Americans as deeply, irrevocably committed to a social model centered on individual striving for private material gain (in spite of its personal and social consequences).

John Kenneth Galbraith offered an interesting complement to this body of thought in The Culture of Contentment in which he pointed to an often overlooked element of self-interest as a factor in this behavior. He wrote of a "contented majority" among the electorate, which included the broad professional and business class, as well as those who might be thought of as working class, but earn comparable income (as even some factory workers do). These are, in their attitude toward politics, preoccupied with their short-run personal comfort above all else; prone to believe that people "get what they deserve"; and in general take a dim view of government outside of certain roles they view as personally beneficial. (Defense apart, these include the contributions of Social Security and Medicare to their retirements or the maintenance of elderly relatives, or the protection of their savings by financial bail-outs.)

Consequently they resent the programs aimed at helping the poor (welfare, public education, etc.) that they pay for but do not expect to use; tolerate high levels of income inequality, thinking that "the price of prevention of any aggression against one's own income is tolerance of the greater amount for others," as any "redistribution of income from the rich . . . opens the door for consideration of higher taxes for the comfortable but less endowed"; and particularly in line with their short-run thinking, believe that "short-run public inaction . . . is always prefer[able] to protective long-run action."

This combination of preferences is exactly the sort of thing to lead to failures to address not just rural and urban poverty, but also ecological problems, the deterioration of the country's transport infrastructure, uncontrolled financial speculation, deindustrialization, mounting debt private and public, foreign and domestic, and the impact on U.S. influence abroad. And it counts disproportionately because the contented are disproportionately represented in the half of the eligible electorate which votes.

Galbraith speculated that this attitude would continue until a sharp economic downturn, a major military setback or a "revolt" of the underclass made the contented discontented, and one might wonder at what this suggests about the present. Recent years have seen the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression (the disappearance of trillions in wealth, a 10 percent U-3 unemployment rate at its low point, continuing austerity at the local and state levels), and the disillusionment following a succession of costly, frustrating and ultimately unpopular wars across the Greater Middle East (particularly Iraq, from which U.S. troops withdrew last year, but increasingly Afghanistan as well). However, such discontent as has appeared has, to the dismay of observers like Frank, taken a mostly rightward, status quo-affirming direction--the spike in interest in Ayn Rand, still being read by a wide audience in a way so many '50s-era intellectuals are not; the advent of the Tea Party, which was outraged more by the prospect of aid to troubled homeowners than the bail-out of spectacularly stupid and irresponsible speculators, and has had far more political influence on the Republican Party than Occupy Wall Street has had on the Democrats.

This is all reflected in the tenor of the political dialogue. The national debt's bounding far ahead of GDP remains a valid cause for concern, but the unseriousness of conservative criticism of it remains evident in the assertions that the deficits are not so large that more cannot be spent on defense, or further tax cuts bestowed on the wealthy. The dependence of the economy on fossil fuel profligacy has not been questioned to any significant extent, Mitt Romney's plan for job creation based on the premise of booming oil production--in line with his belittling of climate change and efforts to combat it even as, for the second year in a row, the southern states suffered through a near-record drought, while Manhattan's subway system was shut down by a hurricane.1

Even the personal histories and ideological positions of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates put forth by the Republican Party (the "traditional party of contentment") are telling. Mitt Romney is a wealthy, Swiss Bank account-holding Wall Street speculator born to privilege whose less-guarded remarks have been deeply offensive toward those not among the contented. His running mate Paul Ryan is an economics major whose quibbling over his adherence to Randian ideals (given their atheism) just makes his devotion to ultraorthodox economic thought that much clearer. Granted, Romney and Ryan lost, which some may take to validate the worry of sympathetic pundits like Tim Stanley that they were the "wrong" candidates this time around - but all the same the election was a close one, so much so that these candidates lost by only two percent of the popular vote, while the Republican Party retained control of the House of Representatives (albeit, by a slimmer margin).

It is, of course, an easy enough thing to envision the stress on our accustomed politics growing more severe. A softening global economy (Chinese and Indian growth is slowing, while Europe remains troubled), the prospect of sharp spending cuts adding to the pain already being caused by the considerable austerity at the state and local levels, the failure to rein in the kind of speculation that caused the meltdown of 2008, to name just a few of the continuing problems, are all plausible sources of such stresses. But for now the culture of contentment remains surprisingly intact.

1. Prominent in the plan to "create 12 million new jobs" is quicker and wider oil drilling (offshore drilling alone is expected to create 1.2 million jobs), the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the elimination of carbon regulation from the Clean Air Act, as well as bullish assumptions about what shale oil production will achieve.

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