Deep into the Great Depression, Americans cried out for help, elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1932 landslide and marshaled in the era of big government. Facing a stagnant, inflation-torn economy in 1980, they rose up in a backlash against that big government by sweeping Ronald Reagan to victory.
Today, despite an ailing economy struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Roosevelt era, people show no signs of uniting behind any bold new approach. They split along many lines – income, geography, age, ideology. Older people see government as having a big role in easing economic pain. Younger people are less inclined to look to Washington. Conservatives think paring the federal debt is a top priority; liberals, less so.
McClatchy dispatched journalists to a dozen states and commissioned a national poll to plumb the mood and temper of the nation as its people approach one of the most crucial elections in generations. At stake is a path toward two distinctly different Americas.
The yen for unity is evident: Eighty-six percent said the economy is a top priority, with support cutting across all ideological and partisan lines. Eighty percent also named the job situation as a top priority. And three of every four people think it’s more important for government to seek compromise.
But here’s the 2012 catch: Seventy-two percent of Democrats thought the government should solve the economic problems, compared with 46 percent of Republicans.
Unity in uncertainty
The one thing that unites Americans from coast to coast this summer is anxiety about an economy that cannot gain its footing.
Americans rank the economy and jobs at the very top of their list of concerns, according to the poll, which probed how Americans feel about the top issues facing the country and how they want to fix them. They divide, though, on whether they want the government to play an activist role a la FDR, or whether they want to cut back government a la Reagan as a way to stimulate spending by citizens and business.
The findings don’t suggest a smooth path forward.
While people view the upcoming November election as having potential to make a big difference, they also harbor a skepticism bred by years of political paralysis.
The search for solutions begins with the debate over government’s role.
Construction worker Brett Duval, for example, thinks it’s critical to get government out of the way to get the economy back on track.
“The only thing our government needs to do is to defend America and fight wars. That’s it,” said the 28-year-old father of three from Orlando, Fla.
In Columbia, Mo., retired teacher Mildred Cooke, 82, wants another jobs program along the lines of FDR’s Works Progress Administration.
“Create a jobs program, even if we have to spend some government money. There are so many things that need to be done in our country,” she said.
This back and forth, talking past one another, two sides that keep failing to meet, characterizes much of the American mood today. Government’s the problem, government’s the solution. Spend more, spend less. Tax the wealthy more, don’t tax the wealthy more. These polarized opinions have been chiseled into the American psyche like rarely before, reinforced by like-minded strangers on chat sites or commentators readily available on the Internet and cable television.
And they feed the politics in Washington, sending resolute representatives to Congress, where they lurch from confrontation to confrontation, unable to agree on a budget or taxes, threatening shutdowns or credit defaults.
Critical of compromise
Where to draw the line? There’s no consensus, and no indication that one is about to form. The era of consensus government appears, if not dead, at least dying.
Nearly three out of four Americans want their representatives to compromise to find solutions to these economic challenges, according to the McClatchy-Marist poll.
But a vocal minority of 25 percent – including 40 percent of Republicans – want to stand on principle, regardless of whether that means gridlock that could lead to higher taxes, a government shutdown or higher federal debt.
John Ostwalt, 43, a Statesville attorney, was adamant: Republicans should stand by their principles.
“Compromise, that’s what’s got us in the mess we’re in now,” he said. “I don’t think we would go into deeper debt if we didn’t compromise. Compromising is what’s gotten us into deeper debt now.”
For generations, Americans accepted compromise in order to make the economy hum. The willingness to give and get became the political engine that allowed the United States to become a more prosperous country in the 20th century. New ideas may have been born and nurtured in turmoil, but ultimately much of America came to accept them, and they usually worked to cushion the U.S. from deep depressions.
The McClatchy survey and interviews illustrated how Americans now live in a very different political era, one with no easy solutions in plain sight. Staff writer Lindsay Ruebens and reporters from other McClatchy newspapers contributed.