A presidential race of doom and gloom

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters see a bleak national landscape raked over by corporations.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters see a bleak national landscape raked over by corporations. Getty Images

A common diagnosis of Jeb Bush’s failed campaign is that the candidate was “out of touch.” It’s hard to argue otherwise; Bush himself admitted it. “I’m not a grievance candidate,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. Sure enough, Bush soon wasn’t a candidate at all.

There are no more happy warriors on the hustings. Well, there’s Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has not found much success on the campaign trail.

It has been 22 years since “angry white men” powered the Republican takeover of Congress. Over the decades their anger and alienation have only intensified as their dissatisfaction has spread across the land.

More than twice as many Americans believe the country is on the wrong track as on the right track. The 2015 American Values Survey found: “The number of Americans citing crime, racial tensions, and illegal immigration as major problems increased substantially between 2012 and 2015.”

Actually, crime is mostly down in that period, continuing a positive trend that is two decades long. Illegal immigration is down substantially from its 2007 peak. Racial “tensions,” which are a product of perception, may well be “up” for some Americans. But since 2012, jobs, GDP growth and the number of Americans with health insurance are all up despite many perceptions that they’re not.

In a world increasingly driven and navigated by data, American politics appears increasingly immune to its charms. Donald Trump’s voluminous lies have been repeatedly documented and refuted, yet he leads the Republican nomination race.

“What most Republicans know about the society and the economy comes from cable news, talk radio, right-wing blogs and the amplification from e-mails and other social media shared by close friends and relatives,” political scientist Norman Ornstein said via e-mail. “What is the most prevalent commercial they see? For gold! Why gold? That is what you buy when the Apocalypse is coming.”

On the Democratic side, life ought to be relatively cool and bright. The Democratic Party has its problems, but it’s not a steaming existential mess like the GOP.

Hillary Clinton is running for Obama’s third term. But to keep pace with Bernie Sanders, her Democratic rival, she’s also had to get acquainted with the gloom. The essence of the Sanders campaign is that the economy is “rigged” by those at the very top who are keeping everyone else down.

Sanders doesn’t consider Obama’s presidency a liberal success under extraordinarily adverse economic and political conditions. He and his supporters see a bleak landscape raked over by corporations and their political enablers in pursuit of dominance and profits.

Sanders’s list of bad guys (the rich) is short. Republicans, by contrast, offer a smorgasbord of enemies.

There are serious problems in the U.S.

But the general contours of the economy and the nation circa 2016 are insufficient to explain how so many Americans came to have faith in a narrative of doom. The resulting paralysis undermines the capacity of politics and policy to use traditional levers to address the very problems bringing everyone down.

One of Americans’ most telling anxieties is the pervasive fear that they or a loved one will fall victim to a terrorist attack. For the average American, the chances are smaller than minuscule. But we are a nation seemingly hooked on fear itself. Mexican or Muslim, overbearing rich or grasping poor, we’ll get a fix wherever we can find it.

Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.