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Commentary: Fear itself

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2010 - Many reporters and commentators who analyze the 2010 elections have remarked on an angry electorate. Those who adhere to one or another of the Tea Party factions are considered angry. So are independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but now look to the Republicans, and liberals who believe the president has not done enough. Anger is a powerful emotion, but I would vouchsafe that the electoral mood is also characterized by fear.

In late 19th century Europe, members of the lower middle class -- shopkeepers, artisans -- were drawn to demagogues because they feared being subsumed into the growing industrial working class. Fear of change also motivated the Know Nothing movement prior to the Civil War in the United States. Adherents saw industrial and demographic change and railed against Catholic immigrants.

Fear of change and of the unknown affects American voters today. The most severe recession since the 1930s has cost many jobs and security. Because of the recession's severity, the economy is not rebounding as it did from more minor economic crises. For some, the solutions put forth are the problem, not the panacea. And discontent is compounded because the middle class has experienced no real growth in personal income for more than a decade and a half. Those who have jobs work harder but don't seem to advance beyond Go. Their children may not do as well as them.

That trepidation existed before the financial meltdown of October 2008. Major banks teetered on the brink. The false prosperity of the housing bubble was revealed. President George Bush and Congress answered with a massive bailout to save the financial system. That bailout -- and a huge expenditure of government funds -- had many detractors.

Was Wall Street rewarded for its impecunious behavior? What did these expenditures do to the deficit, which had grown significantly in the Bush years?

If the government had not acted, we cannot be certain of what would have happened. Perhaps millions more jobs would have been lost as well as the assets of individuals and companies.

The newly elected Obama administration followed the bailout with a stimulus package written by congressional leaders. It contained a middle class tax cut, a $250 payment for Social Security recipients and aid to state and local governments. Its critics say either that it did not spend enough creating shovel-ready jobs or that it spend too much with little result.

For most of 2009, Congress was occupied with health care reform. Opponents vilified the steps taken to ensure coverage for almost all Americans and to end discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions even though coverage by employers and the dominant role of insurance companies would not change.

The auto industry bailout, the financial bailout and the stimulus were all reactions to a private sector meltdown that had been made possible by deregulation in previous administrations. But, in the United States, where the private sector is revered and government disparaged, those frightened and/or angered did not pitch their fury against the Wall Street titans with their huge bonuses and lack of regard for the consequences of their wheeling and dealing. And even if they wanted to strike out at the financial wizards, they had no power to do so.

But politicians were reachable targets. Taxes and government programs became the enemy. "Government is the problem" had become a mantra under Ronald Reagan, and tax cuts were the natural solution to economic stagnation, even if all did not benefit equally.

Other changes have unsettled some: The time when whites will no longer be the demographic majority is approaching; having our first African-American presidents is also a factor.

With the economy being the real basis of the fear, however, there is some irony that the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street are behind many of the ads against those who voted to bail them out. The entire situation of fear and anger is exacerbated by distortions of cable news, attack ads from every side, and the fact that few Americans study the news or public policy to any considerable extent. Simple answers fill the void and emotion rules.

There will be profound change in the composition of Congress after Nov. 2. The question remains as to whether there will be greater success in addressing the economy and who will benefit?

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

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