Politics & Policy

An Overdue Public Engagement

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How long can the American electorate tune out worsening problems at home and abroad?

The most recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 23 percent of American adults feel the country is on the right track.

One way to look at that 23 percent is to recognize that it is the lowest positive response to that question in this poll in the past year.

But another way is to ask, Who are these people? And what’s got them so confident that the country is on the right track? Is it just a phenomenal capacity to not notice or ignore bad news?

Are they stockholders? Sure, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit some new highs last month, and U.S. gross domestic product enjoyed a good quarter after a sudden drop last quarter. But most of our recent economic good news comes with caveats, asterisks, and other qualifiers.

Sure, the work-force-participation rate ticked up a bit last month, but it’s been declining a long while and hit a 35-year low recently. The 6.2 percent unemployment rate is good by the standards of the Obama era, but it remains higher than it was for the entire George W. Bush administration. The real median household income is down about $5,000 since 2007. Median household net worth is still slogging along, hampered by anemic wage growth and an uneven recovery from the housing bubble.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation.

Other polls suggest that economic pessimism is still pretty widespread: “A CNN/ORC International poll indicates that 58 percent of those surveyed rates the nation’s economic conditions as poor, with 41 percent saying they are good.”

And the problems before the country keep piling up like a three-car crash around a blind corner. The problem of the unsecure border reached a flashpoint this year, as 70,000 or more unattended children are expected to be taken into U.S. custody. Our national debt now stands at $17.6 trillion, and growing. Obamacare remains as unpopular as ever, with some indicators that it is growing even more unpopular. Some states, such as California and Florida, are facing significantly higher health-insurance premiums next year. The Department of Veterans Affairs disgraced itself with unforgivable scandals of denied care and inhumane waits, and now everyone hopes the new boss can fix the problems of the old boss.

Then there’s food stamp use. The Wall Street Journal writes: “Even though the recession officially ended in mid-2009, the number of people collecting food stamps continued to climb until recent months, and participation in the program remains far higher than at any other point over the past 30 years.” The divorce rate appears to be moving in inverse proportion to the economy, hitting a 40-year-low in 2009 and steadily increasing in recent years as the economy has improved. The birthrate is at an all-time low, attributed to the lingering economic hard times and to Millennials’ tendency to delay marriage and raising children. In the realm of education test scores, American students’ test scores remain stagnant while international competitors thrive.

And those are just some of the problems at home. Beyond our borders, the world is aflame with problems: Israel and Hamas are fighting in the Gaza Strip. ISIS is advancing in Iraq. A civil war in Syria has claimed more than 170,000 lives. Russian separatists are suspected of shooting down a passenger airliner over Ukraine; and Russian forces, of firing rockets into Ukraine. Nuclear talks with Iran go in circles, but the U.S. and its allies agree to continue them because they dread the consequences of giving up on negotiations. Now we’re facing an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that is already the worst in history. Tuesday an “insider attack” at a U.S. base in Afghanistan killed a U.S. Army major-general, spotlighting the grim outlook for stability in that country after U.S. forces leave.

Democrats undoubtedly want to believe that the guy they voted for is handling the job well, and that the country is on the right track because of his wise leadership. This is probably easier to believe if you don’t pay much attention to what’s actually going on in the country.

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that Republicans are following a quintet of major news stories more closely than Democrats are: the downed plane in Ukraine, the children crossing our southern border, the fighting between Israel and Hamas, the court decisions about Obamacare, and the midterm elections.

Less than a quarter of those younger than 30 are paying “close attention” to any of those news events.

The midterm campaigns will feature small armies of campaign strategists, pollsters, experts, and pundits trying to figure out who’s going to show up to vote, what issues drive their decisions, what they’ve heard about the candidates, and whether or not they’re even open to changing their minds. They face the truly maddening challenge of figuring out what’s on the minds of people who know almost nothing about anything that’s going on, and who prefer to not pay attention.

News is depressing. People want to tune it out. Commentators such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer referred to the 1990s as a national “holiday from history,” during which “major challenge to America was deferred . . . every can was kicked down the road.” It seems that a significant percentage of the American electorate now wants to take another holiday from history, taking a break from even thinking about pressing national problems.

But ignoring national problems is a luxury many Americans can’t afford; the U.S. Border Patrol officers who are encountering unattended children in the desert can’t just tune out the problem. The only question is which pressing problem will worsen into a full-blown national crisis in the not-too-distant future, providing those insouciant Americans with their unwanted and painful wake-up call.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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