No, they can't

The midterm results were not just a rejection of Obama, but of America’s entire ruling meritocracy—a reaction fuelled by a wilful, power-hungry media
November 17, 2010
TV presenter Jon Stewart at his Rally to Restore Sanity in October: “The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker”

The questions arising from the midterms in the US look very different the farther one gets away from Washington. Within the Beltway, the results are parsed according to their significance for Obama’s administration, and the polarisation of congress that seared the first two years of Obama’s presidency. Yet from the remove of several thousand miles, it seems something more fundamental is happening than simply the ebb and flow of party politics.

Despite Republican triumphs in many states across the country—Republicans now control 53 per cent of all state legislative offices, the largest percentage since 1928—the majority of voters say they have an unfavourable view of the party. Indeed, there is little difference in how voters assess the two parties: 53 per cent say they have an unfavourable view of the Democrats; 52 per cent feel the same way about the Republicans. Although we are told that the Republicans have a mandate to repeal the Obama health initiative, exit polls found an electorate almost split down the middle: 48 per cent of voters said congress should indeed repeal the healthcare law, 47 per cent said the law should be left as it is or extended. Similarly, although 39 per cent said that reducing the budget deficit should be congress’s highest priority, 37 per cent said its most important task should be “spending to create jobs.”

What voters appear to have agreed on was not policy, or party, but rather Washington incumbency: they don’t like it. Excluding the freshman and sophomore members elected in 2006 and 2008, the house and senate lost a combined 317 years of incumbent experience. The 66 members who lost their seats in the House of Representatives represent the biggest toll on incumbents in 30 years. We have now had three “wave” elections in a row: control of congress changed hands in 2006, as did the White House in 2008, and now the house has gone back to the Republicans. And yet one could say that the successful element in the Republican surge was essentially the same as that in the last transformative election victory—Obama’s in 2008. What is really striking is that the modulation of these waves is so short. In 2008, the successful campaign promise was also to change the direction of the country and bring deep reform to a corrupt and corrupting system. In other words, the Republicans who just swept the house won on Obama’s campaign slogan.

This might suggest that the 2012 presidential election will be a replay of 1948. Although 1946 was an historic midterm triumph for the Republicans—they picked up 55 seats—in 1948 they lost 75 and President Truman, against all odds, was re-elected. That’s how it would look to me, if I were living in my small apartment in Foggy Bottom. But from my sunny rooms in Piccadilly, something more complex and troubling appears to be happening in the US.


First, there is a deep and powerful current beneath these waves that is moved by a rejection of the American meritocracy. Since the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, there has been a consensus in the US that merit, as measured by examinations, grades, institutional sifting and CV-building, ought to be the basis on which status and economic rewards are distributed. The old American Episcopacy, of which FDR was as much a product as an apostate, had brought the great depression; by contrast, a broad-based, merit-based armed forces had won the second world war. Today, many Americans believe this new elite, chosen on the basis of intelligence, education, and expensive training, is as self-serving as the old Episcopacy—indeed, if income is the index, they are breathtakingly more successful at directing society’s benefits to themselves—and just as feckless when it comes to identifying with and nurturing the larger society. It is the new elite, after all, that has brought the greatest economic near-death experience since 1930, an experience from which, unlike their predecessors in the great depression, they have contrived successfully to insulate themselves.

There was always something hollow at the core of the meritocracy: its indifference to the values of family, loyalty, solidarity, a lack of reverence for sacrifice and, perhaps most importantly, its core commitment to the self-deception inherent in the idea that each person is solely responsible for his or her fate. Obese people, alcoholics, and academic failures are just as responsible for their misfortunes as the overachieving suburban students are responsible for their trophies.

Still, the meritocracy delivered the goods. In the last 30 years the average size of the American house has doubled; American Nobel prize-winners in the sciences and economics have outnumbered those of all other countries combined. A degree from an Ivy League university is a far surer ticket to financial success than it was in the past, when an applicant to Harvard had a 90 per cent chance of admission if his father was a graduate (and the average achievement test score of a freshman was about what it would now take to be admitted to a third rank state university). Since 1960, individual incomes—in real terms—have doubled for Americans, and the sheer spaciousness of our lives in terms of access to information and cultural events has vastly expanded.

At the same time, one group of Americans has been pulling away from the others, and another group appears to be stuck in a condition not of poverty, but of uncertainty, vulnerability and economic stasis. As is well known, the US has the highest income inequality in the developed world and, in the past 20 to 30 years, has experienced the greatest increase in income inequality. From 1973 to 2005, the wages of those in the top 10 per cent, who mostly have college or advanced degrees, rose by 30 per cent or more, and among this group, growth in income was heavily concentrated in the top 1 per cent. (In 2007, 58 per cent of male Harvard graduates and 43 per cent of females went into finance or consulting.) By contrast, at the 50th percentile and below, where many people have at best a high school diploma, real wages rose only 5 to 10 per cent.

It isn’t, however, simply the growing disparity among income groups; Americans have always been unusually free of the envy of class or wealth positions, perhaps because we believe that all classes and income levels are open to each of us. Rather it’s the sense that, now, groups at both ends of the spectrum are stuck: the very rich avoid the tax brackets most of us pay, and have learned to rig the political system so that it has become a slot machine that favours the well-connected player, not the house.

This accounts for a remarkable political paradox. As of 2nd November, the day of the midterms, the Nasdaq average had climbed 77 per cent, the S&P stock index 48 per cent, since Obama’s inauguration two years ago (his Republican predecessor had presided over the worst stock market decline in living memory). But the chief beneficiaries of these impressive returns—like those of the Wall Street and bank bailouts—are the very ones funding the Republican resurgence. It is as if their dominance is unchallengeable regardless of who is in power. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the children of those who prosper under a meritocracy—and those who don’t—are more locked into the roles of their parents than those offspring in an earlier, less meritocratic era.

This sense of social inertia, and the fatalism about it, may account for the unusual political differences between white voters without college degrees who have union members in their household, and those who don’t. Working-class voters with union members (like drivers for UPS) supported Democrats (55 per cent to 43 per cent) reflecting an apparently waning belief that collective action can better their lives. (Private sector union membership has fallen from 35 per cent after the second world war to just 7 per cent today.) By contrast, non-union working-class whites (like those who drive trucks for FedEx, whose general values can be presumed to be similar to their counterparts at UPS) voted overwhelmingly for Republicans (68 per cent to 31 per cent), apparently believing that whatever the rhetoric of the GOP, their economic lives wouldn’t be made any worse off. Such fatalism also may account for this startling figure: those voters who blamed Wall Street for the nation’s economic problems—a plurality of those polled—nevertheless favoured Republicans over Democrats by 56 to 42 per cent.

Is it any wonder, then, that a president who best represents the triumph of the meritocracy—a graduate of Columbia and Harvard who was raised by a single mother often in very reduced financial circumstances; a man whose wife, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, earned more than $250,000 annually as counsel to a Chicago hospital—that such a man could both inspire a triumphal election, and a devastating backlash?


Second, loss of faith in the meritocracy has been compounded by an adolescent rejection of hard choices in public life. In a meritocracy there is no place for tragedy. There is always a best option. Thus there is an emerging consensus that President Obama blundered when he pressed ahead with his healthcare plan even as the economy was faltering, revenues in the states were collapsing, and the federal deficit was soaring. It is unacceptable, even unimaginable, to many that Obama chose to push immediately for healthcare reform while he had the numbers in congress to do so, even though he realised the result would strip his administration of the credit it deserved for averting a global depression and stabilising the free-market system.

This attitude about hard choices is not unique to Obama’s presidency, nor to the US. It is the seductive refrain of the 21st-century informational market states, which are superseding 20th-century industrial nation states, that impossible choices with no good alternatives are a thing of the past; that only a corrupt or wilful government can fail to produce good outcomes for everyone. Do you believe that invading Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons was a mistake? Then simply assume that Hussein and his sociopathic dynasty would have been “kept in a box” indefinitely, that doing so wouldn’t have cost the lives of innocent Iraqis and further embittered their society. Do you believe that the annoying and intrusive measures—like ID cards, or electronic monitoring—taken to maximise the chances of preventing terrorist attacks are a mistake? Then simply assume that there is no al Qaeda, that future attacks will never be more deadly than the ones we have known in the past, that the threat assessments of governments are the self-induced mirages of politicians thirsty for crises.

And this sense of easy choices ignored or rejected by political leaders is exacerbated by a powerful force in the emerging market state: the ever-increasing influence of the media. It is striking that the straightest talk about the role of the media in polarising the American debate comes from a television journalist and humourist, Jon Stewart. In October, at a vast rally held in Washington, he said: “The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we eventually get sicker… the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. If the picture of us were true, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?”

The most consistently negative images in the media are those of politicians and officials. Anyone who has seen a public official humiliated or patronised by television interviewers knows what I mean. How could we entrust power to such obvious incompetents? In 21st century market states, the media act in direct competition with the government of the day. The media are well-suited to succeed in this competition because they are trained to work in the marketplace, are more nimble than bureaucrats hampered by procedural rules, are quick to spot public trends, and can call on the consolidated power of a handful of media empires. They are also the most capable users of modern techniques of information exchange and public relations, whose outlets they very largely control.

One aspect of President Bill Clinton’s difficulties in persuading the public that the campaign of vilification directed against him came from a “right-wing conspiracy” was that many of its most avid adherents were liberal journalists. They were not conspirators so much as soldiers in a historic struggle to wrest power from the presidency and gain even greater control over the electoral process than the media now enjoys.

The competitive, critical function of the media in the market state is similar to that of political parties of the left in the 20th century nation state: the left is always a critical organ in constitutional government, reproving, harassing, questioning the status quo. Now, with the discrediting of the left in the market state—the left, after all, defined itself against markets—its competitive, critical function in government is taken up by the media. Relations between the media and the other organs of government are further strained by the fact that, in a market state, the public’s view about what can be achieved by government changes.

The market is inherently unpredictable, so people become more fatalistic. The nation state, based on the operations of law rather than the market, gave a sense—perhaps illusory—that expectations would be fulfilled through policy. But market states, because they are informational rather than industrial, attempt to protect the individual by informing him or her of risks. It is the media that do most of the informing.

In this transition, the state will almost inevitably appear to be doing even worse than it is. Popular appreciation will plummet as the public has been persuaded that the government cannot accomplish anything positive of significance. Having no need to propound and execute policy—having, that is, great power without responsibility—the media is the worst place to look for nuance, subtlety or a tragic sense of choice. That is ironic, because for all the moral posturing by the media, and by interest lobbies and pressure groups who tell us that simple solutions are being confounded by idiotic governments, it is difficult choices that create the possibility for moral action.