David Brooks offers an intriguing argument that “the happiness gap” is a major factor in political attitudes today. Brooks suggests that while Americans are generally quite happy personally, they’re deeply skeptical about the state of American institutions. Brooks thinks that what the American people want is neither liberalism’s nanny statism nor conservatism’s limited government:
These voters don’t believe government can lift their standard of living or lead a moral revival. They want a federal government that will focus on a few macro threats — terrorism, health care costs, energy, entitlement debt and immigration — and stay out of the intimate realms of life. They want a night watchman government that patrols the neighborhood without entering their homes.
This is not liberalism, which inserts itself into the crannies of life. It’s not conservatism, suspicious of federal power. It’s a gimlet-eyed federalism — strong government with sharply defined tasks.
I think that there is something to this argument. The overall tone of the electorate is generally hostile: neither party is doing particularly well. The President and Congress are in a race to the bottom in terms of approval ratings. People are rightly sick and tired of the state of American politics today.
The candidate who will win 2008 will the be candidate who can offer the most compelling solutions for dealing with America’s real problems. While that statement might seem like a no-brainer to most people, neither political party seems to really get it. The Republicans have the strong rhetoric on terrorism, but have been saddled with a war that they’ve never been able to convincingly support. The Democrats have their social issues, but their proposed solutions generally involve the progression of: 1) hike taxes, 2) ???, 3) Everyone’s Happy! If only we could tax al-Qaeda to death both parties might be happy.
Given Brook’s thesis, one gets an explanation for the seeming boom in popularity for candidates like Ron Paul. After all, he’s the candidate least likely to bother most Americans individual lives. He also happens to be a raving nutcase who thinks that bringing back the gold standard is a really great policy. What people see is someone at least talking about breaking the silly status quo of partisan bickering. (And Paul does have bipartisan appeal—he brings in the nutballs of both parties together. 9/11 “Truthers” and people who think that George Wallace was soft on Communism now can find common cause together…)
What the country needs is a pragmatic leader who is willing to stand above the din and tell both sides to stop acting like children and get back to work. The Republicans have some candidates who can credibly do that, although right now they’re too busy trying to shore up their base to make the right moves. On the Democratic side, the heir apparent is Hillary Clinton, a woman who embodies the very nastiest of American politics and has the political instincts of a 13-year-old girl. The most credible Democratic candidates—people like Joe Biden or Chris Dodd have about a snow-cone’s chance in Hell of getting the nomination. The only real challenger to Clinton is Barack Obama, a man who’s policy principles are about as indistinct as they come. It’s one thing to spout a bunch of platitudes, it’s another to actually be able to make them happen. (And as for John Edwards, I think this says it all about his credibility as the leader of the free world.)
In the end, Brooks’ argument seems to mesh with the evidence. People don’t necessarily want less government (although they should), they just want government that’s actually competent. At the same time, people don’t want more government, they generally want to be left alone. Neither party is offering what the American people really want, and it may be a while before either of them wake up to the fact that the reason why there’s such wide distrust to politicians of both stripes is because neither party is behaving in a very trustworthy manner.