Has the American character changed?

| September 10 2012
Christopher Cook

A note of concern has swept across the ranks of the political right over the last few days. Not panic—more of a someone-just-walked-across-my-grave kind of shudder. The DNC was not any better than the RNC. It wasn’t more magnificent or thrilling, and it didn’t trump the RNC by presenting a grand plan filled with tantalizing specifics. Take out Bill Clinton’s speech (which surely threw off the averages), and it was probably not even as good. It had the terrible spectacle of taking God and certain protections for Israel out of the platform, and then ramming them back into the platform in an democratic way, over a chorus of boos. Boos for God. The only thing that rivaled that in terms of bad optics was Barack Obama’s speech, which was pretty roundly panned as being a rehash of earlier hollow platitudes.

And yet . . .

Obama’s job approval at 52% in Gallup, highest since Bin Laden raid

Ohio: Obama 50, Romney 45

Obama edges Romney in August fundraising

Rasmussen: Obama leads Romney by four, job approval highest in 18 months

Granted, I am a partisan, but  . . . what?

Sure, I understand that conventions produce bumps, but . . . huh?

The fundamentals of this economy are terrible. They’re not hidden from the general public’s view, the way the simmering housing meltdown was during the last decade. It’s all around us. Obama has been, by fairly objective measures, an unaccomplished and ineffective president. He has rammed through legislation that polls show a majority don’t like. He’s had no bipartisan successes except for Bin Laden. His economic policies, such as they are, have produced stagnation at best. In spite of the perma-hagiography in the media, he hasn’t behaved much like a “likable” guy: He’s very poor at taking accountability but excellent at fixing blame. He’s both ruder and more petulant than any president in my memory. He’s a hyper-partisan knife-fighter using the oval office as a community organizing war room to reward labor unions and left-wing political allies with favors and taxpayer money.

Now, most people don’t understand the last part. I get that. They’re too busy taking care of their lives and families to take the time to learn the details that those of us who work in the political arena know so well. But the other stuff . . . Obamacare and the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression . . . people see that. People feel that. So why did Obama’s numbers jump so much after giving a lackluster speech, short on specifics, at a convention where the Creator of the Universe was actually booed?

In Why Is This Election Close, John Hinderaker asks a similar question, and posits a disturbing possibility:

On paper, given Obama’s record, this election should be a cakewalk for the Republicans. Why isn’t it? I am afraid the answer may be that the country is closer to the point of no return than most of us believed. With over 100 million Americans receiving federal welfare benefits, millions more going on Social Security disability, and many millions on top of that living on entitlement programs–not to mention enormous numbers of public employees–we may have gotten to the point where the government economy is more important, in the short term, than the real economy. My father, the least cynical of men, used to quote a political philosopher to the effect that democracy will work until people figure out they can vote themselves money. I fear that time may have come.

Is that it? For a long time, people on the right have accused the left of trying to do exactly that—to addict the people to entitlements to the point where socialism isn’t inevitable, but has in fact already taken over . . . to make people so dependent, and to fill them with such class envy, that scaling back the state is no longer possible.

Niall Ferguson posits a different notion:

Explanation four: The economy isn’t the No. 1 issue, despite what people say. The more I watch of this election, the more I incline toward this last explanation.

True, when asked to rank issues, voters mostly put the economy at the top of the list. And yet when asked to make a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, their choices don’t seem to be economically based.

Many people subscribe to the view that Romney just isn’t likable. They can more readily imagine having a beer or shooting hoops with Obama. Then there is the religious subtext: Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is just a bit weird, whereas Obama’s Evangelicalism Lite offends hardly anyone.

Is that it? Has the American character weakened to the point where likability (even though the likable guy is a failure) trumps competence (even though the competent guy is a bit remote and awkward)? Do we want a president who feels our pain rather than alleviates it? Do we place such a high value on having a president we can imagine having a beer or shooting hoops with?

Recently, I read that Frank Luntz has been doing surveys and finding that many people place a higher value on having a president who they believe “understands their problems,” even if his policies aren’t doing anything to help their problems. Could that really be true? Have we become so emasculated, so pusillanimous, that what we want most in our leaders is not competence, but sympathy?

Both of the above explanations have some truth to them. We are approaching the tipping point where there are more takers than makers. People are, in large numbers, voting themselves benefits at the expense of others. Similarly, surveys by pollsters like Luntz do not lie (though he does tend to survey independents, who may have a different personality matrix as a part of what makes them “independent”). There is some truth here. And both of these, as far as they go, are terrible signs for the American character.

In spite of that, however, strength, independence, individuality, and a passionate love of liberty are part of our lifeblood and cultural inheritance. The American character, whatever remains of it, will not go quietly into extinction. It’s too powerful, too proud. And, recalling that polling in 1980 had Carter up by four in September and eight in October, we may hear its roar load and clear in a little under 60 days.

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