Richter Scale

Obama: Not Shellacked, But “Lasched”

Is two years enough time for politicians to stay in office and get concrete results?

Takeaways


  • Congressional elections generate "Laschings" — in that they are very mood-oriented, especially in the House.
  • For either party, House elections, create a constant series of false positives — and false negatives.
  • Americans still believe that the necessary reforms can be brought about without a lot of pain. They can't — and won't.
  • U.S. voters are much more narcissistic than voters in most other countries. In part, this is because they relegate the problem-solving dimension to the politicians.

Remember Christopher Lasch? In 1979, he published a seminal book, “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.”

While the author passed away in 1994, the book’s core thesis, over 30 years old by now, has lost none of its relevance.

Perhaps uniquely, politics in the United States is a very touchy-feely thing. One reason why is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates that elections for all members of the U.S. House of Representatives have to be held every two years.

While seemingly democratic, what this means in practical terms is that U.S. politicians have even less of a time window to get on with the real business of the nation than is the case in other countries.

No matter where you live on earth, politicians are essentially in the business of administering, on behalf of the public at large, unpleasant adjustments in the ways a country operates and spends money. This is usually done in less-than-efficient, or improperly targeted, ways.

In a parliamentary democracy, politicians can do that based on a four-year electoral cycle. Ideally, the “tough” stuff is launched immediately after a new government gets into office.

The hope, and political logic, is that the unavoidable dispensation of the nasty medicine will have provided a cure for the present severe misery in due course — that is, by the time the next elections roll around, about two to three years after those doses have been applied.

Witness the approach — and political strategy — applied by the Cameron government in the United Kingdom.

Now, imagine if the House of Commons (which actually has a term of up to five years) had to be reelected in full after just two years. There is no way a government would — or for that matter, really could — undertake serious structural reforms in such a tight time window.

The very nature of economic and/or fiscal restructuring is such that it takes time for the benefits to materialize. By the same token, typically a year or so after measures have been enacted is when the true valley of tears is being passed, before improvements begin to kick in.

The United States does not have a parliamentary democracy, but something that — contrary to long-standing belief, widely held in both the United States and Europe — has turned considerably worse. The presidential system, misleadingly, tantalizes people with the idea that one person is there to fix things. In reality, one chamber of Congress — the House — essentially acts as a biennial plebiscite mechanism.

As a result, Congressional elections generate “Laschings” — in that they are very mood-oriented, especially in the House. This creates wave-type elections, where voters oscillate in their sentiments between favoring Democrats and Republicans.

In essence, it is the voters who are operating on the principle of hope, hoping that either Democrats or Republicans will get them out of the mess they and the nation are in.

On the one hand, that of course is why the Obama message resonated so much in 2008 (and why his message failed so spectacularly in 2010). The voters, extremely impatient and short-term oriented, simply switched hope messengers.

In that sense, it is the voters who are the ultimate narcissists. In part, this is because they relegate the problem-solving dimension to the politicians — as if they were some all-knowing class of high priests imbued with magical powers to fix things.

And in part, the narcissism is reflected in the fact that the voters want to have leaders who feel their pain — as if that did much of anything to resolve the actual problems at hand.

Americans, so it seems, still believe that the necessary reforms can be brought about without a lot of pain. They can’t — and won’t.

That belief, however, is perhaps the most detrimental way in which the rhetoric about American exceptionalism and superpower status ends up hurting the famed American ability to adjust to new circumstances — and to do so quickly.

For either party, electoral results, owing to the plebiscitarian nature of House elections, create a constant series of false positives — and false negatives. No, the recent elections do not mean that voters soundly rejected the Democrats’ approach, just that they wanted to change horses in mid-course.

And for Republicans, this doesn’t mean that a new Republican majority is in the offing. Just that, for the next two years, a pained, yet still overly narcissistic, nation has given them a nod to work their "magic."

But therein lies the rub. There is no magic to be worked, just a lot of hard slogging that, by definition, will not be pleasant for the voters, rich or poor, urban or rural. That is the nature of modern politics the world over. No more manna from heaven.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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