It would be hard to overstate the anger that's the driving force behind the virulent populism sweeping this country. It is anti-Washington, anti-politician, anti-Democratic Party, anti-Wall Street, and anti-establishment, among other things. After I recently remarked that the four most hated places on Earth were North Korea, Iran, Washington, and Wall Street, the retort was that I might have the sequence wrong.
The anger at Washington is not entirely misplaced. Who can deny that the federal government, particularly Congress, has grown increasingly dysfunctional? An endless number of serious national issues have been handled badly, if they were dealt with at all. From financial services to immigration to the national debt and entitlements, Congress has not stepped up to the plate in recent decades, regardless of which party was in control. And voter frustration has reached the boiling point. Most weeks, I spend several days traveling around the country. The hostility I now hear directed toward Washington is more intense and widespread than anything I've experienced in the almost 38 years that I have lived in the nation's capital.
Much of the anger at Washington is the result of programs that did in fact save our economic system.
In the financial world, huge miscalculations and misjudgments were made that cost our country and society greatly. Government regulations that could have prevented the disaster didn't exist, didn't work, or weren't enforced. At best, Washington was asleep at the switch, if not an outright enabler -- some would say co-conspirator -- in a lot that went wrong in the financial world. As a result, regular Americans lost jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Some even took their own lives as a consequence of what happened.
Now members of Congress are having a field day attacking Wall Street executives, some of whom undoubtedly deserve it. What's missing on Capitol Hill are signs of shame among lawmakers, who are still refusing to take any responsibility for their own lack of effort to head off the crisis. Responsibility lies at both ends of the Washington-New York shuttle.
But on some level, much of the anger at Washington is the result of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and several bailouts and takeovers, which, even if designed imperfectly, did in fact save our economic system from tipping over into an abyss. Yet the current General Motors ads in which the company's CEO explains that the automaker has paid back government loans, with interest, five years early don't seem to be having much effect on public opinion.
It is enlightening to listen to pollsters talk about the difficulty of explaining to average Americans that many of these extraordinary measures had to be taken -- some by President George W. Bush's administration and others under President Obama -- and actually worked. The fact that the Dow Jones industrial average, which peaked above 14,000 in October 2007 before plunging to 6,600 in March of last year, has bounced back to around 11,000 is remarkable. At certain unnerving points, a second Great Depression had seemed to be a real possibility.
There is no doubt that the programs pushed by the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress have seemed like horrific overreaching to conservatives, just as many of Bush's initiatives were repulsive to liberals. That the policy agenda of their political opposites would upset ideologues and partisans is not surprising. Expecting anything different would be unrealistic.
But what has really shaped the nation's mood was the hostile reaction of many independents and moderates to the emergency measures that were needed during those critical days, weeks, and months after Lehman Brothers fell. And now we see efforts to purge incumbents from both parties. Many political observers will be closely watching Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Robert Bennett, R-Utah, in the coming weeks, because the results of their renomination efforts will be a good gauge of the severity of the intraparty bloodletting that's occurring.
When one party has control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a midterm election is pretty much a referendum on that party. The electorate's anti-everything mood is likely to manifest itself only one way in November -- that is, against Democrats. Between now and then, however, a different dynamic could be in play. Republicans in particular should watch upcoming primaries apprehensively to see whether their party is nominating candidates with the potential to attract broad-based support and take full advantage of the anti-Democratic tide, or if it is opting for candidates who might be too extreme even in what should be a great year for the GOP.
But have no doubt: The anger is real. The only question is precisely how it will be channeled.
This article appears in the May 8, 2010, edition of National Journal.