The downturn has crystallized an “America First” economic sentiment that is not fully represented by either party. Through a broad range of questions, a substantial constituency displays an impulse toward economic nationalism that doesn’t precisely follow conventional free-trade or protectionist positions. In summer and fall 2010 polls, about one-fourth of respondents each time embraced a free-trade posture of encouraging international trade, investment, and immigration; one-third embraced a protectionist approach of tariffs on imports and limits on immigration and investment; and another third backed a quasi-industrial-policy approach that aims to nurture key U.S. industries with targeted tax incentives, training, and government support for scientific research. Other questions in those two surveys unearthed a consistent desire to find new ways to compete in global markets, rather than retreat from them. That instinct was manifest by the two-thirds of respondents who supported a domestic-content requirement that would require a minimum percentage of all manufactured goods sold in the United States to be assembled or produced here—an idea not seriously discussed since the early 1980s. Similar percentages identified two other ideas as keys to recovery: businesses repatriating more of their foreign operations and consumers buying more American products. Policies to promote exports and fortify key industries consistently outpolled efforts to restrict imports.
Taken together, these combustible ingredients virtually guarantee sustained electoral volatility. The Heartland Monitor surveys document pervasive dissatisfaction with the nation’s direction; deep apprehension about the opportunity for future generations (particularly among whites); a collapse of faith in the public and private leadership class; intense political polarization that largely tracks racial lines; and the absence of a reliable majority for either side’s vision of government’s role in society, all leavened only by individual Americans’ reluctant self-reliance and their tenacious faith in their own ability to manage the mounting financial risks they see confronting them.
Those attitudes cumulatively resemble the sentiments a poll might find in a Third World country before a coup. This swirling discontent won’t produce such a response here, but it could make more common the severe and abrupt swings between the parties that characterized the 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections. As long as Americans feel so economically vulnerable, neither party may enjoy much job security in Washington.
This article appears in the Jan. 7, 2012, edition of National Journal.