I have friends who were too anxious to watch the presidential debates, yet are too obsessed with the campaign to stop reading its blogs and tracking the daily polls. A dead-heat contest with sky-high stakes can provoke extreme worry on both sides of the partisan divide, leaving even strangers in elevators to nod and roll their eyes at one another, the instant bond of a crazy-making political season.
My own anxiety, admittedly, is attached to intense hopes for President Obama’s reelection, but the universe of fretfulness I’m addressing may include supporters of Mitt Romney, too. This election is showing us to be an uncertain and troubled people. And the election itself, by what it is revealing, may be making things worse.
Obviously, the ground of unease is massive economic dislocation, with young people confronting dashed hopes, the old at the mercy of shocking insecurity, many others grateful just to be getting by, while a growing legion of the impoverished find themselves ignored and silenced. As the Obama team maintains better times are on the way, and as Romney claims special insight into fixing the economy, many of us lack a sense of trust that either side’s experts know any more than we do. A sneaking suspicion gnaws that the Great Recession itself, far from over, is but a symptom of a deeper quandary. And we’re left to wonder:
■ Has the boon of technology actually undercut us? Automation was widely feared to eliminate assembly-line type jobs, which it has. But the computer revolution is also transforming social intelligence itself. No sooner were the skills of secretaries made redundant than were those of their executive bosses. When computer programmers face job competition from their own computers, the machine wins. Welcome to work at Starbucks.
■ Has the clock run out on the inner mechanism of the growth economy? The self-contained loop of consumerism runs from “communications” to financed consumption to buyer’s regret — and endlessly back again. The huge advertising and marketing industry produces an intense yearning, which can be satisfied by purchases alone, but only until the next wave of hype so convinces us of what else we need that we willingly go deeper into debt. Are we the hamsters who have recognized this wheel for what it is? Shall we stop? Or just shop?
■ What happens when the moving gears of democracy grind to a halt? Everyone deplores the gridlock of government, while everyone blames it on the other side, making gridlock worse. Meanwhile, systems intended to protect and advance shared interests, such as public schools, are being eroded. Instead of shared interests — shared fear.
In America, electoral politics is the only way we have to reckon with such trouble. But this presidential campaign reveals how impoverished our politics have become. A year ago, as Republican candidates were vying with one another during the primaries, the differences between Republican and Democratic values were at least sharply drawn, with the fateful gravity of civic choice clearly felt. By now, in the minds of swing voters at least, there has been a deadly blurring of differences, which is partly a function of Romney’s post-primaries move to the “moderate” center — a strategic triumph for him, but also a revelation of how easily manipulated this callow process is.
The election may well be decided not by policy differences or distinctions in social philosophy, which are vast and specific, but by such an ethereal factor as “likability.” As relatively trivial notes of candidate personality assume great importance, public angst can only grow.
But the trivialization of politics has a deeper cause, equally obvious. Notoriously, more than $5 billion is being spent by, or on behalf of, the presidential and congressional candidates. Insufficient notice, however, has been given to the significance of the fact that this treasure is almost entirely handed over to PR consultants, spin doctors, broadcasters, and advertising gurus — figures whose work by definition is to distract, obfuscate, and deceive. The candidates are enslaved both to funders and to those who, for a lavish commission, spend the funds. The nation’s politics have been kidnapped and dragged into the locked room where the nation’s economy lies languishing — the dungeon of the cult of promotion, marketing, and hype that produces only longing and its perfect partner: this anxiety we feel.