Hopeless about the economy?

Have Americans given up? Has the economy beaten us down so badly that we no longer believe a recovery is possible? And, perhaps most importantly, have we given up on the political system’s ability to fix our ailing economy? Is the forthcoming presidential election consequently offering a meaningless choice when it comes to creating jobs and strengthening markets? These sort of questions are being asked widely in the wake of an Associated Press-GfK Poll of 1,007 adults that was conducted nationwide June 14-18 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.

The Associated Press, in its own release of the poll results, says, “When it comes to the economy, half of Americans in a new poll say it won’t matter much whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins.” The wire service’s analysis also points out, “People are especially pessimistic about the future president’s influence over jobs.”

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The gloomiest commentaries on this poll suggest that Americans are descending into a dark and brooding mood best understood by clinical psychotherapists, not political pollsters. I can almost picture a majority of Americans in a sort of collective fetal position, curled up in a pitiful ball of depression that even pills and politics cannot cure. It’s probably not that bad, in reality, but there is a curious little word that may describe our current mood: anomie. I first encountered this term in the late ’70s when reading academic accounts of public opinion in the wake of the Watergate crisis and the distrust and cynicism that Nixonian behaviors engendered.

Anomie was originally understood as some sort of breakdown in divine or natural laws. Later, social psychologists began to redefine it in very different ways, suggesting that anomie described breakdowns between individuals and society. Some today even use colloquial phrases like “at loose ends” to describe an anomic circumstance. In the current context, I like the earlier uses. People do think that the laws of our political economies are broken. It’s not just ordinary people who feel this way. Even some economists and market analysts are starting to think that the mechanism is so broken that responses to policies like Keynesian stimuli no longer meet all our expectations. There is a palpable sense in some circles of a breakdown in the natural political economic order, leaving us all at loose ends.

Personally, I don’t buy into all of this, especially when it comes to understanding the whole of American public opinion. Sure, there are some defeatist Americans out there who have given up and assumed the fetal position, but I don’t think that’s most of us. The vision of widespread anomie is just a little too melodramatic for me. But I can see how some might embrace this theory. What concerns me more, however, is that some analysts are adopting this line of reasoning for partisan political purposes. By suggesting that “None of us believe the next president can fix our ailing economy,” we are implying that we should disregard the candidates’ economic positions and make our choice based on other criteria. Wouldn’t that be convenient for President Obama? This would open the way for voters to reelect a failed president simply because we like him, his family and the many symbols he represents.

Economics is such a squishy science, we’re never going to be able to prove empirically whether it works or not in our current conundrum. So the next best thing may be for the president’s people to prove simply that the people doubt the efficacy of economic and business strategies, freeing “rational” voters to choose the president on the basis of non-economic factors. If they succeed, I’d be left at anomic loose ends.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.