A Tale of Two Interpretations

            John Ydstie, the economics correspondent for National Public Radio, reported this morning on that network’s Morning Edition news program, that a recent Pew Trusts poll had revealed that only 30 percent of Americans are aware that the now widely unpopular Troubled Assets Recovery Program (TARP) was signed and supported by Present George W. Bush and not President Obama, to whom it is nonetheless just as broadly attributed. Ydstie went on to observe that the large numbers of Americans concerned about TARP do not realize that the major banks assisted by that “bailout” have now repaid their debt with interest and that AIG (American International Group-insurance) and the two major auto makers that received support from the initiative (Chrysler and General Motors) increasingly look positioned to do so as well, with the result that taxpayers may yet break even or perhaps make money on their emergency investment. More deeply, and apart from this factual reality, Ydstie noted that those objecting to TARP focus on the noxious behavior of certain bank executives and on the belief that those institutions had “plenty of money” and had “made their own beds,” instead of asking whether the step, distasteful or not, had actually saved a deeply imperiled economy from even deeper distress (the concern that surely animated the President and policy-makers). How can this be? Do those so vehemently arguing TARP was a waste of money really wish that President Bush, and later President Obama, and the Congress had played roulette on the question of what might happen if several of those very large financial institutions had been allowed to fail? In any case, that point is empirically moot since the national government looks set to have made a good, if initially risky, decision even as its actions steadied the perilous state of the U.S. and global economy. So, why are so many voters so angry and so uninformed about what arguably was a prudent choice that has turned out better than hoped?

            Robert Reich today argues in his blog (http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/279-82/3729-after-the-midterms) in effect that this paradox has to do with deeply cynical partisan mobilization politics. I argue it may also be the product of what political scientists have called parallel processing, regardless of how one views the motivations of those involved. Even though President Bush was responsible for the TARP, many of his party’s current leaders have argued that it, and the Obama fiscal stimulus package that followed it, were a “waste of money” since the nation’s unemployment rate still hovers above 9 per cent. They have sought to focus public attention on the nation’s deficit and argue that it deserves consideration now, and that reality demands not more government economic engagement, but less. Again, whether that argument makes empirical or fiscal sense is debatable, but whatever its policy merits it certainly allows voters to fix political blame for the high unemployment rate on the current administration, even as it appeals to an abiding concern about the appropriate role of government in the United States political economy and to fears of unduly burdening future generations with unpaid debt.

            That is, these leaders are successfully drawing many voters’ attention to spending (one parallel stream of meaning) and not who did what or why to address what has been dubbed the nation’s financial meltdown, or indeed what the consequences of those choices have been (another parallel stream of sensemaking). Reich implies Republican leaders are doing so on the cynical view that few will notice they are denying their own party’s record. Whether their stance is cynical or genuinely believed, public opinion polls do affirm that a large majority of Americans know little about the facts of the economic situation the nation has faced and is confronting, and that millions are responding to GOP calls to focus instead on near-term government spending and to assign blame for ongoing conditions on the Obama administration on that basis. The strategy appears to be working electorally. Republican Party leaders have focused many voters’ attention away from the broader economic danger that the nation continues to confront and placed it increasingly instead on that hoary chestnut of partisan conflict: what role the government should play in the nation’s political economy. In this scenario of contested ways of making sense of an ongoing economic situation amidst widespread ignorance of key facts, the conversation becomes one of who to blame for government spending rather than a dialogue about whether an economic disaster was successfully forestalled by prudent, even far-sighted, public action by leaders of both political parties, and what steps should be taken next.

            Whether as a partisan one wishes to applaud the apparent success of this electoral tactic as a clever mobilization strategy or lament it as a misleading fraud, it raises once more, and clearly, the issue of the role that mediated meaning is playing in American politics and electoral choices. A substantial majority of Americans are patently uninformed about the decisions their leaders have made and why, and are therefore professing a deep anger and concern that is at best, as a factual matter, misplaced. At worst, this collective lack of understanding and awareness allows those who would seek power, whatever their partisanship, to use that ignorance for their own purposes. Whatever one’s partisan affiliation, a public so deeply uninformed cannot be good for the nation’s long-term democratic health.