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Why 2012 May Mark the End of an Era of Political Anger

When progressives consider the future, two basic storylines emerge. One can be summed up, roughly, as “Occupy changed everything”: With a new awareness of economic inequality, and a protest movement that managed to get some media attention where others had not, at last some anger has been targeted toward the plutocrats, rather than toward government; a new progressive agenda of redistributive tax policy, public investment rather than budget cutting, financial regulation, and campaign finance reform can finally be built on that anger.

The other story is more narrowly focused on the coming election, and it goes like this: If the economy continues to recover, and the Republicans keep pandering to their base on social issues, President Obama is almost certain to win reelection and Democrats might even retain control of the Senate and gain some ground in the House.

Those two stories aren't incompatible, exactly. Both could be true, and some have even argued that the Occupy movement helped salvage the Obama presidency, encouraging him to talk more about inequality. But it's more likely that over the medium term—into 2013 and 2014—“Occupy changed everything” and “America is back” (the emerging Obama campaign theme) represent somewhat different paths for American politics, one of which will take primacy over the other. And increasingly it seems like it will be the latter: If the economic recovery is solid enough for the president to win reelection, it will be an indication that the white-hot fury over economic stress is passing, and political alignments have returned to the trend first set in the 1990s, in which better off suburban swing voters turn to Democrats; young people, unmarried women, and minorities make up an increasing share of the electorate; and the last remnants of the “culture wars” damage the right. In other words, it would be an atmosphere where the political tensions of recent years are finally on the wane.

When politics is not saturated by crisis, the months after a presidential election generally bring a cooler climate to Washington. We've been in a hot phase since about late 2005, when anger over the Iraq War peaked, and three massive change elections followed, in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Anger has been the prevailing tone of politics since the recession began, and the failure, before the arrival of the Occupy movement, of the President, Democratic politicians, and most progressive organizations to master the politics of anger has been central to the story of the last few years. But anger is a difficult force to sustain. Whether it's left-populist anger, right-populist anger, or the anger of bankers whose bonuses are smaller than expected, it burns bright and eventually burns out.

The early second terms of popular presidents are very often cool and productive periods. After Bill Clinton survived an anger wave in his first term, 1997 was a calm year in which legislation such as the State Children's Health Insurance Program was passed, and it also brought a surprising turn toward greater public trust in government. The same could be said of the two years after Ronald Reagan's reelection, which included enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. George W. Bush, who gave up on his major second-term initiative, Social Security privatization, within a few months, is the notable exception to this rule.

In a second Obama term, the Republicans will still be as fiercely opposed to the president, but they also won't have the distinct target of bringing him down, unless they can find a way to try to bring him down with faux-scandal and impeachment. (It is a little-appreciated accomplishment of this administration that it has managed to give its many enemies so little to work with: The one non-scandal that briefly made waves, Solyndra, quickly faded.) Moreover, there is likely to be some rethinking and internal warfare in the Republican Party after another presidential loss (they would have lost the popular vote in five of six elections), and the executive branch staff will no longer be new on the job or frantically trying to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The best counter-example to such a return to the mean would be FDR’s second campaign, exemplified by the “I welcome their hatred” speech at Madison Square Garden, which fully captured the tone of an angry, still-suffering nation in an ever more direct way than he had in 1932. Roosevelt went on, in his second term, to govern even more ambitiously and aggressively than in the Hundred Days, including waging war on uncooperative members of his own party. This, of course, is the model that many liberals would encourage on Obama.

But even if the economy is flat, the circumstances Obama faces would be very different from Roosevelt's (unemployment averaged 16.6% in 1936), and it would be a tactical mistake to expect the Occupy movement to fill the gap, providing the energy and media focus for a left-populist mode of governing. Using the dubious method of counting “likes” on Facebook, which Micah Sifry of touted last October as showing the movement doubling in size every eight days, it has essentially been flat, at about 3 million “likes,” since mid-December. Why that happened is a question for another article, but it's enough to say that it is unlikely that either the Occupy movement or the Tea Party will be major factors in the political world of 2013.

The challenge, then, is how to bring the issues raised by Occupy to life in a calmer, cooler political environment. The fact that the incomes of the top 0.01 percent rose by more than one fifth in 2010, while 90 percent of the country lost ground, is a deserving source of outrage. Facts such as these ought to spur some concerted effort to lift the conditions of the country’s non-privileged elite.

The Obama administration missed some opportunities by failing to respond appropriately to the tone of politics in the hot period. But now there's a danger that, over-learning the mistakes of the recent past, we won't quite adapt to the next political era. On balance, there's a lot more potential to make real change in a calmer political environment, especially with a president who is well adapted for it. But we have to remember what people were angry about in the first place.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.