Politicians Don't Care. "People don't know what to do with the anger they do have," says Marttila, because they feel blocked by "senators, representatives, and [Treasury Secretary] Timothy Geithner, who speaks gobbledygook." Wall Street, in other words, is protected by the people's representatives. "There is a layer between Americans and the villains of Wall Street, and that's Congress," Marttila contends. With Obama adopting mostly mainstream positions on economic issues, no national figure has stepped in to rally the resentment. Nobody has put popular anger to good use, because nobody really wants to.
Fear, Not Loathing. As a leading Democratic opponent of the banking bailouts, Rep. Brad Sherman of California has thought a fair amount about public sentiment and the economic crisis. "The public is very angry at Wall Street," he says. "But they are constantly told by all the respected voices that if we don't protect and preserve the institutions on Wall Street, we'll be fighting for rat meat on the streets." And this fearmongering works. Fear, Sherman says, is generally stronger than anger. The resentment that does exist is diffuse; it is not channeled toward specific solutions. The fear, however, is specific: What will happen to me and my family? With authorities in government and the media incessantly bleating that what's good for Wall Street is good for the country, Sherman adds, "we're angry at those people and we're too fearful to do anything about it."
It's Complicated. There's no doubt Americans are upset about paying for the failures of banks and corporations, says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. But the financial issues involved appear "incredibly arcane and difficult to penetrate. How do you regulate derivatives when 99 percent of the public don't understand it?" Marttila agrees: "The public policy implications are beyond the reach, vocabulary, and discussion of many. So the bad guys escape."
Big Business vs. Big Government. For many decades, Americans have held negative attitudes toward the titans of industry. "It's a constant," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "You never go wrong vilifying big business." But Americans also don't fancy the counterbalance to corporate power: government. Since 1965, Gallup has asked survey respondents to choose the biggest future threat to the country: big business, big labor, or big government. Big government always wins—by a lot. In December 2006, 61 percent said they fretted about the government, compared with 25 percent who feared corporate power. Last spring, when Wall Street was in deep disrepute, the numbers changed only slightly: 55 percent still fingered big government as the greatest threat. "People always have concern about the government doing too much," says Newport, "even when [it's] regulating financial institutions they don't like." In fact, as recently as September, Gallup found that 45 percent of Americans believed there was too much government regulation of business. Only 24 percent said there was too little. "The lucky thing for business is that its foil is government," concludes Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
[Just to be clear, I'm quoting digby quoting David Corn]
This is the complement to how far Obama fell short of the most hopeful, most wishful expectations for him.
Micah L. Sifry writing The Obama Disconnect at techPresident: "this is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn't happen, in the first year of Obama's administration. The people who voted for him weren't organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests--banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex--sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting."
More from Sifry:
"The truth is that Obama was never nearly as free of dependence on big money donors as the reporting suggested, nor was his movement as bottom-up or people-centric as his marketing implied. . . . In terms of the early money that was raised by his campaign in 2007--and this is the most influential money in politics--more than one-third (36%) of his total came from the financial sector (compared to 28% for Hillary Clinton), reported campaign finance expert Thomas Ferguson. Between January and August 2007, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, 60% of Obama's donations were in amounts of $1000 or more--a smaller proportion than Clinton, but still a majority of his crucial early funding. In terms of Obama's overall funding, nearly half of his donations came from people giving $1000 or more. Should we really surprised that someone with so much early support from Wall Street and wealthy elites overall might not be inclined to throw the money-changers out of the temple?"
It is the story of how a perfect storm came and went, without cleaning out the mess.
There's a very real sense in which the outcome is overdetermined. There's no politician that cares, but also no politician, who sees a feasible path to realize political ambitions by caring.
Obama "seemed" to care, because it augmented his coalition and electoral support, but the main event in that support was the traditional big money donations and inoffensiveness to the powers-that-be.
But, it is a story about how superficial and difficult to reach, the mass of people are, in the 15-second TV spot world. It is not like many ordinary people have considered views -- most just have a bunch of attitudes, acquired and expressed for emotional satisfaction, most often in imitation of someone on teevee or the radio.
The politicians see what it takes to get elected, and that doesn't seem to include doing much in the way of rational public policy or service to the larger community. A few may get burned by being too close to the kleptocrats -- Chris Dodd of Connecticut comes to mind, since he just announced his retirement -- but they won't be the worst of their kind, just the most visible.
George W. Bush was an obvious incompetent, but what made him deeply unpopular wasn't torture or unnecessary wars, it was the rising price of gas. Rising gas prices got people's attention.
I don't happen to think political participation is universally all that desirable. People -- most people -- shouldn't have to pay much attention to politics, anymore than they pay attention to dentistry or electrical engineering. But, you get what you pay for, and this is the democracy we pay for.
It is a deplorable situation attributable, in large part, to the deterioration of the mass Media. Politicians don't care, because they know how their actions will characterized by the pundits, pundits chosen and promoted for their superficiality and ignorance of policy. But, also chosen for their popularity.
Populist anger does not have a focus, or a channel, in part because 1.) most people are not willing or able to think about the problems; 2.) no one with mass Media access is able to articulate what's wrong and what can be done. 2 feeds back on 1, because of specialization of labor. We depend on journalists to be honest Tribunes of the People. But, they're not. Instead, they're David Broder. And, that is, if they're not Bill O'Reilly or Glen Beck.