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The Vote: Fear, Anger and Resignation?

IVotedLest Stresshacker be labeled left, right or center, this post is about the prevailing psychological states of US voters that may have prompted the choices made yesterday at the polls in the midterm election. The brief moment in the voting booth when each voter was about to punch, press or pull on the input device was as always the point of real decision, along a continuum of choice either matured over a long and careful analysis of the options or arrived at on the spur of the moment. The vote was either reaction or response, instinct or deliberation. In any case, this vote was a blend of rationality, emotion and convenience, a culminating of feelings that translates into a choice.

Americans voted not only with their minds and hands, but also and perhaps mostly with their hearts. They voted for or against their congressman, their senator, Congress in general, and president Obama. Former speaker Tipp O’Neill said famously that all politics is local, meaning that in his view decisions are made at the polls mostly on the record of the local incumbent and challenger. The advent of 24/7 news access and the impact of social media may have changed this to the point where those who lost or won their seat may have been helped or hindered, more than used to be the case, by a broader and more macroscopic view.

Voters, interviewed extensively by news media as they exited their polling stations, reported not liking the way the President is doing his job, and they sounded even angrier at Congressional Democrats, which may explain why they gave the House back to the Republicans. Given the magnitude of the shift, it also appears that Obama policies passed through the filter of voter anxiety, as voters looked back at a decade of economic decline. And this, only two years after “the audacity of hope” propelled Mr. Obama into the White House, is remarkable in itself.

senateThat this was the most expensive midterm election campaign in the nation’s history, when a record $3.8 billion was spent in all races big and small, only confirms the perception by contributors and recipients of this sizable amount of money that this election reflected more than rational choice—it expressed a mood, a feeling, an emotional reaction pointing to prevailing psychological states that range from simple malaise, to frustration, overt anger and underlying fear. Nothing can focus the mind and the pocketbook like justified fear for one’s present and future situation.

And the situation in the United States appears indeed grim, although it may not be as bad as reported, due to the well-known axiom that good news does not sell newspapers, online clicks or TV commentaries. If there is good news about the economy, it may not be reported with the same alacrity (and a bit of schadenfreude) as the bad. It is therefore not surprising that the interviews with voters conducted for the National Election Pool, a consortium of television networks and The Associated Press, show a majority of Americans saying that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Almost 90% said they were worried about the economy and more than 40% said their family’s situation had worsened in the last two years. Enough to worry and be angry about.