It's the economy stupid! The buzzword from the 1992 presidential campaign has resonated in ways simple and complex throughout the years. The campaign of 2012 is no different. This year's contest is set against the backdrop of an economy recovering from the hardest fall it has taken in 80 years, rising gas prices, a massive public debt, and significant questions about the future of taxes.
But the pinched era of deleveraging, slow growth, and high unemployment has effects far beyond the ballot box, according to Thomas Byrne Edsall, the author of The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics. Edsall, one of the deans of American political journalism, argues that limited economic horizons make American politics more pinched and polarized, less generous and forward-looking. Americans aren't inherently nasty or nice, or stingy or generous—but rather the economy makes them so. As we discuss in the accompanying video, if sustained growth covers up a multitude of political, fiscal and economic scenes, so sustained slow-growth exacerbates existing tensions.
Edsall's book is a systematic inquiry into the effects of scarcity on the American political system. And his general conclusion is that the effects are quite bad. The political conflicts of the past few years highlight a political system at the breaking point, he argues. As a result of large deficits and slow growth, the longstanding compromise "between one party promoting a social safety net and the other party asserting that hard-earned tax dollars unjustly finance those benefits is no longer tenable." And that creates a "dog eat dog political competition over diminishing resources."
In Edsall's view, prolonged austerity producing greater cleavage in voting behavior between races and genders, and accounts for rising hostility to immigrants. When there are fewer jobs to go around, people tend to be more concerned about foreigners coming in and taking them away. Edsall believes it is no coincidence that Arizona, one of the states whose government and local economy were hit hardest in the downturn, has been among the most aggressive states in enacting anti-immigrant legislation. (Of course, it also shares a very long border with Mexico.)