Matt Miller - The Archives
What do the primaries mean? Beats me
The Washington Post, May 20, 2010

I know I could lose my pundit's license for saying this, but I have no idea what Tuesday's elections mean. Yes, of course, they mean "incumbents beware"—unless you're an incumbent like Ron Wyden of Oregon, who skated easily to victory. Or maybe they mean voters want Washington to get serious about our out-of-control deficits—except that Tea Party poster boy Rand Paul opposes cuts in Medicare, the biggest source of our spending woes, and Pennsylvania victor Joe Sestak says we can fix the budget without raising taxes on anyone but the rich, which isn't true. Which also cuts against the theory that voters want "answers" from Washington.

As in all such moments, we're seeing an orgy of instant analysis that is largely useless. Why? Partly it's due to the deep human need to impose a rational explanation on events, which seems preferable to the scary (though possibly accurate) thought that we're small creatures in a vast universe buffeted by inexplicable forces. Partly it's driven by the need for those in the media to appear "authoritative"—if we're not, after all, why are we the ones telling everyone else what to make of things?

The result often borders on self-parody, seen in its most extreme form in coverage of the stock market. You know the tune. "The Dow rose by 125 points today, as investors hailed the new numbers on factory orders in the U.S." Or: "Stocks dipped today as investors worried that China's banking woes could put strains on global growth."

The idea that one can reduce the unknowable thinking of millions of people (or computers) trading billions of shares to a single "cause" is obviously absurd. On most days—that is, when Greece isn't in flames—the accurate explanation for market movements would sound more like this: "Stocks rose today, as more people wanted to buy stocks than wanted to sell them."

It says something that hearing the matter put this way—shorn of any explanatory illusion—sounds so jarring.

Similarly, hundreds of thousands of primary voters in very different regions and contexts cast ballots yesterday. How can anyone possibly distill their myriad motivations to a "message"?

Political parties have to try, because they're in the business of seeking power. But we can't trust their interpretations because they're pushing a narrative that favors their cause. And pundits like me invariably seem to find that the voters' message fits nicely with the one we're already hawking.

This habit of instant yet bogus explanation may seem harmless, and my complaint persnickety. But it contributes, I think, to the broader collapse of authority in America. The cumulative effect of so much faux certainty proffered by so many supposedly "authoritative" voices—from chief executives to politicians, pundits to priests—confirms the popular suspicion that everyone in charge is blowing smoke.

It's usually at this point in my ramblings at home that my wife screams: "Enough! Can't you at least feign a strong opinion even if you don't have one?"

Okay, darling. Here goes: My best guess is that we're entering a period in which anti-incumbent fervor will become the default attitude of an electorate whose economic prospects have dimmed. This is not just because of the recession. Even after steady economic growth resumes, more and more Americans will find themselves struggling.

For most Americans, college tuition, health insurance premiums and housing costs will continue to soar faster than incomes. Up to 100 million Americans already live in families that earn less than their parents did at similar age. And this is happening well before America feels the full force of economic integration with such rising powers as China and India.

What these trends portend is lasting voter frustration as it dawns on a widening swath of Americans that the perquisites of middle-class life, and the prospects of upward mobility for their children, may elude them. These strains won't change in the two years before the next election, or in the two years after that, or the in two after that, unless policies are introduced that go radically beyond the boundaries of current debate. Instead we'll see a cycle in which voters take stock every two years and say: "My insurance premiums are still going up—we still can't save enough for college, let alone for retirement—and you people in charge haven't fixed any of this!"

Today that gives us Rand Paul. Tomorrow it may give us his opposite. Your guess is as good as mine.