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Stanley Aronowitz: “An Immense Malaise Torments American Society“

Interview with distinguished professor of sociology Stanley Aronowitz at the City University of New York. He evokes the reasons for Barack Obama's Democrats in the midterm elections. Bruno Odent for L'Humanité: Why just two years after the defeat George W. Bush's party endured is the risk of a Republican Party come back so high?

Interview with distinguished professor of sociology Stanley Aronowitz at the City University of New York. He evokes the reasons for Barack Obama’s Democrats in the midterm elections.

Bruno Odent for L’Humanité: Why just two years after the defeat George W. Bush’s party endured is the risk of a Republican Party come back so high?

Stanley Aronowitz. There’s a simple reason and a more complicated reason. The obvious explanation is that a good part of the population believed that the Democrats and the Obama administration were going to solve the problems that Bush had not succeeded in resolving or had created. There were two key questions to which citizens were very sensitive: the increase in unemployment and the inauguration of health care coverage, which is extremely costly for most Americans and inaccessible for the 50 million most disadvantaged. On these two issues, people didn’t see any real improvement. On the contrary, unemployment has remained very high, even increased, and access to health care insurance is not scheduled until later, in 2014. And, then, with so many concessions to private insurers that its tangible realization seems fragile and unpredictable. Obviously, the Republicans rely on popular anger and divert it away from its true causes. And they partially succeed, since in the United States’ bipartisan system, people traditionally turn to the opposition party when the party in power disappoints. The still-remembered disrepute of the Bush period constitutes a real obstacle. To overcome that and capture the protest vote come what may, Republican candidates have not hesitated to indulge in populist one-upmanship, betting most notably on their political ads that exploit the crassest prejudices and emotions.

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But this noxious climate must express something deeper?

Stanley Aronowitz. Yes, the underlying problem in all of this is that citizens have discovered – thanks to the management of the financial/economic crisis – that their powers are reduced, that the oligarchy, that Wall Street, continues to dispossess them ever more. That has been exacerbated by the bailout of the financial system, of the big banks and insurance companies. People feel they’ve been swindled. Everything happens above their heads without their getting a word in. They feel, without being able to articulate it more precisely, that they don’t have the democratic political system they need. They can’t express that because all the parties are in on the swindle … so, they follow those who deliberately depart from the accepted script and play on their emotions by throwing them the red meat of “too much government,” the Washington establishment or more classical scapegoats such as immigrants. The other consequence of this strange climate is the risk of record abstention. And that phenomenon could heavily penalize Barack Obama’s party. Those who gravitate around the union movement, feminist associations or defense of the environment and who are usually those most easily mobilized for the Democratic vote may, in fact, not go to the polls, since they are, for the most part, frustrated by the absence of change and even worried about the continuation of previous policies and rationales.

What are the dimensions of the malaise that is moving through society today?

Stanley Aronowitz. People believe that the economic system has exploded into bits. And they think that the political system is incapable of finding a way out, that there’s no one to defend them, to protect them from the disaster. You know that we have three million families confronted with foreclosure. We have a real level of unemployment that sits above 17 percent of the active population. And there’s no real political will to come to grips with these ultrasensitive questions, apart from a few exceptions that confirm the rule, such as the actions taken by Elizabeth Warren, who works in the Obama administration on consumer protection issues. The government itself is in question, hence the rise in receptiveness to the Republicans’ and the Tea Party’s anti-government or reduced-government demagoguery.

Could this terrible malaise become politically dangerous?

Stanley Aronowitz. I think there is already a rightward push. The emergence of the Tea Party is significant. Not that the people who turn to it are fascists. Many of its adherents are quite simply broke, angry, drowned in the pain of having lost their house or their job or sometimes both. Some are far from being racists or neoconservatives in their heart. Some even voted for Obama two years ago in the hope of change and they’ve simply found the Tea Party as a way of protesting, of howling their frustration and their distress. Fortunately, we lack any charismatic figure at this time who would drag along a more significant far-right movement. But, look out, because the potential is there.

Leslie Thatcher is Truthout’s Literary Editor and sometime French language translator.

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