"It's the economy, stupid," or so said James Carville in 1992 explaining how his client, Bill Clinton, would win. Chris Matthews jauntly agrees, predicting if unemployment is 9 percent, Romney wins, if 8 percent, President Obama wins. The notion of material progress trumping all considerations has become so ensconced in our political mythology that few question the shallowness of that view.
In 1968, voters were emboldened to give Richard Nixon and George Wallace 57 percent of their votes in a year when unemployment was 3.6 percent. Vietnam and crime all managed to trump a hot economy and as well a general dread that the culture was dysfunctional. The Civil War broke out when cotton production and prices were high and nevertheless, the South seceded in 1861. Moral issues and irreconcilable differences trumped national material well-being as an excuse to stay united. To stretch it in 1952, Harry Truman, because of a similar economic boom, had the nerve to proclaim in the middle of the Korean War, "You've never had it so good." Voters begged to differ.
Perhaps materialism is so valued by those mushy moderates because they cannot see through the numbers or do not want to. It is far easier to explain temporary economic discomfort than to explain that a society is out of line. Pundits wish for a return to the mythical years of consensus when all parties allegedly got together and "got things done."
Perhaps an answer can be coaxed out of their rosy view of the past. Conservatives did not particularly like how society evolved in the 1970s. Leftist Democrats saw corporate growth amidst liberal rhetoric and were not satisfied. They refused to worship at the altar of a David Broder or a Peter Drucker - that paper-everything-over messiah of corporate and government cooperation.
Voters have looked warily at how their social and cultural landscape has changed. Plastic communities with gated neighborhoods have replaced tree-lined streets. Artists and musicians of dubious distinction replace local talent all because they are anointed to the supreme arbiters of American taste - the sponsor. Political correctness, whether it is emanating from FOX or CNN, might seem as cheerleaders for those elites who benefit from King Consensus. We all agree, right? And of course the deluge of fantasy-based children's literature certainly trumps serious literature. No question, certainly, don't you think?
Take the case of China, that towering example of consensus. Communism assumed the posture of a chamber of commerce version of Mao Zedong. Material progress, along with an openness-for-some and repression-for-most attitude, was to persuade those Chinese not yet benefiting to accept a harsh system. Bo Xilai, boss of Chongqing, has been removed because of corruption and his wife suspected of murder. On one hand, he represents the debasement of the Communist Party - on the other, he is seen by leftists as a fall guy, who tried to revive the egalitarian spirit of the party. Nevertheless the formula of high-tech economy combined with a mind-numbing Disneyland culture seems to be exhausted.
Of course the human rejects, give-them-democracy dullards of the Hillary Clinton State Department, think political reforms will do the trick and settle the situation. Say like they settled it in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Maybe the cultural plague that destroyed any vestige of traditional life might have something to do with China's and their Arab friends' present troubles.
No amount of artificially manufactured happiness will improve society. Progress sometimes never takes into account that the public might prefer a slower pace devoid of all the commercial come-ons. China grew faster, and enriched fewer, an outcome that to a lesser degree has affected the United States. To ignore public longing, by focusing on temporary reform, is to misread the times. False consensus does not trump age-old longings.