If one statistic can sum up the difficulty facing any politician who claims to have answers for the nation's current economic crisis, it was this stunning datapoint from a recent Washington Post poll — 53 percent of respondents were concerned they might not be able to make their mortgage or rent payments.
That degree of economic anxiety speaks volumes about what's now happening in the economy. When that much fear abounds, many consumers who could spend, won't.
And absent consumers whose spending accounts for about 70 percent of all economic activity, the economy will likely remain in the doldrums. Which will continue to fuel the anxiety in a negative feedback loop from sea to shining sea.
As if that's not enough of a downer, there's the sense that the political process is currently inadequate to the task of disrupting the loop.
A mood-depressing piece in Roll Call by Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate, captures the notion. All I know is, it left me with a strong desire for comfort food.
Gans' argument is that voters may think they're unhappy now but they haven't yet begun to plumb the depths of frustration and disenchantment with their political leadership.
The issue of whether the GOP gains enough seats to control one or both chambers of Congress is, basically, irrelevant. The GOP priorities of rapid deficit reduction, less business regulation and smaller government are likely to hurt the economy in the same manner that FDR's austerity policies in 1937 renewed the Depression. Any major stimulative policies by the Obama administration are dead on arrival in a Congress in which the Republicans can block whatever they wish.
Minor agreements are possible on issues such as free trade with Korea and Latin America, modest tort reform and some stimulative policies on energy, particularly nuclear power. But the basic condition of Congress will be one of major gridlock and political posturing for the 2012 elections in an economy not noticeably healed. And we'll probably see a progressively heightened amount of incivility on Capitol Hill.
All of which points to a polarized 2012 election — and the more tea party candidates that win this year, the more polarized 2012 will be. The GOP will put forward, at a high decibel level, policies that cannot possibly reverse the economic drift, while the president will face the perception of having singularly failed to meet the most important challenge of his time.
If anyone thought that disillusionment reigned this year, they ain't seen nothing yet.
It's possible that Gans is wrong, that the prescriptions of tax cuts and deregulation offered by congressional Republicans will somehow prove an elixir for the moribund economy.
But what if he's right?
During other periods of economic insecurity in U.S. history, leaders and elites worried that financial stress could lead to social unrest and instability.
In the late 19th century, the concern was that Americans most under the financial hammer might fall prey to anarchy and socialism.
In the 1930s, the appeal of socialism and its edgier cousin, communism, to the disaffected, was again the worry.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, communism has largely been consigned to the ash bin of history and so have most fears of an American communist foothold.
But just because that outlet for disillusionment isn't available, that doesn't mean the unhappiness Gans warns of still won't need a some kind of populist outlet. The question is, what will it be?
The Tea Party's rise on the political right, at least to some degree, can be traced to the current mood.
But there's been nothing yet from the political left, which has spawned past movements aimed at addressing the economic concerns of grassroots people. American history suggests that will change.