Encountering Anguish and Anxiety Across America

On a road trip across the U.S., Joe Klein encounters frustrated voters and a unanimous sense that Washington is broken beyond repair

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Peter van Agtmael for TIME / Magnum

On a blistering evening in Phoenix recently, a group of prominent civic leaders met to talk about America. It didn't take long for the conversation to get around to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. That's what happens when smart Americans get to talking about politics these days. Topic A is the growing sense that our best days as a nation are behind us, that our kids won't live as well as we did, that China is in the driver's seat. The group had been assembled for my benefit by Fred DuVal, vice chair of the Arizona Board of Regents. Fred's a Democrat, but most people in the room were Republicans, and the conversation was bracing from the start — though not in the knee-jerk, contentious way we're used to seeing on television. People told personal stories and made complicated arguments that didn't fit neatly into their assigned political categories. Early on, a former Arizona attorney general named Grant Woods said he'd recently visited Turkey. He described "a prevailing sense of melancholy," which, he was told, was caused by the fact that Turkey "once had been a great empire but no longer was, and probably wouldn't ever be again ... In my lifetime, growing up in America, we were raised to believe that we were the best, No. 1, and always would be — and what I see happening now is that people are afraid our day may be passing and that the current Administration is putting that process into fast-forward."

Woods is a Republican, and his was a conservative lament: Barack Obama was leading the country away from private enterprise toward a more "European" style of Big Government. This is a popular, perhaps even dominant, theme in the U.S. this season — but it doesn't begin to describe the anguish that dominated every conversation about politics I witnessed during a four-week trip across the country. With a month to go before a crucial election and campaign ads cluttering the TV, people were in a heightened state of political awareness. I've covered more than a few midterm campaigns, but this one seems particularly fraught. That was made clear by the next speaker, a Republican public-relations consultant named Kurt Davis, who agreed with much of what Woods had said about "the far left undermining American values." But, he added, "when the middle class looks to the right and sees how free trade has sold them down the river, exporting millions of jobs ... they feel whipsawed, pissed off at both sides. I can't tell my kids that they'll be able to get a good job with a good company, work there for 30 years and retire with a good pension. I'd be lying. People know that doesn't exist anymore, and they're angry about it. That was the anger that elected Obama. He was the anti-Establishment candidate — and John McCain was anti-Establishment too. And so was Bill Clinton. But none of them did anything to change the reality that's making people angry."

More Anxious than Angry
It was that kind of trip. I talked to dozens of politicians running for office and hundreds of voters. The voters were, with few exceptions, more eloquent and unpredictable — and, of course, candid — than the politicians. They tended to be extremely frustrated with the national conversation as presented by the news media. They tended to be more anxious than angry — although the infuriated, fist-shaking third of the electorate, the Tea Party cohort, seemed a far more powerful and immediate presence in people's minds than the President of the United States or his party. Republicans seemed more talkative than Democrats, and more precise about their solutions: lower taxes and less spending. "People say to me, 'I don't like the Democrats because I don't know what they stand for,'" said Lisa Urias, a Latina businesswoman in Phoenix. "I tell them, 'I hate the Republicans because I know exactly what they stand for.'"

I found the same themes dominant everywhere — a rethinking of basic assumptions, a moment of national introspection. There was a unanimous sense that Washington was broken beyond repair. But the disgraceful behavior of the financial community, and its debilitating effects on the American economy over the past 30 years, was the issue that raised the most passion, by far, in the middle of the country. More than a few people had begun to question their own values and those of their neighbors. Was it O.K. to walk away from a mortgage? (According to a recent Pew survey, about a third of Americans think so.) But would our parents have ever walked away from a mortgage? Never. And what did that say about our moral standards? Was it part of the reason the country seemed to be slouching away from greatness?

Many Americans also were confused and frustrated by the constant state of war since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But for every occasion they raised Afghanistan, they mentioned China 25 times; economics completely trumped terrorism as a matter of concern. I met two Republican congressional candidates who are members of the Army Reserve and have served recent tours overseas — Rocky Raczkowski in Michigan and Joe Heck in Nevada. Both were strong on national security, but both had grave doubts about Afghanistan. When I'd ask people about the war, the first reaction was dismay about how much it was costing.

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