Recently, the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, spoke to a group of Americans in Berlin. Klaus was born in Prague under Nazi occupation and lived there under Soviet communism. He went on to earn a doctorate in economics and served as prime minister before being elected president. He spoke about the importance of economic freedom, something he knows about firsthand.
His point was that after the Cold War ended, Europe made a wrong turn toward social democracy and the welfare state. "Europeans today prefer leisure to performance, security to risk-taking, paternalism to free markets, collectivism and group entitlements to individualism. ... It seems that Europeans are not interested in capitalism and free markets and do not understand that their current behavior undermines the very institutions that made their past success possible."
Klaus says America is about to do the same thing. "With the way your government has been going, you might be able to catch up with us—in terms of our problems—very soon," he warned.
Every nightly news broadcast brings an education in European economics, since so much of what is going on in the eurozone is affecting our own stock market. As more and more Americans begin to learn that the big social democracies of Europe are headed for catastrophe, they see the writing on the wall for our country. It's the politicians who don't.
People started getting angry in the summer of 2009, when the Tea Party protests began on the right. Remember the town hall meetings during the August recess, and how frustrated people were with the rapid expansion of government, the takeover of the healthcare industry, the bailouts of the banking and auto industries? Now the left has begun to get angry too, with union organizers orchestrating the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread to many cities.
That's where a lot of the frustration is coming from: No one likes the way our government has been going. The public has lost confidence not only in the president and Congress, but in too many other institutions in our society as well, from banks to schools to churches to the media. And the people at the top just seem to be whistling Dixie while the majority of Americans who think we're on the wrong track keeps growing larger.
President Obama seems to be living up to his "No Drama Obama" nickname. He comes across as casual, laid back, even breezy in his attitude lately. Mitt Romney has a perpetual smile on his face, always pleasant and polished no matter how bad the economic news. The rest of the candidates just seem small, wanting to talk about the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, the HPV vaccine, credit lines at Tiffany's, and the next Twitter debate. The fact that a different name is on top of the polls every week says a lot about the field of candidates and their inability to convince us that they understand the magnitude of the challenge our country is facing.
But voters' frustration also says a lot about us as a nation. For the last two years, voters have been ahead of the politicians in terms of having a gut instinct about where the country is headed and what needs to be done. It explains why approval ratings for both Obama and Congress fell so sharply after they failed to reach a "grand bargain"—which so many people were counting on to get things back on track, at least in terms of reining in spending, reforming entitlements, and making the tax code less onerous—and why the protests have started around the nation.
It explains why 40 percent of the electorate now consider themselves independent voters, and why party ID doesn't seem to matter to many people. And it explains why so many of us think there will likely be a third-party candidate who will rise above all the partisan squabbling and brinksmanship, and help us start moving our country forward again. The two parties are just not connecting with the rest of the country. The voters have sent one warning shot after another: Tea Party protests, special election "upsets," landslide midterm elections, and now Occupy Wall Street protests. And the political class just doesn't seem to hear.