Americans Felt Betrayed by the Shutdown

A focus group of swing-voting women finds the government chaos unleashed fresh political frustration.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Could Americans really get any angrier at Washington? Even before the recent government shutdown, congressional approval hovered around 10 percent, a minority thought the country was on the right track, and a “throw the bums out” mentality was rampant. Railing against the toxic mess in D.C. has been a winning strategy for politicians from Barack Obama on down for years now.

And yet average Americans say the shutdown was something new. It seeded a different, raw sense of betrayal by politicians; it left them feeling freshly disillusioned, perhaps permanently so.

“Before, I took a lot for granted. I assumed it could never come to this,” said Cathy, a 53-year-old nurse with three children. “Now, I can’t say that with any reassurance whatsoever .... It’s scary.”

Mahogany, a 35-year-old consultant with two young kids, agreed. “I didn’t know a lot of this stuff was possible. I didn’t know we could be in this predicament,” she said. “I didn’t know it. Now the trust in the government is just gone.”

Cathy is white and voted for Obama last year; Mahogany is black and voted for Mitt Romney. The two women were part of a focus group in Nashville this week of swing voters known as the Walmart Moms. Watching their conversation via a live video feed, there was a palpable sense of a breaking point reached in their view of politics.

One woman mentioned the way the Great Depression had permanently scarred her grandmother’s psyche. Another mentioned September 11. Julia, a 42-year-old Romney voter, spoke of an “unreparable great divide.”

“Compromise is not in their vocabulary,” she added. “With the Tea Party, there’s not two parties, there’s three. They’re like dogs with a bone.”

Jeanne, a 52-year-old unemployed Obama voter, said, “I just find the partisan politics disgusting. ‘I don’t like what your party has passed, therefore we’re going to hold our ground and shut down the government until we get our way’?”

The women mentioned few politicians by name, and stubbornly resisted assigning blame to any party or side. Some accused Republicans of putting their egos before the good of the country; others wished the president would do more to bring people together.

“From what I can tell, a law was passed, people didn’t like it, and they thought they could reverse it by shutting down the government,” said Elizabeth, a 33-year-old Romney voter. “But to me, it’s like, something already passed. Let’s work to fix it. Holding everybody hostage is not the way.”

The women compared politicians’ behavior to kindergarteners or toddlers. “The guy reading—Cat in the Hat? What was it? Green Eggs and Ham?” said Cass, a voluble 40-year-old restaurant worker who voted for Obama. “That summed up the government right there. You’re talking about Dr. Seuss? This is the first intelligent thing I’ve heard out of your mouth right there.”

"Walmart Moms," defined as women with children in the home who shopped at Walmart once in the last month, are thought to comprise 10 to 15 percent of the electorate. It's a diverse group, both demographically and politically, and its shifting loyalties tend to mirror shifts in the electorate as a whole. Since 2010, a bipartisan team of pollsters sponsored by Walmart has been tracking the demographic's political views through focus groups and surveys.

Compared to previous focus groups, this one exhibited a guarded optimism about the economy and the future. Members said they’d adjusted their expectations down and taught their children to do more with less, but the gloom and doom of some earlier sessions was absent. Where before they often wondered how they’d make it, now they seemed confident in their ability to muddle through.

A few were personally affected by the shutdown: One had a brother who was a furloughed federal worker; another had a friend with terminal breast cancer who couldn’t reach anyone at Social Security to plan for her family’s future without her. They used words like “powerless,” “frustration,” “disgust” and “anesthetized” to describe their feelings. “It’s a sinkhole,” Julia said. “You can keep throwing in dirt to fill it back up, but it’s never going to be level.”

Rather than throw up their hands at the mess, the women said they’d pay more attention to politics and try to get more involved to fix the problem. “We’ll be smarter next time. We won’t vote for somebody sitting next to a tractor just because we like tractors,” said Karyn, a 25-year-old who voted for neither major-party presidential candidate in 2012.

And many wondered if electing a woman president would help. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both were mentioned. “It’s time for a woman—someone with kids—because men have screwed it up,” Mahogany said.

“My daughter says it’s time for a black woman who doesn’t take crap out of anybody,” said Jeanne, to laughter.

“I want someone like my mother: an experienced and mature bitch,” said Julia.

Angie, a 42-year-old Romney voter now going through a traumatic divorce, said she blamed “whoever’s in charge.” But Jaclyn, a 30-year-old Obama voter, corrected her. “We’re the ones who voted,” she said. “It’s our fault.”