In the Washington Post we learn:
Across the ideological spectrum, candidates are gaining traction by separating themselves from the political and economic system that many everyday Americans view as rigged against them.
It’s taken for granted that this is the ultimate “outsider” election, with the early success of the Trumps and Carsons and Bernies all reflecting Americans’ deep frustrations with the status quo, with career politicians, and with elite institutions writ large.
I don’t doubt this is what’s happening. But why? Why this cycle? What is extra rigged and frustrating in 2015 that wasn’t felt to be so rigged and frustrating previously? Am I completely blinkered to say that we Americans seem to be living in a time of relative peace and prosperity? And more relevant from an electoral standpoint, that the trajectory over the past 7 years has been consistently in the more-peace, more-prosperity direction? And that perhaps this should reflect at least somewhat positively on our elite institutions, and dare I say, on the “establishment”?
You’d expect to see this sort of voter alienation and backlash during times of economic downturn and distress. But things on that front are… pretty good? Unemployment is 5.3% nationally, down from 10% in 2009, and still falling for all demographics and every level of education. There have been 65 straight months of private sector job growth. For you capitalists out there, the stock market is up near 200% from the lows of 2009. Wage growth is still anemic, but so is inflation, and you’d think the employment situation alone would be enough to keep people from flipping the fuck out.
“There’s a disquiet, discomfort and angst that so many people are feeling,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advises Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). “They’re scared economically, they’re scared about what’s happening with our adversaries, and it makes them really, really uncomfortable with where the country’s going and where the leaders are going.”
Scared! Angst! Disquiet! So much disquiet.
If it’s not the economy, could it be Obamacare? That certainly motivated a lot of voters in 2010 and 2012. Are we still angsty and disquieted about that? I know in ConservativeLand, Obamacare is a job-destroying freedom-eating boondoggle monster. But the lived experience of humans in the real world shows that uninsured rates are now below 10% nationally for the first time in at least 50 years. And CBO cost projections keep falling. Really, falling. Even if you’re still clinging to the freedom-eating bit, it’s just objectively true that the law is basically working as intended, and in terms of cost it’s better than intended. Point is, if Obamacare was an outright failure, with ballooning costs and no one getting coverage, I could see that as a source of massive disaffection for voters in both parties, and reason to want to punish elites for a big policy failure. But we are just empirically not there.
“Our adversaries”? Well we still have adversaries, it is true. It does seem that the public is rapidly warming to the idea of sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But this would appear to favor the establishment candidates who advocate such a policy, like Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Lindsay Graham. The “anti-establishment” candidates who are enjoying success in the polls–Trump, Carson, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders–are not the war candidates, or at least not conspicuously so. ISIS is a sensationally barbaric group, and I think ultimately their continued existence on the planet is incompatible with civilization. But they have no ability to menace beyond the physical land they control.
People may feel concerned about regional powers Iran and Russia. But in what way is either country better able today to project power outside their respective region? Russia pursues its revanchist fantasies in Crimea and Ukraine. Iran pursues its revanchist fantasies of Shia domination in the Middle East. Both regimes do so murderously. But do they threaten the U.S. militarily or economically or culturally? I mean, you may support various policies to counter some of their destabilizing regional power projection, buttress Ukraine or the Kurds or Israel or whichever rebel faction you favor in Iraq or Syria. But are you extra fearful or anxious about any of this? Compared to the bad old al-Qaeda days? Or the Cold War? Or when we were losing close to a thousand troops a year in Iraq? In all, it just really doesn’t seem like a particularly geopolitically threatening time to be an American voter.
Illegal immigration: This was of course Trump’s signature issue which gained him traction in the first place. But what’s bizarre is you only really see an uptick in immigration anxiety during times of economic distress, which emphatically is not the case today. What’s causing this latest groundswell? It’s not that the number of illegal immigrants is increasing. The unauthorized immigrant population is down from its 2007 high, and has been static for the last five years. Why the overflow of immigrant angst now?
Well, though the undocumented population is static, the non-white proportion of the country continues to grow. I know there is a large percentage of Republican voters who are very anxious about that. Perhaps they are using anti-illegal immigrant sentiment as a stand-in for their more general nativist fears. And they are more vocal now merely because Trump’s prominence gives them “permission” to be so? I don’t know.
Maybe, just maybe, all this angst and anger is fleeting. Maybe, come this winter, the much vaunted “outsider” election will instead be what many have predicted all along, the most insidery election imaginable: a Bush v. Clinton battle for the throne of the seven kingdoms. That would be disquieting for a whole host of other reasons, but at least it would comport with the reality that things are going pretty okay out there.