It’s Still The Economy, Stupid

This brings us to the main commonality between Trump and Bernie: they divide us. Sanders divides us by class and Trump divides us by race. Each candidate has found a vulnerable spot in their bloc of support and then blamed stupid (in Trump’s telling) or corrupt (in Bernie’s telling) politicians for not caring.

On March 22 the Michigan Political Union, a group of students who gather once every two weeks to debate an agreed upon political issue, held a forum where students could speak on behalf of the presidential candidates they support and field questions from an audience of undecided voters. Unsurprisingly, two men dominated the conversation: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But why? Some say Trump is winning the support of  racists or that Bernie is winning the support of young socialists. However, these narratives may not grasp voters’ true motivations. I argue that voters support Trump and Bernie for a single, fundamental reason: the economy. Long term trends accelerated by a deep recession have left millions of people insecure, and the government has been unresponsive to their plight. Trump and Bernie were the first ones to speak to these issues in a major way and, as a result, people are willing to listen to their ideas, even the crazy ones.

Globalization and automation take away good-paying jobs that employ many people and leave low-paying ones that employ few. The education gap between races, sexes, and income groups leaves the less educated in no position to acquire a middle income job anymore. Additionally, baby boomers’ retiring coupled with an influx of immigrants (low-skilled or otherwise) puts downward pressure on wages.  

For starters, voters are certainly upset with the status-quo given only one quarter of Americans believe the country is “headed in the right direction.” Globalization, automation, and education disparities, among other reasons, are displacing workers and limiting America’s growth. Employment of workers age 25-54 (prime age) has been declining since 2000 with many non-college educated workers having lost their high-paying manufacturing jobs: the same workers that fuel Trump’s campaign.

Now consider that employment for young workers is below pre-recession levels and that even recent college graduates have trouble finding employment, and you can see why students are attracted to Sanders’ positions on tuition, health care, and inequality. The most troubling statistic though has been stagnating incomes: Median household income is still about $4,000 lower than pre-recession levels and has actually been declining since 1999. (Breakdowns by income quintiles can be found here.)

There are several reasons for these terrible numbers. Globalization and automation take away good-paying jobs that employ many people and leave low-paying ones that employ few. The education gap between races, sexes, and income groups leaves the less educated in no position to acquire a middle income job anymore. Additionally, baby boomers’ retiring coupled with an influx of immigrants (low-skilled or otherwise) puts downward pressure on wages. Simply put, people are getting screwed, and the part that pisses people off the most is that Washington appears to be ignoring this reality.

This brings us to the main commonality between Trump and Bernie: they divide us. Sanders divides us by class and Trump divides us by race. Each candidate has found a vulnerable spot in their bloc of support and then blamed stupid (in Trump’s telling) or corrupt (in Bernie’s telling) politicians for not caring. A family struggling on minimum wage is going to listen to Trump and Bernie rail against trade deals sending manufacturing jobs away. Some will even be receptive to Trump’s call to deport immigrants as a way to shrink the labor force and drive up incomes.

These people may not be racists at heart, but given the hardship they have faced, especially those who have been used to being middle class and financially secure, they may be susceptible to the hateful rhetoric Trump spews. What has being politically correct gotten them? What have the supposed mainstream policy positions on economics, immigration, and foreign policy done for them? And the same goes the people who cheer when Bernie argues for unfeasable tax rates and astronomical spending levels. Bernie’s call for free tuition appeals to that person who has lost out on a better life because they weren’t educated enough or they have too much student debt. We’ve taken on massive debt for pointless wars, corporate welfare, and tax cuts—why can’t we take on additional debt to pay for college and health care? Bernie and Trump’s basic argument is that government is no longer serving the people. They say boldly that they can fix that.

Ironically, the words of a man who most embodies the “establishment” may be what shed light on this 2016 phenomenon: “It’s the economy stupid.” Bill Clinton was right in 1992, and he’d still be right today because the economy is weak, and elected officials seem to be blind to that fact. Although many traditional indicators say the economy is good, from an individual perspective citizens are still in pain. In pain from the recession and the turtle paced recovery we’ve been in since.

For years there were signs of a declining middle class and rising inequality, but D.C. leaders neglected to act. They had every chance to implement the practical, centrist solution to these problems, but now it’s too late. Even if our next president is not Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, a movement has started, an impact has been made, and the United States will never be the same again.

We need leaders who talk about all issues facing the public and consider any solution that will help. Trump and Bernie started the conversation, now the politicians need to act on it. Fast.

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About Jai Padalkar

Jai Padalkar is current a sophomore at the University of Michigan studying Computer Science. His interests include politics, sports, economics, pop culture, science and technology with a particular interest in applying data analytics to these fields.