The Triumph of the Untested

What’s propelling anti-establishment rage?

While not unexpected, the results of primary election in New Hampshire provide an interesting reading of how a lot of Americans are feeling.

Let’s start with where the election took place: New Hampshire is an overwhelming white state with a highly educated population, an extremely low unemployment rate, and incomes that are 20 percent higher than the national average. If any group of people has reason to be confident about their economic future, it is the people of this state.

Yet the two anti-establishment winners base their appeal on what is wrong with America today. And they couldn’t be more different. One is super-rich and is running on a platform of reducing taxes and regulations. The other is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist running on increasing taxes, providing more services, and increasing regulations on business. One never ran for elective office and touts his qualifications as a successful businessman; the other is a career politician but of a very unique sort – officially an independent who is gadfly with little legislative clout. Yet media reports found a number of people in the days before the elections who were trying to decide which one of these two to vote for.

What Sanders and Trump share is a commitment to major changes and a passionate style which is interpreted as “authenticity.” Running on change has been a prominent theme in many recent elections. Obama’s original campaign slogans were “yes we can” and “hope.” Tea Party and other strongly conservative Republicans have promised going to Washington and shaking things up. Yet the last 5 years in Washington have been mostly characterized by major confrontations that have led to last minute compromises that pleased no one.

Looking objectively at the Obama record, we see a modest rebound from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The passing of the Affordable Care Act was the major early accomplishment followed by managing the recovery of the financial system while enacting the Dodd-Frank regulatory framework meant to ensure that there wouldn’t be another financial meltdown. While these are modest achievements, they look very good in comparison to what has happened in Japan, most countries in Western Europe, Russia, and Brazil.

So why are people fighting mad?

While there are several reasons that will be listed below, a key difference today is change in how the news is reported. On the one hand, the mass media went from neutral reporter of major events to specialized channels and talk shows on radio and TV that were advocates of extreme positions. On the other hand, the huge presence of hyper-partisan internet blogs and sites has made people choose sides. And once they have chosen a side, they tend to hear lots of self-reinforcing commentaries and tune out other narratives (what behavioral scientists call confirmation and inattention biases).

The specifics of the rage vary across party but break down into three components.
First, all sides agree that our political system is failing us without realizing that their partisanship is one of the basic reasons for this gridlock. Conservatives have a visceral dislike of Obama and accuse of him of being a socialist tyrant (and were even worried that war games in the US might be a plan to take over Texas). In contrast, liberals repeatedly complain about the corrosive effects of big money in politics in rigging the game in favor of the super rich. Note the chasm between these two arguments.

Second, conservatives feel that they have lost the cultural wars and that their beliefs are under attack, e.g. same sex marriage, out of wedlock sex and births, secularism, and militant Islam. They rail against the mass media, political correctness, and a welfare state that is too generous to immigrants and people of color. As Stan Greenberg documents in his book America Ascendant, these people are desperate to defend their way of life against long-term demographic and cultural trends.

Third, there are a variety of economic concerns and anxieties. On the one hand, a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that: 40 percent say that the big recession didn’t negatively affect them; 30 percent said that recession hurt them but that they have now recovered; and 30 percent were negatively affected and haven’t recovered. With 30 percent losing ground, this provides a pool of angry people and another group who worry some untoward event could happen to them. Overall, there is economic anxiety about a globalized world in which things changing too fast and too unpredictably. In a couple of stories before the election about NH voters saying that “I’m doing okay now but ….”

In this environment, the untested – Trump, Sanders, Cruz, and Rubio – have flourished with big promises and great bombast. Because the economy isn’t in disastrous state, people seem willing to give these candidates the benefit of the doubt. The Iowans and New Hampshirites don’t seem to care about the chances of these plans being implemented. It is unclear whether the rest of the country will have such a cavalier attitude.

Stephen Rose

Stephen Rose is a Research Professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. A well-known labor economist, he is the author of Social Stratification in the United States, first published in 1979.