Yes, Voters Really Are Angry and Anxious About the Unfairness of the Economy

There is a growing amount of contrarian analysis these days suggesting that Americans really aren’t so angry about the economy after all, that what appears to be economic populism is really just a cover for racism, sexism or other cultural issues, and that ultimately the only thing the majority of voters really want is a stable technocrat who will keep the good times rolling while fixing some social issues. Some of my colleagues have written pieces in this vein, including Nancy LeTourneau yesterday, and Harold Pollack in March. Washington Monthly alum Kevin Drum hammers away at this theme again and again. John Sides at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage uses consumer index statistics to argue that Americans are really happier about the economy than they’ve been since “Morning in America,” which in turn was picked up by Matt Yglesias at Vox.

In most cases, these writers are trying to use broad quantitative data about economic satisfaction to explain away what seems to be obvious on its face, which is that Sanders and Trump are both running economic populist campaigns that have resonated deeply with large and different sections of the electorate. The corollary to this argument is that it’s not economics but raw racism that is driving Trump’s success, and that Sanders’ success is a factor less of economic anger than some combination of sexism and cult of personality.

To believe these things, of course, you would have to assume that voters aren’t actually being inspired by the rhetoric and policy positions of Sanders and Trump but by other factors they’re subtly tapping into. You would have to ignore most of the actual reasons given in interviews and focus groups by Sanders and Trump voters for why they support their candidates. You would have to ignore what they actually say in media comments sections and at various political forums.

You would, in essence, have to ignore all the qualitative data in front of you showing what people say in their own words, in favor of polling data about their generic feelings about the economy or their own current personal economic situation.

That would be a mistake.

One of the most important things to realize about economic anxiety in America today is that it is broadly independent from whether you have a job, or even whether you are doing well personally at the moment. I personally know many people who are making over $100K household income and are generally content with their employment situation personally, but are still angry about the unfairness and instability of the economy in general. Just because a college student is having a fairly good time and believes they can get a decent job coming out of school, doesn’t mean they aren’t upset and concerned about paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Just because a 1099 worker or independent contractor is doing OK financially now, doesn’t mean that their lack of stable health insurance and social safety net if something goes wrong isn’t a big concern to them.

In America today, even if you have a good job and a decent income stream, the economy is still broken if you aren’t part of the asset class. It’s often astonishing to political scientists that Sanders’ and Trump’s voters are both often more affluent than their more establishment-voting counterparts, and they therefore assume that economic anxiety must not be the reason for their choices. This is again a failure of vision by quant-oriented analysts to see what is obvious qualitatively.

If you are a young upwardly mobile American, you usually live in a big city. Talk to upwardly mobile young people living in big cities, and you will find that housing is by far their biggest concern. They may have decent jobs and reliable income streams, but they often have no hope of affording a home in which they can start a family. The disconnect between what their wages can afford and the lifestyle they would like to lead is enormous. That’s part of why 25% of millennials still live at home with their parents–it’s not that they don’t have jobs or don’t feel OK about the current economy in general, but that the system is so fundamentally broken they can’t afford to take on the normal trappings of adulthood.

Meanwhile, they see older people with nice stock portfolios, retirement accounts and houses they bought cheap in the 1980s that have dramatically grown in value, and they feel that those structural opportunities will not be there for them no matter how well their jobs pay them.

Beyond that is simple anger at the top 1%. This sort of anger is often dismissed as “political” rather than personal or experiential, but fairness is a crucial component of economic anger. Even if you are doing personally OK, if you know that a small number of people are taking massive advantage of the system to cheat you out of what you deserve, you’re going to be angry enough to demand some radical changes toward economic justice, with a big emphasis more on the justice aspect than the economic one. A lot of people still want the people who caused the Great Recession to go to jail, they still want accountability, and they want the economy to be run more for Main Street than for Wall Street. It doesn’t matter how well they’re doing personally. They want justice, and they’re not going to rest until they get it. Bill Clinton foolishly mocked this desire for justice by joking that Sanders voters would want to shoot every third person on Wall Street–but anyone who has read or watched The Big Short isn’t altogether that far from feeling that way regardless of their personal economic circumstances.

There is also a larger scale and broader insecurity about the stability of the economic system and industries generally. If you work in healthcare, you don’t know if political changes will eliminate your job in a decade. If you drive for a living, self-driving cars could end your job in short order. If you work in academia, you have no idea if online education and the decrease in tenure track jobs will leave your career viable in the long term. And the American safety net is so weak that even if you’re doing well today, falling off the ladder often means a descent into oblivion.

It is realistic, in other words, for voters to be simultaneously confident about their employment prospects and furious about the economic system. I know this personally because that is my own economic and political situation–and that of countless friends and colleagues of my own acquaintance. I know this because I have heard the same things from hundreds of people in my own precinct walks and phonebanks to voters on behalf of candidates. I know this because of hundreds of conversations in interviews and focus groups I have conducted professionally.

Quantitative polls of economic anxiety will not tell you these things. But qualitative conversations with real people will, as will the prima facie evidence of what candidates are performing well based on the populist messages they are using, in spite of heavy establishment opposition to that populism.

For Trump voters, of course, racism and bigotry play a much larger role. But a huge part of Trump’s appeal is his claim that he is wealthy enough not to be in hock to big donor and special interests. Republican voters believe that they’re being cheated out of what they deserve not only by economic elites, but also by poor people and minorities. But their general sentiments about the unfairness of the system remains the same–they simply have a more bigoted and less accurate understanding of the villains.

In short, voters really are angry about the economy. They want greater security. They don’t want more jobs so much as they want answers for how their jobs are ever going to pay for the lifestyle and security they deserve. And they want justice and accountability against the people they believe have cheated them.

It’s possible that a complacent candidate could win in 2016 by winning a majority of voters who aren’t upset about these things. But one who campaigns and then governs on a platform of “everything’s fine” will perform worse than they should in 2016, and will likely run into a buzzsaw of populist discontent in 2020.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.