Sam and I have devoted a lot of posts (this one, this one, this one, and parts of this one) on this blog to examining the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. We seem to have settled on the idea that Trump and Sanders, though very different on the surface, are in fact very similar in many regards, and indicative of a broader trend toward populism in American politics over the last five to ten years. In Trump and Sanders: The End of Neoliberalism?, I touched briefly on the origins of the recent rise of populism with respect to free trade, such as frustration with economic competition from China and the displacement of low skilled labor, but thus far neither of us has really delved deep into why populism has returned writ large.
As I investigate further into why people are so angry with the system, I look to the economy, and I immediately notice the Great Recession’s far reaching effects. After rosy economic times in the early 2000’s, the housing bubble burst, causing foreclosures, a decline in growth, and a massive rise in unemployment. People became disillusioned with the system that created the economic malaise, either with the big banks for relaxing their lending standards by offering loans to buyers who couldn’t afford them, or with the government for keeping interest rates artificially low and inflating demand for houses in the market, only to raise interest rates again to counter inflation, forcing buyers to pay mortgages worth more than the houses themselves.
Immediately following the recession, the left and the right predictably had different, increasingly polarized responses. On the left, people petitioned the government to regulate big banks to prevent negligence and profit motive from creating another financial crisis. This manifested itself in the election of Barack Obama, a candidate who promised hope and change in the aftermath of the recession. On the right, calls for lower taxes, less government regulation, and cutting government spending in order to stimulate growth became louder and louder. Conservatives sought to do away with “politics as usual” by establishment Republicans, leading to pushes for more ideologically conservative voices to take on “the Washington cartel.” Some Republicans who had served their districts or states for years managed to get ousted during the primaries in favor of those who promised to stand firm in their principles and not compromise with the left, culminating in the infamous “Class of 2010.”
Despite the pushes for change, the economy could not fully recover from the protracted Great Recession in a few short years. Obama’s stimulus package didn’t stimulate growth to the intended level, and the Tea Party couldn’t manage to cut spending, taxes, or regulations. While those on the left still clung onto Obama’s message of hope and change, those on the right continued their witch hunt for establishment Republicans that compromised with Democrats on issues like the budget, Obamacare, immigration, and the debt ceiling.
In the present election cycle, it seems that both sides are still angry. On the left, maybe Obama wasn’t all that he promised he’d be. He reformed the healthcare system and helped return America to pre-recession growth, but to some, he didn’t do enough to safeguard the system against another recession. Anger with the Democratic establishment’s failure to follow through with promises has contributed to the unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders, who, as a true ideological progressive, has promised to protect the most vulnerable parts of the population from the predatory nature of the Wall Street banks. On the right, maybe all Republicans in Congress are either establishment shills that don’t have principles or spineless politicians who are too weak to stand up to the left. With free trade deals and immigration threatening to undermine low-skilled workers already at risk because of the recession, some conservatives are expressing their anger by looking to Donald Trump to return America to greatness.
More broadly, economic crises tend to incite anger and cause the public to repudiate status quo politics for something different and, a lot of times, more extreme. As Noam Chomsky explains:
It happens all the time. Nazi Germany is an example. In 1928, the Nazis got less than 3 percent of the vote. Then the economic crash came along, and a few years later they swept to victory…economic downturn naturally undermines the credibility of existing institutions. Of course, these institutions may already be weak, for understandable reasons.
Now, all parallels between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler aside, this country is not pre-war Germany grappling with the impact of the Great Depression. But I think that the radical shift toward populism will remain until we hit another period of sustained economic growth. Only then will people have renewed faith in the establishment (or whatever is left of it) and maybe the anger might subside.