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Understanding the Great Volatility in American Politics Today, Part 2
For years now American have been disappointed with those running the country. In 2006 they swept the governing party from power. In 2008 they gave the Democratic challenger, Barack Obama, a true outsider in every sense of the word, the largest share of the vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1964. In this cycle we've seen establishment figures of both parties get roundly defeated again and again. The disappointment with those in power continues. So what gives?
In 2005 Rob Shapiro and I wrote then that the lack of wage and income growth we had seen in the US economy in the first five years of the decade, if unaddressed, would begin to sweep those in power from office. As the appendix to this essay I wrote recently about the centrality of the economy to American politics today shows, public opinion about the state of the economy tanked in 2005, years before the Great Recession. Since 2005 the economy has consistently been the number one issue in most polls. Since 2008 it has been the overwhelmingly dominant concern of Americans. As it should - the last decade was a lost decade for the American people. We just finished an entire decade where the average American gained no ground, with many - way too many - even ending the decade with lower wages and income than they began it.
It has been our contention that the performance of the American economy has been the central driver of the great volatility in the American electorate these past several cycles. While Americans are concerned about many things - education, immigration, health care, terrorism at home and wars oversees - there is really only one issue the American people have been and will continue to vote on until they see improvement. And that is their sense that their economic struggle has increased, their leaders seem inadequately focused on their plight, and have certainly been unable to make it better. They will continue to "throw the bums out" until they see their own lives getting better.
What that means for the fall is more than anything else voters are looking for a party, a set of leaders with a plan for them and their families. They are looking to see if their leaders "get it," and are offering a plan - a set of actions, proposals, arguments - which has a reasonable chance to end the conditions which created the lost decade, is commensurate to the size of the problem itself, and will help them and their families have a change to improve their station in life. This plan must be focused on rising standards of living and growing employment for every day people, and not on important but more distant concerns of fiscal austerity or Wall Street Reform. It is, to quote an old line, about "putting people first."
My gut is that this fall will be all about winning the economic debate. The party that wins the big economic argument and convinces voters they have a plan for the future will prosper. The parties which talk about other matters, or fail to make a convincing case they have a plan will once again be rebuked by a public asking for more than they have been getting from their leaders for way too many years now.
More on this tomorrow.
PS - Was quoted talking about these matters in the FT yesterday.