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Brace Yourself: The Presidential Election Is Going To Be All About Anger

Clinton knows you're mad as hell, and she's appealing to that sense.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Clinton knows you're mad as hell, and she's appealing to that sense.

Hillary Clinton laid out some lofty goals for her presidency in a speech on Friday.

"My mission from my first day as president to the last will be to raise the incomes of hardworking Americans so they can once again afford a middle-class life," she said. "This is the defining economic challenge not only of this election but our time."

So, she has her work cut out for her. But interestingly, that line came not from a populist barn burner of a speech, but from a policy-focused address about ending "quarterly capitalism" — the tendency for businesses to focus on short-term shareholder gains over long-term investment.

The wonkier bits of her speech about capital-gains taxation might only interest a specific subset of people, but she couched them to attract a much broader audience of voters angered by what they see as an unfair economic system. Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to channel that anger, but are offering very different solutions — so much so that the leading candidates for both parties seem to be living in two economic realities.

Voters are frustrated by a range of economic issues: inequality, stagnant incomes and debt, to name a few. That frustration is the driving narrative of the 2016 election, as candidates try to convince voters that they can forge an economy that won't make Americans feel stuck in neutral.

Americans have barely seen their pay outpace inflation since the recession. Annual wage growth has been stuck at around 2 percent since 2009, and median household incomes are where they were in 1995.

But that's not all that's wrong: Faith in the American Dream has dipped. In the late 1990s, 74 percent of Americans thought hard work was the way to get ahead in America. By January 2014, it was 60 percent. And since the recession, most Americans just haven't felt — for more than a handful of weeks at a time, anyway — that the economy is getting better.

Politicians, of course, have taken notice. Indeed, to win any national election, they simply have to.

"The longer we're kind of stuck in this rut of stagnating incomes and very low wage growth and a lot of slack in the labor market, the more people feel like this is just the way things are, and the less space there is for politicians to say, 'OK, well, we just need to wait for the recovery to take hold,' " said Michael Strain, a resident scholar in economics at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "We've been waiting for the recovery to take hold for a while. Both parties are responding to that."

Jeb Bush earlier this year, in a speech about the middle class, acknowledged not only that Americans are frustrated, but that elbow grease can't fix everything.

"Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin," the former Florida governor said, "and many more feel like they're stuck in place: working longer, and harder, even as they're losing ground."

He later added, "Something is holding them back — not a lack of ambition, not a lack of hope, not because they're lazy or see themselves as victims. Something else. Something is an artificial weight on their shoulders."

That's the idea at the center of the election, and everyone in the race seems to have latched on. Now, politicians are peering at it through their respective philosophical lenses to decide how to fix it.

"Republican rhetoric is much more growth-centric: 'The solution to this is economic growth,' " said Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College. "That's a very common Republican theme, whereas Democrats are more regulatory and redistributive. In other words, they're reverting to type."

Bernie Sanders has advocated higher taxes on the rich, decrying what he calls "casino capitalism" in a May interview.

"The people on top have lost any sense of responsibility for the rest of the society," said Sanders, an independent from Vermont, who has gained traction as the principal alternative to Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, has a tax plan that will, among other things, dole out a heftier child tax credit to some families.

Clinton believes that targeting "quarterly capitalism" and focusing on the American worker, via paid leave and helping keep mothers in the workforce, could be answers.

Bush comes at it from the other, macroeconomic direction, saying if Americans can work more hours and if government stays out of the way of the "gig economy," he can bring about 4 percent growth. That speeding train (or, perhaps, Uber car) of growth will bring everyone along with it, he contends.

It's not just about presenting policies, of course. Presidential campaigns are about choices. And in the fight to make the choice clearer for frustrated Americans, the most pointed blows yet have been between Clinton and Bush.

"Now comes Hillary Clinton, and her economic agenda could be summarized easily: Whatever Obama is doing, let's double down on it," he said in a speech earlier this month.

The implicit message: If you hate the economy now, Clinton won't change it.

For her part, Clinton and her affiliated groups have latched onto several Bush statements that could make him sound unsympathetic to workers — in particular, earlier this month, when he said that people would have to work longer hours in his economy. (His campaign later clarified that he was talking about part-time workers who want more hours.)

"Well, he must not have met very many American workers," Clinton said in response. "Let him tell that to the nurse who stands on her feet all day or the teacher who is in that classroom, or the trucker who drives all night. Let him tell that to the fast-food workers marching in the streets for better pay. They don't need a lecture. They need a raise."

While they're appealing to an exhausting stretch of stagnant wages for American workers, they're really tapping into a decades-old idea of how the economy should work.

"We're still trying to figure out how wealth gets distributed in an economy where you've seen manufacturing and union jobs and what used to be the typical middle-class blue-collar jobs evaporate," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of public communication and history at American University.

He continued, "The bottom line is that [politicians are] dealing with a set of expectations Americans have about the economy, and a sense of acknowledging that frustration that a great many people don't feel that they're participating in the mythical rising tide that existed briefly after World War II." ( See chart.)

Despite newfangled campaign trail rhetoric about things like the emerging sharing economy and, yes, Uber, very old roles are at work here: Democrats championing the downtrodden laborer; Republicans bemoaning regulation.

Still, what's new in the 2016 election is really that Americans' anxiety about the economy is getting more entrenched by the day.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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