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Martin: It's The Economy...

With some debate audiences cheering candidates who call each other liars and losers, it’s funny to think that last year’s pundits’ predicted that this campaign season would be a dull dynasty duel between the Houses of Bush & Clinton. Many experts, caught off guard, just keep repeating that voters are angry, which has led to unexpected success for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. And while this may be true, I think analysts are missing the point: anger isn’t the only thing these “populist insurgencies” have in common – voters for both campaigns want to bring back The American Dream.

While non-economic issues still matter, it’s clear that this current discontent is largely coming from voters who feel like the system is rigged against them. Even as the economy slowly improves, most people are seeing their standard of living stagnate, or even slide, and are worried about the next generation. The French economist Thomas Piketty and others have shown that Western economies seem to be in a vicious cycle where the wealthy and privileged shape public policy in ways that reinforce their wealth and privilege. Even as the vast majority of American families continue to struggle to make ends meet, the evidence of rising inequality continues to grow. In 2011, the top 1% of U.S. households controlled 40% of the nation’s entire wealth. Now it’s estimated that .1% of households control 22% of our wealth. Even worse, recent statistics show that there’s now more upward social mobility in France than in the U.S. How sad to think that the American Dream may have emigrated to Europe.

While largely polar opposites, Trump and Bernie both blame unfair policies for our trade deficit with China, and weak campaign finance rules for political corruption. Of course, Trump wants more free market capitalism at home, with protectionism, border walls, and tough talk for the rest of the world. Bernie wants to revive the middle class with strong social institutions like those enjoyed in Europe: free higher education, free health care, and a livable wage for all.

Both approaches offer a return to the idea that if you work hard, you can get ahead in life. Voters aren’t just mad right now - they want to believe that the U.S. is still the land of opportunity.

In the end, this year’s voter anger really doesn’t seem that complicated to me. As Bill Clinton used to remind us back when he was a candidate, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Mike Martin is the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District and a Senior Associate with the Rowland Foundation.
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