CNN released a poll this week that adds to the growing body of data showing widespread discontent among Americans. CNN reported:
75 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed, and 69 percent are at least somewhat angry with the way things are going in the U.S., both metrics about as negative as they were in fall 2014.
Two notable Gallup polls this year found that 75 percent of Americans see widespread corruption in government, while 49 percent say they believe the federal government poses “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”
To put it bluntly, people are pissed off.
Yet, for the past year, the prevailing media narrative has turned a problem that is fairly simple and straightforward — people are mad because they’re struggling financially — into a dramatic tale that doesn’t correspond to reality. We hear about this epic struggle between the Outsiders and the Establishment, but no one knows what that means. As I’ve argued before, the presence of Trump proves the absence of “the Establishment” as it’s commonly described.
In life and politics, the simplest explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually the best. It’s a principle called “Occam’s Razor.” The simple explanation is the growing gap between rising costs and stagnant wages, which is America’s true inequality problem.
For instance, health care premiums rising seven times faster than wages equals unhappiness which equals the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Higher education costs rising faster than wages equals unhappiness which equals the rise of Trump and Sanders.
Across the economy in areas that matter to most people, the same trends are obvious. We see bigger paychecks but little change in purchasing power, rental expenses rising faster than income, rising food prices, and so on.
The simple explanation is James Carville is still right. It’s still the economy, stupid. Americans are working harder but they can’t seem to get ahead. They’d like to see problem solvers in government. Instead, they see a group of professional panderers masquerading as public servants and freedom fighters.
One bright spot in the CNN poll presidential candidates should note is the growing popularity of the new House Speaker Paul Ryan. CNN reported:
The new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is viewed favorably by 45 percent of Americans, unfavorably by 34 percent. That’s a shift toward the positive since just before his election as Speaker. In October, 37 percent had a positive impression of the congressman from Wisconsin, 31 percent an unfavorable view. That uptick comes mostly among Democrats (from 15 percent favorable to 34 percent now) and independents (from 37 percent favorable to 45 percent now).
What makes Ryan unique and attractive is that he has a lot of the qualities of my old boss, former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Ryan isn’t afraid of doing the work of legislating that many politicians find tedious, unglamorous and, quite frankly, boring. Ryan’s brand of results-oriented conservatism and his ability to describe the American Dream in aspirational and specific terms, rather than offering vague or banal sentimentality, connects with everyday people who are struggling and want to believe their future, and their children’s future, can be brighter.
Of course, the full story is more complicated. There are deeper cultural trends at play, such as the growing ideological polarization of the public combined with a decline in traditional belief systems. People are searching for explanations and find the status quo unsettling.
What is crystal clear is this unease isn’t so much blind outrage or conspiratorial fear as an enlightened angst about real and practical material challenges.
Democrats, and the Obama administration especially, look at this problem and say the answer is better messaging. If people only understood Obamacare and our recovery they’d be happier, they argue. They also argue it’s the fault of the rich — the despised 1 percent. But this argument breaks down when the face of the 1 percent, Apple CEO Tim Cook, describes the Democrats’ core message as “total political crap.”
Republicans should argue that the answer isn’t better messaging but better policies that will improve people’s material circumstances, which includes their economic safety and physical safety from terror attacks.
The candidate who gets that right and emphasizes solutions will be will on his or her way to being our next president.
John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.