At a time when so many Americans are so deeply divided on a bevy of issues, it can be difficult to come to a consensus on anything. However, I do believe that one area where we may all find consensus is that we are in the midst of major inflection point for the future of our country. This is not new, as every country much take inventory as time goes on.
However, the United States is currently posed with a far greater question, that is, what kind of country do we want to be? If you were to scan the current political scene, you would come to find a great wave of shortsighted populism arising on both the left and the right. But rather than lamenting the current state of our politics it is important to ask the question: How did we get here? I have spent a great deal of time trying to find an answer to this question, and the more I found, the more concerned I have become.
When Donald Trump was elected just over a year ago today, many supporters stated that they voted for him because he seemingly connected with them on middle class economic issues, as well as demonstrating a shared frustration with the status quo in Washington D.C. When looking into this, an interesting connection I came to find was the correlation between the decrease in social mobility (the chances of a child born into the working or middle class to be more prosperous than his or her parents) and the increase of economic populism. This is because we have neglected structural issues in our economy for years and years, and finally, it has all come home to roost.
In my opinion, much of this issue stems from an outdated educational system where students are consistently underperforming those in other first world countries. We have created a society in which there is no substitute for a college degree. Without a substitute for a college diploma, universities have been free to continually raise tuition and fees on the students they are supposed to be empowering. This is a part of a larger, scarier trend in our society. As you’ll see in the chart below, US consumer debt is quickly approaching 13 trillion dollars and shows no signs of slowing down (more on this soon). Interestingly enough, this comes at a point in history where traditional manufacturing jobs are becoming more and more likely to be outsourced.
A core group of our nation’s voting block, like coal miners, auto manufactures, steel workers and other blue collar workers are watching their chances of prosperity vanish. This is not because the US is “weak on trade”, but rather, because we are in the midst of an economic transformation where we are becoming more reliant on technology in lieu of manufacturing. This is a natural progression that should be welcomed at a time when we should be equipping high school students with technological skills, that will allow them to be competitive in today’s economy. Many politicians see middle class wage stagnation as a huge issue, and it is! The reason the middle class has been unable to become more prosperous is because they are stuck with outdated skillsets that place them in “low-demand” professions with no prospect for wage increases. An interesting point to make here, is that the US currently has 6.8 million unemployed workers and 6 million unfilled jobs. There is a reason for this, and it is because our workforce is not prepared for the next generation of jobs.
In fact, this is something that could have and should have been addressed 25 years ago. However, as we have seen, it is much easier to cut taxes, apply temporary relief, score a political win, and call it a day. Unfortunately, we have taken this approach at the expense of actually addressing the structural issues in our economy.
So of course there are frustrated people. Of course, when candidate Donald Trump promised to bring the jobs of yesteryear back, people were going to support him. However, any observer of long term trends will understand that no president can control the forces of a global economy, and it would be foolish to do so. Instead of solving the problem, we are perpetuating it by doing what we can to ward off the future, rather than embracing it.
Now, since we’ve established a general reason why wages have stagnated, we can now return to US household debt. This is a very important and troubling dynamic, the fact that American families must take on more and more debt in order to maintain their lifestyle. As this issue gets worse, and middle class families continue to feel the squeeze, the partisan politics will only get worse. People will only grow more angry at this outdated partisan duopoly in which neither side delivers results. Honestly, you cannot blame them, especially when their candidate for President claims he is going to slash their taxes, only to offer them roughly $60 dollars more per paycheck as wealthy real estate investors will be receiving millions in tax relief.
So, is this the beginning of a political ping pong game? Are we seeing a trend where disconcerted Trump voters will flip and begin supporting extreme left wing candidates who also play to their economic anxiety? Or, will a group of centrists come to the middle and find a platform that works. Every facet of our politics is unsustainable, and while it is easy to listen to fanatics on both sides call for more extreme policies, now is the time for like minded centrist activists to take the reins.
Alex is a political consultant and lobbyist at Floridian Partners. He is also the creator of We Are Generation Why. For more of his work, visit: www.wearegenerationwhy.org.