The presidential race has been dominated by two men of very different extremes: Donald Trump, the controversial billionaire and Republican front-runner, and Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who is posing a greater challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination than many pundits ever predicted. Both men are surprise packages in their own right, but beyond their outsider status there seems to be little that unites the pair.
Yet, a surge in popularity for politicians from the more far-flung regions of the political spectrum is by no means surprising. Why? Well, the United States is exiting a period of sluggish economic downturn. The effects of the so-called Great Recession of 2008 are still resonating across the country. Real household incomes are yet to recover, jobs are being created with lower wages than previously existing jobs, and the pace of job growth has slowed significantly in the past year. In fact, the percentage of the employable population who are actually working is nearing its lowest point since 1980.
All of which has led to the economy, or, more accurately, the lowly state of it, becoming a focal point on the 2016 campaign trail. In an interview with Fox Business network, GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina suggested that “the underlying fundamentals of the U.S. economy are not that strong.” She went on to describe how “2 percent growth is pretty lackluster.” On the opposite side, Bernie Sanders voiced his belief this week that the “American economy is hanging in the balance."
So, how does this relate to the surge in popularity for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? In short, the strength, or, in this instance, weakness of the economy can directly influence the political leanings of an electorate and move them to more radical positions. It is these positions for which Trump and Sanders are currently serving as figureheads: Trump for the Republicans, who are looking to move further right, and Sanders for the Democrats, who are looking to move further left.
The correlation between economic downturn and shifting political sentiment was examined by political sociologists Jeff Manza of Northwestern University and Clem Brooks of Indiana University. They conducted a comprehensive study of political opinion shifts during the Great Recession titled “A Broken Public? Americans’ Responses to the Great Recession.” It concluded that the recession has intensified the differences in policy attitudes of self-identified Republicans and Democrats.
“For several decades now, the Democratic and Republican parties have become more and more distinct when it comes to the laws and policies that U.S. Senators, Representatives, and Presidents support,” Brooks said. “These developments are the background to the importance of voter-level partisanship that we have unearthed during the recent recession.” That is to say, the recession has fueled a widening ideological gap between the two parties and their support base. In the midst of a sluggish economy, the center ground is weakening and voters are looking for more extreme solutions – enter Trump and Sanders.
I spoke to the world-famous professor Noam Chomsky about this phenomenon, and asked: Do you think that an economic downturn can benefit politicians with more extreme views? And if so, how? He confirmed that this is by no means an unusual occurrence, and offered me one of the clearest historical examples of a recession shifting political sentiment to the outer fringes.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “Nazi Germany is an example. In 1928, the Nazis got less than 3 percent of the vote. Then the economic crash came along, and a few years later they swept to victory.” Elaborating as to why this happens, Chomsky described how “economic downturn naturally undermines the credibility of existing institutions. Of course, these institutions may already be weak, for understandable reasons.”
By “existing institutions,” Chomsky is referring to systems of government, including political parties and figures, as well as the financial and legal infrastructure that make up a country.
With this in mind, when a severe economic downturn such as that of 2008 comes along it is only natural that voters will look for explanations as well as somewhere to direct their anger. Moreover, given that the political census and status quo has seemingly failed to protect them, they will also look to a more radical form of politics to help escape the recession and safeguard them against any repeat occurrences. This is why the rhetoric of Sanders and Trump is appealing to far more voters than many expected at present. The “existing institutions” that Chomsky referenced have let many Americans down.
And make no mistake, these two men are willing to seize on every ounce of this discontent. Take Sanders, who has sought to convert the widespread distrust in the financial sector post-2008 into votes by arguing that the middle classes are “still suffering from the tremendous damage huge financial institutions and insurance companies did to them in 2008.” His attacks on Wall Street have been unrelenting, and his website states that “Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial instruments while expecting the public to bail it out.” He goes even further by claiming that “It is time to break up the largest financial institutions in the country.” All of this is a smart way of exploiting a lack of faith in existing institutions, and it is only helped by the economy’s lethargic recovery.
Donald Trump, albeit in a different way, is benefitting from the same phenomenon. This week he took aim at the markets and used the public’s fear of a further crash to push his own campaign. He tweeted: “Markets are crashing - all caused by poor planning and allowing China and Asia to dictate the agenda. This could get very messy! Vote Trump.” He followed this up by tweeting, “When people start losing their savings & home value, they will be begging Trump to fix the economy.” All this really says, given that he offers vague solutions at best, is that he will improve America’s economy somehow. This is a message that is resonating with a great deal of people in a time of economic uncertainty.
It is self-evident, then, that both Trump and Sanders are using both the recession and a widespread distrust in existing institutions to benefit their own campaigns. A poll from the Wall Street Journal shows that this is wise, given that “71% of adults think the country is on the wrong track” and “60% believe the U.S. is in a state of decline.” This shows that there is an appetite for the more radical politics of these candidates from an American public who are looking for solutions that the status quo has not offered them. Until it does, the two outsiders may continue to prosper.