What we are witnessing in the 2016 election year is a lot of pent-up anger and frustration with the failure of the public sector (the federal government in particular) to acknowledge and address the worries of the average American citizen and now, like eight years ago, people are looking for a ‘fresh face’ promising to finally give them some satisfaction.
That is why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders get so much traction and following.
But are our malcontents barking up the wrong tree?
If you think about the things that our malcontents are upset about, it is not clear at all that a simple change of face at the White House can provide the desired relief. After all, Barack Obama was going to offer change that we could all believe in, but after two almost complete terms it is clear that not much of substance has changed. At least not in the plight of the average American citizen.
What is it that our malcontents are most upset about and fearful of? It may not be the same for everyone, but it will definitely include:
· The lack of income security combined with an ever increasing burden to pay taxes, medical and educational expenses and to save money for retirement, for children’s tuition and weddings and for elder care for parents; the money pool is shrinking and cost is inexorably rising.
· The anxiety about the increasing prevalence of addictions, obesity, depression and other mental disorders affecting their lives and the lives of their children.
· The widening gap between their living conditions and the affluence of the wealthiest Americans.
· Dissatisfaction with their elected representatives who promise the world but fail to deliver on their promises or hold political/ideological beliefs they don’t share.
The malcontents have yet to come to grips with the fact that the world has irreversibly changed as a result of technology driven global competition. They have good reason to feel let down by their government for not preparing them for the changed environment and for not offering them the cushioning effect of retraining and income support programs. So, they are suckers for anything and anyone offering them the nirvana of a better future. And for someone who promises to go after the perpetrators of their misfortune. Unfortunately they are almost certainly setting themselves up for another disappointment. The ancient Romans already had an expression for this phenomenon: “Mundus vult decipi, decipiatur ergo” which translates to “the world wants to be assuaged by deception, so let it be deceived”.
If the malcontents manage to challenge their furor into the election of a radically different, non-conventional, president of the United States—like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump would be— they are in for another huge let down. They fail to recognize that the problem is not with whoever happens to occupy the White House but with the intransigence of the American political system. Notwithstanding all the campaign promises, a new president can’t bring about a Wall Street revolution nor can he wave a magic wand that will make America great again by curing it of all the ills afflicting it today. Do we ever learn? With each transition from one presidency to the next, particularly when it shifts from one to the other party, comes the promise and the hope that things will fundamentally change, but all we ever get to experience is tinkering at the margin. What stands in the way of real change?
1. The US Constitution which has carefully crafted a balance of power between the three branches of government.
2. Two parties dividing congressional seats, as long as they have roughly equal support from the voting public.
3. The election system, including the frequency of elections, the terms for office holders, the electoral college and some archaic rules of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
4. The influence of money in politics.
Suppose for a moment that one of the ‘mavericks’ gets voted into the highest office of the land. How will he convince Congress (against the will of the special interests) to begin to roll back the income- and wealth inequality, to simplify the tax code and eliminate most if not all of the exemptions, to shore up the major entitlement programs, to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform plan, to provide relief for the exorbitant cost of healthcare and higher education and to deal with criminal justice reform? The other party, after missing out on control of the White House, will engage the help of the ‘money men’, and not allow the newcomer to steal the show.
There is nothing in the works to change the American political system as we know it. That has some merit, because it protects against an ideologically driven, authoritarian, push by a populist president. But it also stands in the way of badly needed policy adjustments that would put America back on the right track. All the demagoguery of the populist candidates in the election campaign to the contrary, the next president will not be able to do more, or better, than his predecessors unless the gridlock in Washington DC is broken by fundamental changes in the political system.
In the meantime it is alarming that the two populist candidates, as far apart ideologically as they and their parties appear to be, are fanning the flames of the anti-immigration and anti- free trade sentiment expressed by the malcontents who fail to see that import of talent and youth and free and fair global trade are crucial to growth and prosperity for future generations of Americans. In that respect too, the malcontents are barking up the wrong tree.