It’s another election year, this time with a good economy and an unpopular president. What will matter more? Hint: it won’t be the economy, stupid.
Are you old enough to remember the sixties? Those of us who are, and many who aren’t, think of the sixties as a time of turmoil and disruption: tragic assassinations, racial violence, campus protests, an intensely controversial war. What they don’t remember is that the sixties were an economic boom decade – 106 consecutive months of economic expansion, the second longest U.S. expansion since World War II. Only the expansion of the 1990s, at 120 months, was longer.
The 1960s were the decade when the deep divisions in American politics first emerged. One the one side, we saw the initial stirrings of political consciousness among African Americans, women, gays, immigrants and young people. On the other side, we saw a fierce backlash to the New America in the Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and George Wallace campaigns. The economy might have been booming, but America was not a happy place.
And now? The economy is once again doing well – 87 straight months of job growth -- but America is still not a happy place. When Americans are asked whether the country is doing well or poorly, the latest figures show a roughly 50-50 split. Neither a boom nor a bust.
The economy has to be really good (like 1996) or really bad (like 2008) to override all other issues. In an in-between year like now, other issues matter more. This year, one issue dominates everything. It’s not the economy. It’s Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s unpopularity clearly drove Democratic gains in last year’s elections. Democrats and liberals are enraged by Trump. He has contempt for their most cherished values: diversity and inclusion, which he derides as political correctness. They are thrilled to hear Michael Wolff, author of the sensational new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, argue that ``one hundred percent of the people around [President Trump] . . . question his intelligence and fitness for office.’’ Democrats and liberals are determined to do to Trump the same thing Trump is trying to do to Barack Obama: erase him from history.
But the anti-Trump backlash goes way beyond Democrats and liberals. The Republican Party is hemorrhaging affluent suburban voters – formerly the most reliable Republican supporters. Fairfax County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., is one of the largest and most affluent suburban counties in the U.S. The Republican candidate for governor got just 31 percent of the vote there in November.
For years now, an interesting pattern has been developing among American voters. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. The better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was the Prince of Wealth. Barack Obama was the Prince of Education.
What happens to voters who are both wealthy and well educated? They are what sociologists call ``cross-pressured.’’ If they vote their conservative economic interests, they vote Republican. If they vote their progressive cultural values, they vote Democratic. President Trump’s know-nothing politics clearly offends educated voters. In the December CNN poll, nearly two thirds of white college graduates said they disapproved of Donald Trump’s job as president. The Republican tax bill that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Trump last month was a play to win those voters back by appealing to their economic interests.
Trump also has a serious problem with women voters. His job approval rating with women last month was 67 percent negative, compared to 50 percent negative among men. Call it the ``me too’’ effect. The surge of anger among women over sexual harassment has not only raised women’s consciousness. It has also heightened their resentment of President Trump, who faces accusations of sexual misconduct and has used sexually derogatory language about women. ``Have you ever heard of a stupider and trashier man than the president of the United States?’’ a professional woman in Texas was quoted as asking in the New York Times.
The political division of the country didn’t start with Trump. It goes back more than fifty years. Trump got elected by exploiting it. Unlike the four presidents before him -- two Bushes, Clinton and Obama – Trump never pretended to be a healer. He thrives on confrontation. He picks fights with everybody – Democrats, Republicans, former White House staff members, the press, erstwhile allies like Pakistan. He’s the divider-in-chief.
Trump puts the entire country, if not the entire world, on edge with his insults and inflammatory language. His base loves it. They’re always spoiling for a fight. ``I don’t know how you stop Donald Trump from putting people on edge,’’ Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant, told the Los Angeles Times. ``That’s what he does.’’ Most voters just want it to stop.
In the words of the great Aimee Mann song, ``It’s not going to stop . . . till you wise up.’’ This year’s election gives Americans the opportunity to say, ``We’ve wised up. And we can make it stop.’’