Is America in Decline?

There are a lot of political pundits and observers that are amazed by the success of the Trump campaign. I am not one of them. The reason why I am not surprised is the subtext that is defining the 2016 campaign. There is a very real perception that the U.S. is a county in decline. The Trump campaign has embraced this perception head on, and I argue performing well because of it. The campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” does not leave any doubt about the country’s perceived trajectory. Ben Carson, among others, has successfully channeled this narrative too, prefacing many statements by explicitly stating America is a county in crisis.

The notion that America is a currently county in crisis seems odd to me. A crisis was what was happening in late 2008, when the subprime mortgage bubble popped, banks were on the verge of going under, the automakers were bankrupt, and the American economy generally went into a tailspin. However, we’ve recovered a great deal. The bailout worked. The banks and automakers did not go under. The job market has recovered. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Obama administration has presided over 56 straight months of job growth—an all time record. The budget deficit has returned to sustainable levels as the country’s GDP has begun to pull out of recession. Moreover, as a result of the ACA, uninsured rates have dropped to an all-time low. There was a very real crisis in this country. It has since passed. Yet, Obama is relatively unpopular and people remain unsatisfied.   Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll reports that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the country is headed on the wrong track.

We are no longer in a crisis. We are in a malaise. The Obama administration managed to guide the country out of the storm. The problem is that nobody is satisfied with what we have found on the other side. For the most part, I think these perceptions are fair. It is hard for working and middle class people in this country. Real wages have stagnated. In many ways, things are harder for the current generation than it was for their parents. A college degree, the surefire path to a middle class lifestyle, has become increasingly expensive. We have returned to a status quo that no one is happy with.

On a personal level, I can completely understand why, and I am sure I am not atypical of people of my generation. I hold a PhD. My wife has two bachelors’ degrees. We both have a reasonable amount of student loan debt. We do not own a house. We have delayed having children. In many ways, these things still feel like unrealistic possibilities. Yet, we have fared better than most. Neither of us has lost a job. I was largely sheltered from the recession by graduate school. Our debts are manageable. But I also think my wife and I should be doing better than we are.

Personally, the question of whether the United States is in decline is a very real. It is a nagging question in the back of my mind. The notion that we have peaked and are now on the backslide has crept its way firmly into the American psyche and, as a result, into our politics. I suspect this undercurrent will not only characterize the 2016 elections, but most national elections for the foreseeable future.

This brings me back to Mr. Trump. Those who know me know that I have found the Trump candidacy endlessly entertaining. He is a buffoon, a charlatan, and a misogynist. He offers more insults than policy positions. Yet, he is attracting support, and a lot of it. Trump hit a raw nerve, and quite brilliantly I might add. Trump is succeeding because he has tapped into the sentiment that we are country in decline and he is making mainstream candidates look impotent in comparison. It is hard for candidates like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton to oppose Trump since they are effectively defending (slightly different) versions of the very unpopular status quo. I think that some of Bernie Sanders appeal stems from being able to tap into this sentiment as well, just from a different direction.

People are upset, and justifiably so. However, unchecked populism—in all of its different manifestations—is a dangerous thing. Right now, people are looking for alternatives to the status quo, even if these alternatives come in the form of hucksters who offer absolutely no ideas of how to actually change course. Hopefully, cooler heads will eventually prevail.

Fortunately, Trump’s momentum will not continue indefinitely, and I actually think he has served an important purpose—he has explicitly stated what so many people, including myself, have been thinking. We can all agree that we want to end this malaise. The question is what to do about it? Unfortunately, I am not sure we have too many presidential candidates (and absolutely no legislative parties) offering serious answers, if such answers even exist.

About Joshua Zingher

Josh Zingher is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections, and representation.

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