As the presidential campaign hobbles through its last dispiriting days, the central concerns of voters are getting lost amid the screech of scandal, real and invented. This election isn’t about Clinton’s “damned emails” or Trump’s Putin bromance. What’s really driving this election is a mounting populist anger that has roiled both parties.
These forces aren’t new, as John Judis notes in his book, The Populist Revolt. Trump’s angry voters were foreshadowed by the Tea Party, and earlier by Pat Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks” campaigns; Bernie Sanders stunning surge came after Occupy Wall Street. And they won’t go away when the last vote is cast this November. Sanders and allies are already driving reforms and running candidates at the local and state level. Trump’s legions will spark a civil war within the Republican Party, with some likely to self-organize into more threatening formations.
None of this is a revelation. Yet elite Washington still doesn’t get it. The establishment has still not acknowledged the scope of its failure. President Obama is rolling out his legacy tour, pointing with pride to the recovery from the Great Recession, 20 million more with health insurance, record months of private-sector job growth, low unemployment, and the first signs of wages’ beginning to inch upwards. America’s alliances, foreign-policy experts intone, continue to “keep the peace” across the world. Our global economic strategies are touted as vital to our prosperity. This is, the president assures us, the “greatest time to be alive.”
But most Americans aren’t in on the deal. They continue to struggle with stagnant incomes and economic insecurity. Entire communities have been devastated, with little relief. Banks got bailed out but not homeowners. For working and poor people, the basics—clean water, good roads, modern schools, affordable college and health care, secure retirements, decent housing—seem increasingly at risk or out of reach. America’s military may be the most powerful in the world, but we fight endless wars without victory.
Nothing exemplifies this disconnect between the establishment and ordinary Americans more than the astonishing plan of President Obama and the business lobby to cram the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal through the lame-duck Congress after the election. The United States has run trade deficits unprecedented in the annals of time. Our trade deals have cost jobs, undermined wages, and devastated communities. Defenders say they benefit the nation generally, and the winners could or should recompense the losers. But they never do. Instead, global corporations fix the rules to gain access to cheap labor abroad, while stashing their profits overseas to avoid paying the taxes they owe.