Many pundits have expressed surprise at the 2016 presidential election thus far—from the fervor of Donald Trump supporters to the casting aside of traditional nominees like yesterday’s news.
To Michael Stephen Pendleton, associate professor of political science, this election season may be unusual, but it isn’t a big surprise.
Pendleton has taught economics and finance, along with political science, during his almost 40-year academic career. Through this lens, he pointed to longtime economic factors that have created the perfect storm to fuel populist-driven campaigns in both parties. Voter anger over unemployment, underemployment, and the shrinking of the middle class has bolstered support for two outsider candidates. While Trump and Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders tout vastly different ideologies, they both have railed against free-trade policies they say have decimated the American workforce.
“Until now, both parties seems to have bought into the notion that international trade will lead to better lives, thinking that the job gains will cancel out the losses,” Pendleton said. “But quite a few Americans will not live long enough to experience any gains.”
The exportation of blue-collar jobs goes back several decades, Pendleton said, pointing to former President Ronald Reagan who spearheaded deindustrialization that resulted in investments flowing away from manufacturing.
“Between World War II and the early 1970s, our country experienced the biggest increase in equality and a better distribution of income,” he said. “Public policies of the 1970s and 1980s began to reverse that, and it’s only gotten worse.”
Over the past two decades, reams of white-collar jobs also have disappeared.
“The prosperity that this country experienced under Bill Clinton had a lot to do with the dot.com bubble, which of course, was not sustainable,” Pendleton said. “And then we had the collapse of the housing bubble.”
The housing crisis contributed to the Great Recession of 2008, which hit the country deeply. And despite talk of a recovery in 2009, millions of Americans are still struggling, he said.
“What affected non-white Americans for decades is now seeping into the white middle class and whites sees themselves as the victims,” Pendleton said. “Republicans have milked this sentiment for years. Now Trump is taking it to a new level.”
The resulting hatred, racism, and isolationism have been on full display at Trump rallies. But these sentiments have simmered for years, Pendleton said.
“When John McCain ran for president in 2008, he was shocked by the undercurrent of anger and hatred toward Obama at his rallies,” Pendleton said. “When the United States elected its first African-\ American president, it unleashed a wave of latent racism. Trump is saying the country is a disaster and he’s pointing at Obama.”
In recent weeks, Republican primary voters in most states have continued to support Trump. But Senator Ted Cruz of Texas delivered Utah, and Sanders, who trails former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Democratic delegates, won Idaho and Utah by a landslide, and on Saturday took the states of Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. Although Clinton has the inside advantage, Pendleton said, nothing is certain, and the primaries thus far prove it.
He recalled the Democratic National Convention in 1980 when many Democrats broke with frontrunner Jimmy Carter and tried to sway delegates to support Edward Kennedy. Although Carter ultimately won the Democratic nomination, it shook things up. And there is talk of a similar strategy by Republicans this election.
“I think there’s a last-ditch hope among some Republicans that they can get rid of Trump,” he said.
But if not?
“This presidential election could be the beginning of a new alignment for the country.”
About Michael Stephen Pendleton
After earning a doctor of arts degree from Idaho State University, Pendleton served one year as a visiting professor at Texas Tech University. He joined the Buffalo State political science faculty in 1979 and has chaired the department in the past. He also served as an associate professor of economics and finance for several years. His research interests include American politics, public policy, political parties, and economic history.
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