Below the fold you will find what I had to say about the election before the election. This excerpt comes from a paper I wrote for a conference about the Obama presidency; the papers were due October 28. In the New York Times story about the conference, you will read that “the overwhelmingly liberal group” were, in the main, blindsided by Trump’s victory, shouting “Get me rewrite!” As you will see, I wasn’t one of those, and I generally stick by what I had to say, though it is, as a draft, a little rough.
The slow recovery put Obama’s legacy at political risk. For decades, political scientists had been modeling the effect of economic performance on US elections. The longest established and highly reliable such predictor was Ray Fair, whose equation took into account a series of variables including economic good news. In the waning weeks of the 2016 presidential election, the Fair model, largely influenced by the paucity of good economic news, predicted the Democrats would narrowly lose the presidency. Challenged on the validity of his predictions, Fair wrote, “If one assumes that the empirical regularities gleaned from the past 25 elections, as reflected in the coefficient estimates, hold for this election, one would conclude that the Democrats’ chances are quite poor.” Fair conceded the possibility that “people who would otherwise vote for the Republicans because of the sluggish economy and a desire for change will vote for the Democrats because of Donald Trump’s characteristics that they don’t like.” But it was impossible to say in advance of the November 8 canvass.
If the economists were right that a bigger and better stimulus would have produced a faster economic recovery with more widespread prosperity, and the political scientists were right that lackluster economic performance gave Republicans favorable odds of taking the White House in 2016, then Obama’s decision to de-emphasize stimulus in favor of pressing for health insurance reform was a gamble of immense, if unknowable, magnitude and consequence. The opportunity to craft the largest missing piece in the ramshackle American welfare state was surely unique. But for the adoption of healthcare reform to prove meaningful to American lives in the long term, the new program would have to remain in place, and indeed be improved in later years. The Obama health insurance reform narrowly survived a legal challenge in the Supreme Court in 2015, and its further survival would depend on the election of Democrats to defend it in Congress and to nominate and confirm judges and justices likewise willing to uphold it. The parlous recovery made the election of such Democrats uncertain indeed and even at the end of Obama’s presidency it was unclear whether he had won that gamble owing in large measure to the dramatically changed character of the Republican Party in 2016.
It is possible the political effects of the weak turnaround were not limited to Obama’s legacy, Democratic electoral chances, or the future of reformed health insurance provision; they may have extended to the legitimacy of the US political system itself. The effects of a slow and sputtering recovery after such a hopeful start would have been predicted—indeed, were predicted—by Franklin Roosevelt. Considering the despairing mood of the nation in 1932, he thought it no surprise that Americans had staged no revolution. But with the promise of a New Deal, he had raised hope—and “disappointed hope, rather than despair, creates revolutions.… Now there was hope and he knew he must not preside over more disappointment,” his aide Rexford Tugwell recalled. A twenty-first century study confirmed Roosevelt’s intuition. Examining the economic and political fortunes of twenty-eight countries between the world wars, the economic historians Alan de Bromhead, Barry Eichengreen, and Kevin H. O’Rourke found that “when economic bad news continues beyond a certain period of time and negative expectations become firmly entrenched, some people reach for extreme solutions.” As the limping recoveries of the interwar period extended into a period of years, it became ever more likely that these conditions would lend strength to fascist parties whose leaders and constituents did not want merely to govern existing institutions, but to destroy them.
The disappointments that followed the brief moment of hope in 2009 yielded similar boosts to right-wing parties and movements in many nations. Five years onward, in the European Parliamentary elections of 2014, the National Front of France increased its share of the vote from 6.3 to 24.9 percent, the UK Independence Party likewise rose from 16.5 to 26.8 percent, and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs went from 12.7 to 19.7 percent. British voters in the throes of nationalist enthusiasms and angered at the effects of austerity on their institutions chose to depart the European Union, or “Brexit,” in 2016.
The US has an institutional bias against minor parties, but taking account of that constraint, the political effects of the weak recovery looked similar. Trump gained the Republican nomination and Trumpism—a mix of nationalism, nativism, and contempt for Constitutional limits and parliamentary norms, among other resentments—gained a purchase on the Republican Party.
As the worldwide trends of the twenty-first century indicate, economic malaises and rightward shift cannot owe solely to decisions made in the Obama White House or even within the United States. These trends owe to a decades-long effort to discredit Keynesianism and the New Deal in favor of leaner budgets, lower taxes, and fewer public services. But it is worth noting that in the 1930s, the US diverged from a global trend toward right-wing extremism owing in large measure to the rapid and visible successes of the New Deal. In the years after the 2008 crash, it did not.