With many Americans voting for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, we've been treated to millions of words worth of takes about the strands of populist discontent that fuel anti-establishment politics. Still, the fact remains that most people aren't voting in the primaries. And most of the Democrats who are voting are voting for Hillary Clinton. And most of the Republicans who are voting aren't voting for Trump. And every poll shows Clinton beating Trump head-to-head.
How to explain this paradoxical result whereby mass discontent with the economy will lead to a reaffirmation of establishment control?
John Sides offers one provocative theory — maybe most people aren't really upset.
He sites the long-term data from the University of Michigan's Index of Consumer Sentiment, which is a nice instrument because it's relevant to politics without being directly about politics, and it turns out that people feel okay about the economy (I've added a horizontal line to allow for easy visual comparison).
This paints a kind of banal picture of the public's view of things.
These are not the best of times. People feel gloomier than they did during the sustained boom of the 1960s or the go-go growth of the late-'90s. But they feel much better than they did during the Great Recession or the first couple of years after it.
By historical standards, this is the kind of public sentiment that has almost always led to the incumbent party retaining power. The exception was 1968, when people had a lot of non-economic complaints with the Johnson administration.
There are certainly other public opinion indicators out there that indicate a more restive public (the right track/wrong track numbers come to mind), but the overall political system actually seems to be trending toward a complacent outcome, which is exactly what the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index suggests we should expect.
Obviously an average is an average (it is worth noting that the positive trend is evident for all income groups), and in a big country you can still have enormous pockets of anger and discontent alongside an overall atmosphere of placidity. In most domains that aren't politics, attracting a passionate minority following is a perfectly good business strategy. It's a great way to secure ratings for a television show, for example, whether it's The Apprentice or The Sean Hannity Show. But in politics you need a majority, and it doesn't seem to be the case that the majority is feeling some historically anomalous level of economic discontent.