Gulf Shores James Carville’s quote in the Clinton campaign “war room,” that “it’s the economy, stupid!” will be in his obit. I’ve read one report that argued that Trump would be re-elected, regardless of his polling numbers and approval ratings, if growth was above 3% in 2020 before the election. The notion that economics drives politics has an almost ideological weight no matter what the form of government and whether in the USA and India or China and Russia. One could argue that in this area, inarguably, Marx was right.
What explains the support for radical, far right politicians and parties all around the world even when economies have improved? Some now argue it’s as much, if not more, about happiness and personal perspectives on well-being, as it is about economic security and expectations.
The Economist really took on this question. They started by referencing a study by George Ward of MIT, where he,
“…confirmed the political significance of happiness. He looked at what best explains the variation in the incumbents share of the vote in 15 European elections between 1973 and 2014. Life satisfaction, he found, was twice as important in explaining how incumbents did as the unemployment rate and about 30% more important than GDP growth. Ward also found that…almost half of those who were very satisfied with their lives said they would vote for the incumbent while less than a third of those who were not at all satisfied would. Research from America suggests that happiness has as big an effect on voting patterns … as education.”
Now that’s interesting. It aligns to some degree with the increased importance pollsters and pundits have placed on right track versus wrong track surveys of popular opinions about the direction of the country that are also decoupled from pure economics.
The Economist, being a conservative-leaning, business-supporting journal, is worried about this, especially in the face of one rightwing party after another in Europe and politicians like Trump and Ford in North America being elected despite improving economies. Additionally, they, and others like-minded, are confused that older people rather than becoming more settled and satisfied after reaching the age of 60, are raving mad and throwing their votes into this same radical fire.
They raise the distinction between “evaluative” versus “hedonic” happiness being important. Evaluative looks at how you view your life today. Hedonic responds to how you felt yesterday. Measures including the World Happiness Report see an upswing towards hedonic happiness confronting politicians that have always assumed evaluative happiness was the ticket to ride. Some US polling indicates that the results of basketball and football scores for favored teams can alter voting patterns in this way. In Switzerland, rain can throw governments under the bus.
Maybe this isn’t new, because the real deal may be how unhappy people feel when they feel things are getting better, but that they are being left behind, which is certainly part of what Trump is banking on. The Economist notes that would not be new. Seymour Martin Lipset noted the contradictory surge for the Ku Klux Klan during the boom times of the 1920s in the US. More contemporary work from economists in the Netherlands found growing support for the radical right in Europe from those feeling slighted.
Maybe it’s not enough for politicians to just line the pockets of the rich, and then for them to tweet and Instagram their good times. If looking differently at happiness makes politicians look at all of the folks left behind, not just the rightwing shouters, it would be a great thing for all of us on the bottom.