The revenge of unrealistic expectations

tags: election 2016, Trump

Robert J. Samuelson writes a weekly column on economics for The Washington Post.

It’s the revolution of rising expectations again. 

Watching Donald Trump last week, I thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political philosopher whose “Democracy in America,” published circa the 1830s, remains the most insightful study of our national character. But it was Tocqueville’s other masterpiece, “The Old Regime and the Revolution” (1856), that came foremost to mind. In it, he outlined what we now call the “revolution of rising expectations” — a concept highly relevant to today’s presidential campaign.

The French Revolution presented a paradox, Tocqueville wrote. Before the revolution, prosperity was on the rise; and yet, it wasn’t enough to prevent the revolution. Why? The answer, Tocqueville argued, was that the first taste of prosperity had whetted people’s appetites for more — and when these raised expectations were not met, there was a furious backlash. Existing ideas and institutions were discredited. There was a power vacuum. Change became chaos. 

Something similar is happening now. Our economic and political expectations were raised in the late 1990s — and then they were dashed. The resulting fears and discontents undermined the credibility and prestige of existing leaders and doctrines. There was (and is) an intellectual void that, in many ways, was tailor-made for “outsiders” — think especially Trump and Bernie Sanders — who rejected conventional analyses and offered their own solutions.

To be sure, the United States in 2016 is nowhere near the extreme breakdown of France in 1789. Still, broad parallels exist. Think back a couple of decades to 1996 or 1997. The economy and stock market were booming in what would become the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. The unemployment rate was below 5 percent. Elsewhere, America’s dominance seemed indisputable. In technology, we led in software and personal computers. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States was the sole superpower. ...

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