In informal encounters with regular folks, the "everyday" Americans Hillary Clinton says she is running for, I gained the impression that there is an issue on their minds which no political leader is addressing. It seems that many Americans are anxious about their economic futures, a generalized anxiety that goes beyond being concerned about one or another facet of their lives. I found a leading pollster, Anna Greenberg, and with the help of her and her organization, I checked my impression.
Here is what we found: the majority of Americans indeed experience an acute sense of economic anxiety. Americans are most concerned that Social Security will not be there when they retire. They also fear that they will not have enough money of their own when their working days are over. Indeed, even for now, the majority feels it may not have enough money to pay the bills and -- that they may lose their jobs. A majority also is concerned it will be unable to afford health insurance.
Economic anxiety cuts across party lines and speaks to people of all camps. The small differences in the anxiety score support this conclusion: the mean score is 6.7 for Democrats, 6.6 for Independents and 6.4 for Republicans. Compare this to inequality: a 2014 poll found 90 percent of Democrats favor government action to reduce inequality, compared to 69 percent of Independents and 45 percent of Republicans. Moreover, to reduce poverty, a majority of Democrats favored higher taxes and expanded programs for the poor, while a majority of Republicans favored lower taxes to encourage investment and growth.
In contrast, our political leaders often speak in very general terms and address more policy wonks than the people I met and polled. Thus, typically President Obama calls for "growing the middle class", for increasing investment in infrastructure and in education. I wonder if the term "infrastructure" speaks to many Americans. And if they are as concerned about the bridges, roads, and pipelines as they are about their homes, jobs, and retirement? And if they are -- do they realize the trillion dollars or so it would take just to bring the infrastructure up to date after decades of neglect? As for education, surely all parents, grandparents, and young people are concerned about it and their fellow citizens. However, after decades of repeated promises to reform schools, do most Americans believe that now, this time, we will finally find a handle on this vexing problem?
Hillary Clinton, we read, "has not yet settled on a specific platform" but she is expected to embrace several principles. "They include standard Democratic initiatives like raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure, closing corporate tax loopholes and cutting taxes for the middle class. Other ideas are newer, such as providing incentives to corporations to increase profit-sharing with employees and changing labor laws to give workers more collective bargaining power." Sounds fine to me, but it may seem well too wonkish and abstract to the anxious majority.
Republican candidates do not seem to be immune, at least in this stage of the campaign, to talking in vague generalizations and seeking to please wonks rather than anxious people. Thus Jeb Bush told The New York Times that "working-class Americans would benefit from simplifying the tax code, overhauling immigration, embracing the country's new energy sources, and improving the education system."
To be fair: if one combs carefully through the many speeches and press releases made by Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and others, one can find statements that echo the oppressive economic anxiety that the majority of Americans experience. However, no party and no candidates seem to raise this issue as a major concern of their campaign and above all, none has offered a credible set of solutions in terms accessible to most voters. Stay tuned.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of The New Normal: Finding a Balance between Individual Rights and the Common Good. For more information, you can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For more details about the study cited, please visit: www.icps.gwu.edu