Economic scars help explain bizarre 2016 race

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The search for an explanation of this year’s bizarre political climate leads to a basic conclusion: The recession that started in 2007 and the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 scared and scarred the electorate more deeply and more permanently than has been recognized before.

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Yes, the economic statistics say there’s been a recovery—a relatively nice one at that. But mentally, many Americans have never recovered, and perhaps never will. The experience has altered their attitudes about the political and economic systems and their leaders, and left them willing to consider risky alternatives.

What the country is experiencing “is the difference between a car crash and having your house burn down,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “A car crash is something that fades as the three or six months mark goes by. Your house burning down is never forgotten. It is always there and there is no half-life.”

© Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

What’s new here isn’t that the recession was traumatic, of course, but a dawning realization that its psychological aftereffects have been so deep and long-lasting. Why is this becoming clear now, as opposed to four years ago, when an incumbent president was re-elected with relative ease? In 2012, Mr. Hart says, “Americans were still digging out.” Today, they have dug out, yet are still feeling a hangover the isn’t going away. They are acting accordingly.

This delayed effect explains how so many allegedly smart people failed so completely to see what was coming in the campaign of 2016. It explains the staying power of Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, the parallel struggles of Hillary Clinton there, the demise of a whole string of seemingly strong but completely conventional candidates on the Republican side, and, of course the mind-bending rise of Donald Trump.

Here’s one way of reading where we stand: The country hasn’t so much chosen Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton—assuming she survives her primary challenge—as the two best alternatives, but rather has found itself left with them at the end of a primary process in which other alternatives were cast aside.

The deeply negative views of these two suggest Americans still aren’t finding the answers they have been seeking. Mr. Trump’s attitude fits the times but his temperament isn’t really right; Mrs. Clinton is plenty competent but also represents a bit too much the times and the system Americans want to move beyond. The scars may not be fully healed in 2016 any more than they were in 2012.

There is data to support this mega explanation of 2016. Nominally the economy has been expanding for 6½ years, well above the average for a post-World War II recovery. The economy has added jobs for 74 straight months.

Yet the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found that Americans’ view of the path the country is on actually has turned darker as the economic recovery has unfolded. At the beginning of 2009, while the financial crisis was in full swing but tempered by the optimism that accompanied the coming inauguration of Barack Obama, 59% of Americans surveyed thought the country was off on the wrong track.

Two years into the recovery, views actually began to darken, at least as measured by this “wrong track” reading. By the middle of 2011, 67% said the country was off on the wrong track. By late 2013, that number had reached 78%. It has since moderated a bit, but last month stood at 70%.

A newly published survey of American households by the Federal Reserve helps explain this mix of anxiety and anger amid recovery. Some 69% of adults surveyed at the end of 2015 reported that they were either “living comfortably” or “doing OK,” up from 65% in 2014 and 62% in 2013. Americans were slightly more likely to say their financial well-being had improved during the year than to say it had declined.

Yet those numbers mask a sense of eroding confidence born of stagnant or declining wages and job insecurity. Just 23% said they expected their income to be higher in the coming year.  Almost half of adults said they couldn’t cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would have to cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

A Pew Research Center study offers a similar picture. At the beginning of this year, 70% of Americans were dissatisfied with the state of the economy, up from 61% at the beginning of 2007, before crisis struck.

Economic attitudes don’t fully explain the national unease, of course. Terror scares and culture wars play a part as well.

But whatever the precise causes, the depth of the scars, and the dissatisfaction with the alternatives, do little to suggest we should expect some feeling of satisfaction and national unity to emerge miraculously after the election of 2016, regardless of outcome.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at

Economic scars help explain bizarre 2016 race