What If Polling On The Economy Is Wrong Too? – It is one of the central tenets of Hopium that things in America are better than people understand. I explore this idea at length in my With Democrats, Things Get Betterpresentation. Bear with me as I offer an extended riff on the goodness of America as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday…..
Let’s start by reviewing some basic data:
- The unemployment rate has been hovering at post-WWII peacetime lows for the last 18 months, and we’ve had the highest number of job openings per unemployed persons in history; the uninsured rate is lower than its ever been; the Dow is more than 17 times higher today than it was in January, 1989; GDP growth has been averaging 3% over the past 3 years, a very strong clip; median wealth grew by 37% from 2020 to 2022; wages have been rising at very elevated levels as has new business formations; inflation was zero last month and the price of many items are lower than they were a year ago: our recovery from COVID has been better than any other advanced nation; median income in the US is among the highest in the world, and the gap between what workers make here and what they make in other advanced nations has grown in recent decades; in just the past few weeks, for the first time in history, 9 of the 10 most valuable companies in the world are American; this year America’s economy is likely to grow faster than China’s for the first time in decades.
- Violent crime here in the US is about half of what it was three decades ago. While crime did tick up a bit during COVID, most measures have started coming back down, and with the exception of mass shootings (a big exception) America is far safer today than it’s been in many decades. The crime rate of immigrants and undocumented immigrants is far lower than the rate for those born here in the US.
- President Biden has made the largest set of investments in renewable energy in American history, and the energy transition so necessary for our planet’s survival has accelerated dramatically in recent years. America is producing more of its own oil than any time in history, and is exporting more liquefied natural gas than ever before. The historic investments we’ve made in our infrastructure will drive our economy and employment for decades, while modernizing our electricity grid and making it easier for all Americans to get around.
- Around the world, life expectancy has exploded, extreme poverty has plummeted and more people have been living under a democracy than any time in human history. While there have been regional wars, there has not been a global war with mass causalities like WWI or WWII in 80 years. There has literally never been a better time to be alive and seek your dreams around the world than in the last few decades in all of human history.
America is not without problems. Life expectancy here in the US is not high enough – too many people are dying here too soon. There are too many mass shootings. Health care is too expensive here. Teen depression and the harms of social media are a serious problem. Inflation has been too high (but lower here than other G7 nations and coming down) and interest rates are also too high. And then there are all the problems MAGA has brought – stripping of fundamental rights common throughout the modern world, the threat to democracy, the rise of right wing militias, oligarchical economic policies, appeasement of hostile foreign powers working to undermine America….
But it’s my view that any fact-based sober analysis of America’s standing in the world, and our progress here at home, would suggest that we are doing really well, that things are better here. We are not diminished, or failing behind, but rather we are adapting to the big challenges of our time successfully. Others who look at the data agree. The Economist magazine recently featured a cover story called, Riding High – The Lessons from America’s Astonishing Economic Record. Noted commentator Fareed Zakaria did a remarkable CNN piece on America’s economic and geopolitical strength that you can find below – please watch.
“Well, Simon, that may all be true, but Americans don’t feel it, do they?” First, here at Hopium, I strive very hard to focus on what is true, what are objective facts, and keep these separate from feelings and understandings. It is critical in this poisoned information environment we find ourselves in that we fight hard to hold on to the idea that there are objective facts in the world, that there are things that are just true. That America is stronger and better today in my mind is one of things that is just true regardless of what people understand or believe at this moment.
Second, what if people actually do understand that things are pretty good here in America, but we just aren’t asking the questions properly? I’ve written about this idea before, that like the struggle with horse race polling to capture the current political moment, it’s very possible that the simplistic questions that are most often asked about the economy are not accurately capturing people’s sense of how things are going in their lives.
I am going to be spending much more time exploring this idea in the coming months but let’s consider three sets of data now:
First, the US government actually tracksa variety of well-being measures. In 2022, 95.9% of American adults in their survey said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. 95.9%. In other studies this report sites, asked in different ways, the data comes in the 70s. So broad life satisfaction asked in a variety of ways.
Second, the Conference Board does an annual survey of job satisfaction. In 2022 it was the highest the survey ever recorded:
Third, here’s some data I pulled from a recent Economist/YouGov weekly tracking poll of registered voters:
- Overall, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way things are going in your life today? Satisfied 64%, Dissatisfied 35%
- How happy would you say you are with your current job? Great deal/somewhat 80%, A little/not at all 19%.
- Do you consider yourself paid fairly or underpaid in your job? Paid fairly 56%, Underpaid 38%.
- Do you think your family income will increase or decrease in 2024? Increase 45%, stay the same 41%, decrease 15%.
Taken together this data suggests that Americans are largely happy with their lives, work and incomes; do not think things are going to get worse next year; and are not broadly unhappy with the way things are. In this data you cannot find the kind of broad dissatisfaction in America that one hears described in current political commentary.
To me that people are not actually broadly unhappy or discontented helps explain the election results of the past few years, which have been good ones for incumbents in both parties, and surprisingly good ones for the party in power, the Democratic Party. Governors are remarkably popular right now, and other than Joe Manchin, no incumbent Democratic Senator trails in polling. Democrats in the House also have meaningful approval and favorability advantages over House Republicans right now, which again points to a lack of a backlash against the party in power, the Democrats (think we all know why the public is down on Congressional Republicans).
But look at what happens in this same Economist/YouGov poll when you ask questions about the American economy more broadly:
- Do you think the economy is shrinking or growing? Growing 22%, staying the same 25%, shrinking 37%. Reality – The economy has grown at 3% on average under Biden, the highest for any President since Clinton. It grew 4.9% last quarter, one of the best growth rates in the last several decades.
- Are the number of jobs in the United States…. Increasing 42%, staying the same 36%, decreasing 22%. Reality – Under Biden 14m new jobs have been created, and we’ve had the fastest job growth rate of any President since WWII.
- How would you describe the current state of the American economy? Excellent/good 30%, fair/poor 64%. Reality – Strongest recovery in G7, fastest job growth perhaps ever, very strong GDP growth, inflation is way down, wage growth is very strong, deficit is way down from Trump…..
So only 22% know the economy is growing, 58% don’t know jobs are increasing, and 64% think the economy is fair/poor despite all these other measures of life, job and income satisfaction. Truly, what is going on here? This data suggests something tragic – that the American people have no idea what is happening in the country they live in; or put another way, what they do know is wrong, deeply wrong.
That people think things are bad when by many measures they aren’t helps explain Biden’s low approval right now. But it also speaks to something far more significant – the American people are being denied the opportunity to feel good about the country they live in, the progress we’ve made, the goodness and greatness of the American project. And when people believe a country is failing, they become open to more radical options – like MAGA, or Trump. It’s why I often talk about how one of our main goals here at Hopium is to give our fellow citizens permission to love their country again.
Yes, all of this is why we have to get loud, to become information warriors for democracy, to make the selling of the President’s accomplishments one of our highest priorities. Our goal in doing so isn’t just for Biden’s re-election, it’s to help reconnect the American people to the reality of what’s happening in the country they live in. Something, by the way, they inherently understand based on the data above.
Finally, and encouragingly, we know from research that when voters are informed about what the President has done, his numbers improve. Here’s the latest example of that kind of data. It’s a central reason I remain so optimistic about 2024 – Joe Biden is a good President, the country is better off, and we will have a very strong argument for re-election next year.
Six years ago, alarmed by Trump’s unrelenting talking down of America, I wrote an essay, The Case for Optimism: Rejecting Trump’s Poisonous Pessimism, which was my first extended meditation on what I’ve come to believe is a purposeful and pernicious strategy to make Americans feel bad about their country, their democracy, their leaders, their institutions and each other. I set up Hopium earlier this year to more directly challenge this political strategy, one that MAGA and its foreign and domestic allies have been using to lay the predicate for the ending of American democracy and the installation of a strong man/authoritarian into the White House.
Like victory gardens in WWII, all of us have a role to play in fighting against this torrent of negative sentiment that MAGA is pumping into our discourse every day. It’s why we need to be loud and proud; work our networks every day; counter their negative sentiment with positive sentiment; talk incessantly about the good works of Joe Biden, the Democrats and this great country; to, above all, give our fellow citizens the permission to love their country once again, something that Trump and MAGA are doing everything they can to take away from all of us.
Responding to their rancid nationalism with good ole fashioned American patriotism is how we win. It’s what we need to do, together, my friends, and what the good people of America deserve.
Loud and proud, people, loud and proud – Simon