I was struck recently by a kind of irony in the fact that the month of November is framed by election day on one end and Thanksgiving on the other. This year it seems like voters were swayed more by anger and frustration than by hope and gratitude, but I don’t think this year is particularly exceptional. The results of the recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and various localities fit a historic pattern of midterm losses for a new administration. I suppose it hit me this year especially because Pres. Biden’s approval ratings have taken such a heavy hit.
What makes voters so grumpy? Part of it clearly is that politicians overpromise in order to win elections, and inevitably they can’t deliver on all of it when they take office. In a sense, every campaign sets itself up for failure and leaves people feeling disillusioned. They end up expecting everything and nothing of the government all at the same time. Americans want limited government and then get fed up when government can’t solve their problems.
A few problems currently stand out for their role in getting voters bent out of shape, and none has a ready political solution. First, parents are upset about schools. My former employer adopted the catchphrase “A Life Transformed,” and I have wondered if that is what people really want from education. You can try to limit schooling to instruction in some useful skills, but the truth is that if people become genuinely educated, it changes them in ways that are unsettling and can challenge outdated notions. That is progress.
Voters are also angry about mask mandates, and at the same time they’re upset about schools shutting down when outbreaks of COVID-19 occur. The key to solving that problem is obviously not political. Just get the damn vaccine.
The other big grievance that is riling the political waters right now is inflation. It’s a legitimate concern, but people always overestimate the power of the government to fix the economy. Inflation is currently being driven by both supply and demand factors. Supply chains were disrupted as a result of the pandemic, and the problem is exacerbated by corporate practices that tried to hold down costs by maintaining low inventories of vital components. We can expect that will get sorted out at some point.
At the same time, people have money to spend, and that is driving up demand. Overall, that is good news and speaks to the economy’s relatively quick recovery from the pandemic-induced recession. Unemployment has come down dramatically, and worker shortages have driven up wages for some of the lowest paying jobs. One could argue that the government was overly generous in extending relief, but that aid was a tremendous help to a lot of families. I doubt that many voters upset about inflation wish now that they hadn’t gotten that money.
The inflation we’re experiencing could be and should be a temporary blip, but there is a psychological component to it as well. If people come to expect inflation, they act to give themselves a cushion, and the expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy setting off an inflationary spiral.
So cheer up, people. Hey, it’s Thanksgiving time, so count your blessings. If you plan to gather with family, be thankful for the science that made vaccines available so quickly. And remember our regional motto: Things could be worse. Donald Trump could still be president.