By Susan Milligan and Tim Smart
For an American populace that has been hit with bad news after bad news, the inflation numbers reported this week were a particularly painful gut punch. Prices for goods are up 9.1% from a year ago – more even than the dire predictions of economists and the fastest pace since late 1981. Gas prices have dropped steadily but are still high. An anxious electorate looked to President Joe Biden to do something, but all he could promise was to let the Federal Reserve use interest rates to cool down the economy – something that has economists wringing their hands about a recession that could well result from a hike in interest rates.
While White House officials tried to soften the blow by pointing out the data is backward looking and reflects energy costs that have since fallen quite a bit, the optics and politics of inflation perhaps heading toward double digits was hard to avoid.
“Breaching a new round number, from 8 to over 9%, has a psychological impact on investors and business people,” says Peter C. Earle, research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “There’s visceral fear in the financial markets.”
If it were merely inflation, the American public and the leaders it has elected or hired might be able to weather the storm. But the news comes after a series of events, experts say, that have people feeling like so many things have spiraled out of control and that the people charged with addressing them can’t or won’t fix them.
Mass shootings already were becoming more common, on its face an upsetting trend. But the chilling video released this week – where law enforcement stood in a hallway, doing nothing (except using hand sanitizer) while a killer gunned down 19 children – had people wondering whether they could count on the very people hired to protect them.
The Jan. 6 hearings have revealed how very close the country came to experiencing a successful armed coup – along with grim warnings that it could still happen. Extreme weather events have damaged communities and raised anxiety over climate change, and with little concrete response from elected officials.
Women who support abortion rights suddenly felt like control over their very bodies was being taken away after the Supreme Court ruling undoing the Roe v Wade decision guaranteeing that right. And the Democratic president who supports abortion rights found himself with a limited playbook to keep abortion available where it is legal – frustrating activists who had hoped a Democratic-led government could help them.
The war in Ukraine has not only contributed to high gas prices and food supply shortages, but it has reminded America of the limits of its power, as Russian President Vladimir Putin practically taunts the West into war. Meanwhile, Putin has further embarrassed the United States – and damaged Biden’s standing among progressives – by imprisoning WNBA star Brittney Griner on what the State Department calls “wrongful detainment” for drug possession. Griner pleaded guilty for what she said was an unintentional act, but sports figures and progressives are publicly leaning on Biden to get her released.
And hanging over all of it is the most destabilizing factor of all: The pandemic, which while more under control than it was in 2020, lingers as an ongoing threat and draining an already emotionally and mentally exhausted public.
“For two and a half years, it has felt like – it’s just one more thing” after another, says psychologist Vaile Wright, senior director of the Office of Health Care Innovation at the American Psychological Association. An APA survey earlier this year found that 80% of Americans find inflation and the war in Ukraine a “significant source of stress” – more than people have felt under stress over any single issue in the 15 years the survey has been conducted.
It’s not just the long list of stress-making issues themselves but social media and ongoing apocalyptic news coverage that have put Americans in such a heightened state of anxiety, Wright says. have “We are not meant to live under this degree of fight or flight.”
Tony Fratto, a communications consultant who served as deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush, notes that the country has been through tumultuous times before, and come out intact. The ‘60s and early ‘70s – a time often cast as a historic era for civil rights and women’s rights – was also an era of three political assassinations, law enforcement killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State, the murders of three civil rights workers who were registering people to vote in the South, and a lengthy Vietnam War that divided the nation and claimed tens of thousands of American casualties.
In the ‘70s, inflation was high and gas shortages were bad enough to require rationing, with drivers allowed to buy gas only on alternate days.
But now, it all seems to be happening at once, Fratto says.
“It’s crazy. I want to believe that it’s not quite as bad,” but everything seems to be happening on an aggravated scale. Watergate was a traumatic event in American history, but the Jan. 6 insurrection “makes it look like a high school prank,” Fratto says.
Structurally, American politics aren’t as well-equipped to smooth things over, Fratto notes, with few genuine moderates in either party to craft compromises or build consensus. The American public – which in World War II willingly engaged in shared sacrifices, such as rationing – is now so politically polarized it can’t even agree that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.
Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine, likens the American electorate to a new parent, walking a baby back and forth in the kitchen at 3 a.m. and wondering if the child will ever go to sleep. It seems unrelenting, and the physical and emotional exhaustion obliterates any rational thought that, yes, eventually the problem will right itself.
“Even short-term things don’t feel short when you’re in the middle of them,” Fried says. “There’s a sense that things have just sort of spiraled.” And adding to the anxiety is a reduced faith in government to find solutions, adds Fried, author of a book on declining public faith in government.
Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 30s, but he still bests potential GOP rival Donald Trump in a head-to-head preview of 2024, according to a recent poll by The New York Times and Siena College, indicating Trump isn’t seen as a viable alternative to voters. Congress fares even worse: A YouGov poll earlier this month had the legislative branch’s approval rating at a dismal 15%.
The dismay goes all the way to America’s very system of government: The Times poll found that 58% of all voters say their system of government does not work and needs major reforms or a complete overhaul.
Young voters are pessimistic as well, says John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”
In the IOP’s spring poll, 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds believe “political involvement rarely has tangible results, 42% say their vote “doesn’t make a difference,” and well over half – 56% – agree that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
“They have very negative views about the efficacy of political engagement,” Della Volpe says. He adds, however, that a large number of people still say they will vote this fall. “Can people have a negative view about the efficacy of political engagement, yet still vote? As of today, I believe that is possible,” Della Volpe says.
For the moment, the burden falls largely on Biden, who is tasked with fixing America’s troubles even as he is at the whims of outside forces like the Supreme Court, Putin, global energy markets and a virus that seems determined to stick around.
“I’m the only president they got,” Biden said earlier this month, answering a question about whether he was the best messenger to fight for abortion rights while the courts and Congress fail to fulfill that progressive wish. With an electorate that is divided, dispirited and distrustful, his may be a lonely and losing fight.
For the moment, though, it’s the pocketbook issue of inflation that has Americans most concerned. And the last time things were this unsettling to consumers was 40 years ago.
“Many of us have never experienced this type of inflation,” says Rhea Thomas, senior economist at Wilmington Trust. “Consumer sentiment is at record lows and savings have come down so they have lost some of their firepower.”
And, with the midterms looming, an angry consumer could well turn out to be an angry voter.