In his last trip overseas as president, Barack Obama tried to explain to his foreign hosts the trends in American society that led to the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps, he said, voters just needed “to shake things up.” He said globalization and automation in the workplace have created economic dislocation and disrupted people’s lives.
He added that both Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into this discontent. “People are less certain of their national identities or their place in the world. It starts looking different and disorienting. And there is no doubt that has produced populist movements, both from the left and the right,” Mr. Obama stated. “That sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity. And that can be a volatile mix.”
He also said he was quite aware of the anger among Americans. Many of them blame their meager wage growth on the United States being too open to the world. “If the global economy is unresponsive to people who feel left behind, if inequality continues to grow, then we could end up seeing more and more of these divisions arise throughout advanced economies around the world,” he told Der Spiegel news reporters in Germany.
Voter anger was indeed a theme in the 2016 presidential race, much of it directed at the perceived effects of globalization – the flow of jobs overseas and a flow of migrants into the US. Trump promised to roll back globalization with tighter border security and a reworking of trade pacts. While globalization no doubt contributes to changes in the US economy, its effects can also be exaggerated, based on various economic studies.
One study of global data by the nonpartisan British think tank Resolution Foundation found incomes in Western developed economies have done relatively well compared with much of the rest of the world. Globalization was only one factor in the ill-distribution of wealth.
“Domestic policy is central to determining working people’s living standards, even in a globalized world. Changes to trade policy, even where desirable, are not a substitute for progressive taxes and benefits, fair wage policies and sufficient house building,” the study found.
This leaves the issue of whether voter anger during the campaign was justified. In a new book “Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice,” University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum argues that anger and the politics of blame are not necessary to the pursuit of justice if they are simply aimed at achieving payback. They can, in fact, be an impediment to the “generosity and empathy that help to construct a future of justice.”
She also writes that blame only divides people, creating villains rather than constructive solutions. Leaders should not turn feelings of helplessness into rage. “We need spiritual and emotional leaders who can get us to turn around and face the future in a spirit of openness to others, tolerance and constructive cooperation,” she wrote after the election.
Both Trump and Obama, as well as many leaders in Congress, have so far seemed to have left the anger of the presidential campaign behind. As Trump takes the reins of power, he may find globalization less of a target in his reform agenda. Solutions for the economy lie more in domestic policies such as worker reeducation and innovation research. The response to anger is not lashing out, but finding new opportunities for working Americans.