I have been writing repeatedly about the devastating impact of the 2007-2008 recession triggered by the frauds committed by the financial sector. But I did not personally experience any hardship. This was because I had a job that was not affected by the crisis and was living in a home that was paid for a long time ago and was not trying to sell it. So while the city of Cleveland was hit hard by foreclosures that devastated entire neighborhoods, where I lived there was just a slight uptick in the number of houses for sale and that seems to have now returned to more normal levels.
American University historian Leonard Steinhorn says that my experience of the recession causing merely a ripple in my daily existence is shared by the political and media elite and that this could explain why they were taken by surprise by the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Perhaps the biggest story coming out of campaign 2016 is not the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but the fact that the media and political establishment never saw it coming. And the fact that they never saw it coming perfectly explains the rise of Sanders and Trump.
And here’s why: the economic and social wreckage wrought by the Great Recession of 2007-2009, which flat lined the lives and aspirations of so many, barely registered on the lifestyle Richter scale of media and political heavies.
Some of these elites may have seen their bull market portfolios or 401(k) plans dip, and for those trying to sell vacation homes they saw demand soften a bit. But as economic growth recovered so did their assets, and for the most part the recession to them was a talking point, a dinner party topic.
Not so for the vast majority of Americans. The recession’s economic pandemic may have caused the establishment only seasonal sniffles, but it has had an ongoing, debilitating, and personal impact on working and middle class Americans. And to young people raised to believe in a buoyant America and bigger future, a pinched economy is all they have known.
Those who owned homes saw their property values crater and with it the economic security embedded in the American Dream that homeownership used to represent. Eight years after the real estate bubble burst, thirteen out of every one-hundred homeowners remain seriously underwater on their mortgages, meaning that they owe a lot more than their homes are worth.
Americans have long looked to government to right this imbalance, but this time they see Washington bailing out those on top at the expense of everyone else. In a 2015 Pew survey, about seven in ten Americans said that government economic policies since the recession have helped large banks, financial institutions, corporations, and the wealthy — and have done little or nothing at all to help the middle class, small businesses, or those in poverty.
And politicians to their ironic credit confirm exactly what the American people are seeing: tone deaf Republicans who want to water down regulations on the financial industry and prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy – and tone deaf Democrats who claim to speak for working families but take millions in donations and speaking fees from the same Wall Street investment bankers whose recklessness helped create the crash.
What many Americans see is a go-along, get-along political culture that coddles the status quo establishment and holds no one responsible for the economic hardship the few visited upon the many.
So where do they turn for explanation and help? Enter Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
So as Americans were roaring a big cry of pain this past decade, few in the political and media hierarchy were hearing them. And when the roar got louder, the elites simply saw it as a reality TV show that was entertaining but not all that serious. Little did they realize that the roar was aimed directly at them.
This problem, of political and media elites having a palpable sense of things being wrong only when it affects members of their own narrow circle, is endemic. See how the treatment of drug abuse has shifted from a punitive “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality when it seemed to affect mainly poorer people and those of color, now has shifted to being viewed as an illness, a public health issue requiring more humane treatment when it started becoming a problem among affluent and white communities. Similarly, acceptance of the LGBT community has increased because many people have started to realize that their family members and friends are part of it.