Op-Ed: The allure of the Republican Party is baffling. Voters will regret falling for it
American voters seem poised to hand the Republican Party control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate as well, in November’s midterm elections. The same goes for many state races, where polls show Republicans gaining ground.
Such an outcome could have profound consequences for American democracy, especially if it results in even greater degradation of the U.S. electoral system. Given the large number of 2020 election deniers running for offices in 2022 and the enormous power over how votes are cast and counted that victory would give them, this prospect is increasingly worrisome.
The Republicans’ likely midterm victory is baffling. The GOP is now dominated by an extremist faction whose prominent members claim (or have claimed) not only that former President Trump won the 2020 presidential election, but also that climate change is a hoax, COVID-19 is a conspiracy and former President Obama was not born in the United States. While many Republicans do not say such things (and many who do probably do not believe what they are saying), the Trumpian extremists are in charge.
To be sure, many elected Democrats, including some on the party’s far left, also make contentious statements. But they are far fewer and less prone to factual falsehoods. In any case, this election’s outcome — like most — will probably be determined by those who are neither die-hard Trump loyalists nor left-wing progressives. So, the question becomes, why would swing voters consider casting their ballots for the current version of the GOP?
The answer, of course, is that voters consider economic issues their top priority. They are far more concerned about surging prices than they are interested in conspiracy theories about past or future elections. Some voters seem to believe that Republican presidents have a better economic track record, and cite current high inflation and fears of recession as evidence that Democrats are mishandling the economy.
The actual historic economic record, however, is strikingly different from what people think. And, while the Biden administration has made some policy mistakes, the U.S. economy is currently strong. It is remarkable that so many Americans believe that the economy is in awful shape when the unemployment rate is at 3.5%. The last time unemployment was lower than that, in May 1969, the Beatles were still together. Similarly, there have been almost two job vacancies per unemployed worker over the past year, signaling the tightest labor market since records began in August 2007. Typically, this ratio would be lower than 1 to 1.
Even though the probability of a recession in 2023 or 2024 is higher than usual because of the Federal Reserve’s rapid interest-rate hikes, it is unlikely that the U.S. is already in one. Nor is it certain that a recession is imminent. Europe, on the other hand, is more likely to experience a severe slump, given that European economies are more vulnerable to energy prices than the U.S.
Nonetheless, voters are understandably angry about inflation. In September, the Consumer Price Index increased by 8.2% year on year. Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, was lower, at 6.6%. But this is of little comfort to Americans suffering sticker shock every time they go to the supermarket. The price of milk, for example, has increased by 30% since February 2020, to an average of $4.41 per gallon. It is no wonder that many voters fear a rerun of the Great Inflation of the 1970s and ’80s.
As prices rise, so should incomes. It may be surprising to learn that, in the aggregate, U.S. nominal income has kept up with prices. But wages are not rising as fast, and the share of U.S. income going to the top earners has been growing, as it has for more than 40 years. Rising inequality is not a new phenomenon, and economic disparities have worsened dramatically under Republican presidents, owing in part to tax cuts for the wealthy under Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump.
If voters were concerned about growing inequality, it would make more sense for them to support Democratic policies. Over the past few years, Democrats have extended Obamacare, thus increasing the number of Americans who have health insurance, and reduced drug prices through the Inflation Reduction Act. They have also tried (and so far failed) to close the carried-interest loophole, raise taxes on the rich and establish high-quality universal preschool.
Such policies will run into a brick wall if the party of Trump prevails in November. And yet, despite their hostility to most voters’ economic interests — and to democracy itself — the Republicans are still favored to win. That is inexplicable, and alarming.
Jeffrey Frankel is a professor of capital formation and growth at Harvard University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
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