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How the 2016 Election Killed the Golden Calf of Economic Growth

Thanks to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the metric for determining economic health has changed.

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

“These are thy Gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Such were the words with which the Israelites greeted the Golden Calf furnished by Aaron during Moses’s absence, as the prophet ascended Mount Sinai to converse with God. The proverbial Golden Calf is a fetish, a false idol, an irrational obsession that afflicts a community and blinds its members to more sober and realistic habits of mind. The story is a reminder that, whether or not God himself exists, humans will always create a god to prostrate themselves before.

It just so happens that the 2016 election has ushered in a rejection of a similar Golden Calf, a god that has been imagined as offering a panacea for fundamental social and political problems. That Golden Calf has been the idea that economic growth and a constantly expanding gross domestic product are the ultimate bellwethers for economic and social health. “It’s the economy, stupid.” Just make it grow and the rest will fix itself.

Looking back at past elections, there is something remarkably quaint and simplistic about the terms of exchange between Republican and Democratic candidates on the issue of the economy. Setting aside the culture wars, politicians were identified by their respective strategies towards achieving economic growth (or restoring it to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s), conceived as the expansion of the U.S. GDP and, by extension, the lowering of the headline unemployment rate.

But this has been an election in which the very language that has held together and circumscribed public debate since the 1980s has shown signs of dissolution and fragmentation. One of the most important developments of the 2016 cycle has been the challenge by counter-establishment forces against base assumptions of what makes a vibrant and equitable economy. Across left and right, we are witnessing the emergence of a new politics, a revolt against the growth fetish that has been propagated by the political leaders of the preceding decades.

Despite the fact that the United States’ GDP now exceeds pre-crisis levels by over $2 trillion, and the unemployment rate is at a post-recession low of 4.9 percent, a growing proportion of the American electorate is not impressed. Economic growth has returned, the voters have understood, but that has by no means correlated with an economic system that works for them.

Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign was propelled by different data: gaping income inequality, stagnant wages, the amount of growth siphoned off by the 1 percent, and the underemployment rate. Donald Trump’s campaign has partly been a cri de coeur against a neoliberal consensus that had favored trade deals at the expense of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Both candidates, using new economic criteria, brought new voters into the fold and have helped lay the foundation for an alternative way to determine whether the economy is doing what it should be doing.

Both parties have long had an obsession with growth, but they have had different strategies for achieving it. Until this election, these were perhaps the most recognizable political markers and talking points. A Republican wanted to realize economic growth, that silver bullet which would cure all domestic problems, through labor market liberalizations, a roll-back of regulations, supply-side tax cuts, and a de facto industrial policy of massive defense-related government expenditure.

For Democrats, the goal—economic growth at whatever the cost—was no different. The tools, however, were. Democrats have insisted that the federal government could—through infrastructure spending, a robust national education policy, and investments in emerging technologies—prepare Americans for the so-called “new economy.” In addition to strengthening the social safety net, the purpose of public policy was the creation of conditions for growth, coupled with the idea that the role of government was to ensure “equality of opportunity.” Liberals simply claimed that a more activist government would go further towards ensuring that growth than the retrenched, federalist state touted by Republicans.

In addition to appealing to white grievance, Trump’s success in courting disenfranchised Republican voters can be attributed to his willingness to concede that economic growth has failed them. Peel back the rhetorical layers of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform, and we see that for the white-working class voters supporting him, the abstract ideal of American “greatness,” at least partly, means security, protection, and stabilitya return to the idealized days of America’s manufacturing past. It’s a fantasy, but all fantasies are compelling. Who cares what the economists say are the best means to assure economic revival? They’re all a part of the very establishment that said the cure-all of growth would be achieved through free trade, loose immigration laws, and the offshoring of American jobs.

Indeed, Trumpism isn’t a strategy for economic growth at all. He’s abandoned the GOP’s traditional playbook, standing opposed to the perilous concepts of growth, transformation, and, above all, “creative destruction.” His actual proposals read like a supply-sider’s wildest dream, but his pitch to voters is couched in assurances that Medicare and Social Security will be protected and that they will get a “better deal” from rivals like China and Mexico. Growth, in Trump’s world, isn’t good in and of itself, especially if it hurts his downscale white base.

The real escape from the stranglehold of growth, however, was achieved on the left of the American political spectrum. Sanders’s discussion of a “rigged economy” was an effort to break free from New Democrat economic orthodoxy. We’ve had periods of “economic growth” over the past three decades, Sanders’s argument ran, but that hasn’t translated at all into a healthy economic life for the majority of Americans. Sanders also argued that this economic growth more often than not ran parallel with a relative decline in the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans.

Sanders’s shattering of the New Democratic model, which came on the heels of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoot movements, came at a fortuitous time for leftist Democratic politics. A deluge of academic research has confirmed that economic growth is not a reliable indicator of broad-based economic health. The greatest contribution to this field in recent years has been Thomas Piketty’s totemic work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which argued that over the last four decades the overwhelming majority of the population in the United States has witnessed a relative decline in income and standard of living—all while economic growth has continued apace.

Studies also show that the usual means of conferring broad-based growth—tax cuts and credits—aren’t as effective at fueling economic activity as programs that target those most in need of assistance. All of this was reflected in Sanders’s platform, which included a large transfer of wealth from the rich, an expansion of Social Security, a rise in minimum wage, guaranteed health care, free college, and big investments in infrastructure.

The tide has indeed risen since 1980, but many of the boats have taken on water. If general growth is no longer a barometer for economic health, Sanders’s campaign was the beginning of a search for new criteria.

Many critics, most notably Andrew Sullivan in his essay for New York magazine, adhere to the view that the present revolt against neoliberal economics is but the latest chapter in the hysterical nature of mass democratic life. This is in keeping with a long tradition in American politics that has seen populism, those revolts against politics as usual, as momentary, irrational flare-ups nourished by nostalgia in a changing world.

As chronicled by mid-century historians such as Richard Hofstadter, the populist revolt of the 1890s, spearheaded by firebrands like William Jennings Bryan, fed primarily off an idealized vision of the past, claiming to resurrect the myth of the independent “yeoman” farmer. It was the revolt of the artisan-craftsman against the satanic mill and factory. Hofstadter argued that populism could not be divorced from its dark cousin: the American “paranoid style,” which sees in the machinations of far-off bureaucrats the signs of a creeping conspiracy, and interprets the great consolidation of wealth endemic to industrial society as the greedy avarice of “economic royalists” or an aristocratic oligarchy.

Needless to say, some of these claims are the marks of a paranoid mind, while others are just plain empirical description. And to be sure, there’s much nostalgia in the current populist revolt, specifically on Trump’s side. But we’d be mistaken to see solely nostalgia and hysteria within the entire 2016 revolt. Populism can also be seen as a revolt from below over the quality of economic life and the meaning of work. As Hofstadter’s student, Christopher Lasch, argued, American populism offered a “producerist vision” of economic health, one that valued craft, sustainability, localism, and autonomy, as opposed to a corporate vision of inevitable exponential growth and industrialization.

It is in this tradition that we should place Sanders’s rise. Although to call Sanders a classic populist blurs his more social democratic heritage, he was in search throughout his campaign for a more producerist vision of economic health, geared for an advanced industrial society like our own. Sanders has made it excusable to mention the interests of workers, as opposed to that of growth and profit, when it comes to gauging economic health. His egalitarian vision has gone a long way towards expanding our collective vocabulary for considering economic life. And that vocabulary, in significant ways, has become embedded in the platform of the Democrat who defeated him in the primary and will likely occupy the Oval Office come 2017.