Unprecedented Territory

Interview with Jody Jensen, head of the FTI-iASK Polanyi Center

“World Politics and Economics” asked Jody Jensen for an interview about the American social and economic situation regarding the next presidential election. Jody Jensen is the director of the Polányi Center at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Kőszeg, senior researcher at the Institute of Political Science of the Center for Social Sciences, and research director of the ISES Foundation, which operates as the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence. She is the director of the International Studies Master’s program at University of Pannonia Kőszeg Campus. She was awarded the Jean Monnet Chair for European Solidarity and Social Cohesion (ESSCO) for three years starting in the fall of 2016. She was the national and regional director of the Ashoka Foundation (a supporter of entrepreneurs in the service of social innovation). She regularly teaches abroad, and also takes part in the European Commission’s research application evaluation work.

World Politics: In the 2010s, American society was deeply divided. Is this division easing? We are not just talking about political differences, but also social differences and differences in thinking. Is there dialogue at the local level?

Jody Jensen: When President Joe Biden took office in 2020, he made it clear that he wanted to bridge the red and blue political divide in American society. A month before that 2020 election, the Pew Research Center reported that “eight-in-ten registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values,” and that “roughly nine-in-ten – again in both camps – worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States”.[1]

A recent Axios article uses Gallup polling to show that this divide is increasing and how deeply the divisions have increased since 2003 on core issues.[2] A summary analysis of the poll data shows that in 2003 there was an 11-point difference in the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who said immigration should be decreased; the gap in 2023 has become 40 points. As Democrats become increasingly concerned about global warming (from 70% to 87%), Republicans have become less worried over the past 20 years (from 40% to 35%). In the case of abortion rights being legal under any circumstance, the Democrats increased support by 27% in the past 20 years to reach 59% today; while the Republican support on this issue fell by 3% to 12%. On the important issue of gun control, Democratic support has reached 84%, while Republican support is 34%. These statistics reveal only a partial picture, but they reveal dramatic fractures between the two sides.

In socio-economic terms, the U.S. has experienced severe differentiation and increasing disparity over the past 20 years. The number of middle class adults has shrunk from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2021; the number of lower income adults has increased from 25% to 29%, and the number of upper income adults has increased from 14% to 21%.  Although overall incomes increased across the boards, the increasing economic gap over time has acutely contracted what once was the dominant middle class in America.[3]

Dialogue at the state and local levels reflects the political and socio-economic divides. It is increasingly clear from events and analyses that productive civil conversations on such topics as LGBTQ rights, school curriculum, abortion, gun legislation and voting rights have become increasingly divisive and sometimes violent. The media has covered this extensively. One example comes from the Tennessee House that voted to expel two out of three Democratic members (the two Black members) who led a vocal protest calling for gun law reforms. Another recent example shows a mayor of a suburb of metropolitan Atlanta shouting at a Black councilwoman during a city council meeting for asking “too many” questions. Although there are many community action groups (1,100 funded by Community Service Block Grants), they are mobilized primarily to combat racial injustice and poverty and do not reach the impact of promoting dialogue with a range of discordant political views on the myriad of issues.

 World Politics: Many analysts attribute the social divide to the decline of the working class, which they link to the spread of outsourcing and the so-called China effect. They argue that this is why economic activity has declined and why there is no viable economic and political vision. Is there a recovery in economic and business activity? Is there a positive economic and social vision in the deprived areas?

Jody Jensen: As shown above the middle class contraction is due in many cases to increased wealth distribution to the upper class and increasing economic inequality. About 300,000 potential U.S. jobs are outsourced to China annually; but the September 2023 Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nonfarm payroll employment rose by 336,000 in September 2023 alone with a monthly average increase of 300,000, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.8%. This off-sets the number of jobs outsourced to primarily China and India. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies states “Oddly, people who blame outsourcing as the problem have not explained why neither the policies of a liberal Democrat nor a conservative Republican increased manufacturing employment.” It continues: “The world financial system can be very counterintuitive. As noted, the United States has been running trade deficits for many years. For each year, the negative trade balance has been offset by positive balances of the other two components. Conversely, China runs trade surpluses that are offset by investing money in the United States (often buying government debt instruments). Without this outflow of capital, its currency would tend to rise in value, which would decrease exports and reduce employment.”[4]

The U.S. economy slowed at the beginning of 2023, but surprisingly, the latest data show that the U.S. economy grew dramatically in this past third quarter to 4.9%. There seems to be a misperception of the success of Biden economic plans and implementation on the side of consumers. Increased federal funding on infrastructure plans, federal, local as well as consumer spending, and exports also fueled the economic growth.[5]

One of the greatest challenges regarding economic and social integration in deprived areas is income inequality which has increased for the first time since 2011 according to the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau. The decline in real income at the bottom of the income distribution was attributed to increased income inequality as measured by the Gini index.[6]

In his new book, Poverty, by America,[7] Matthew Desmond, a Pulitzer Prize winning author reflects on why the U.S. poverty rate has not improved in 50 years. The five reasons he cites for the long stasis include: 1) Slow wage increases for the poorest Americans; 2) More government aid provided for the financially comfortable than the poorest (in 2020 $53 billion was directed to housing assistance for the needy; the same year, it provided $193 billion for homeowner subsidies); 3) 1 in 18 live in “deep poverty” that includes families of four living with less than $13,100 annually. In 2020, almost 18 million people in America lived in these conditions, including some 5 million children; 4) The racial wealth gap is as large as in the 1960s (in 2019, the median white household had a net worth of $188,200, compared with $24,100 for the median Black households); 5) Overdraft fees mostly paid by the poor. In 2019, Desmond found that the largest U.S. banks charged  $11.68 billion  in overdraft charges and 84% of those charges were covered by people with a balance of $350, in other words, “The poor were made to pay for their poverty,” Desmond wrote.[8] These are the structural, inbuilt causes and limitations implicit in the pervasive and persistent poverty in the U.S. and the lack of vision and action to remedy the situation.

World Politics: The issue of young people’s political empowerment, which is closely linked to their economic integration, is particularly important.  There is a lot of talk about expensive student loans and the crisis in universities in general. Statistics show that more and more people are choosing vocational training instead of university. What difficulties do young people face in integrating economically? What is their mental state? Are there federal or state programs to support them? What might be the impact of young voters in the 2024 presidential elections?

Jody Jensen: According to a Deloitte survey conducted in 2022 and 2023 around half of Generation Z and millennials are living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs. Over one third say that they feel stressed “all or most of the time,” and that “The country is waging a war against them”. Republicans are banning books, blocking gender-affirming care, and bringing back child labor. The Supreme Court has ruled against affirmative action and student loan cancellation. Since 2018, there have been over 150 school shootings across the country, and legislators have no good ideas on how to stop them. [9] The Executive Summary’s general conclusion stated that survey responses revealed how the disruptive events of the last few years have shaped their lives and views, and how they are deeply concerned about their futures.

A Stanford University student articulated a major issue for many of those interviewed related to economic security:Understanding both parties’ failures to respond to an unjust economy means deciphering the elite interests that undergird them, from individual billionaires to corporations. If we want anything close to an economy ‘that works for everyone,’ those interests will need to be dismantled—and that means giving back control of the economy to working people.”  But in addition to economic concerns, they emphasized climate change, the dangerous and sometimes violent political divisions the country faces, as well as threats to democracy and the existing social order in the U.S. that have become more extreme.  

Today, many families and young people are questioning the return on investment for higher education. It is true that more and more young people are choosing to pursue shorter term vocational training as oppose to the traditional 4-year university education. Enrollment in construction trades, for example, increased by 19.3% between 2021 and 2022, and in mechanics and repair trades by 11.5%.[10]  These courses are chosen, of course, because they are cheaper than becoming burdened by extensive loans required by a university education, and allow for quicker integration into the workforce. At the same time, the trades have become more competitive in terms of salary levels with university graduates. But having said that, there is still a considerable and growing income gap between adults with a bachelor’s degree and those with lower levels of education. According to Pew Research, in 2021, “about four-in-ten adults with at least a bachelor’s degree (39%) were in the upper-income tier, compared with 16% or less among those without a bachelor’s degree. The share of adults in the upper-income tier with at least a bachelor’s degree edged up from 1971 to 2021, while the share without a bachelor’s degree either edged down or held constant”[11]. The research reveals that only a bit more than half of the adults with some college education or a high school diploma were in the middle class in 2021, and the remainder, along with those with less than a high school diploma,  dropped dramatically in their middle class shares from 1971-2021 and entered the lower income brackets. Those with only a high school diploma (39%) have doubled their share in the lower income ranks since 1971.

In addition, it is worth noting that in 2021, the life expectancy for people without a bachelor’s degree was about 75, compared to 83 for those with a degree.[12]  Two prominent Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton argued that “The United States is failing its less-educated people, an awful condemnation of where the country is today,” and that their research found that Americans without college degrees are currently living about nine fewer years than people with higher education experience.[13]

Regarding student loan forgiveness, although President Joe Biden’s ambitious effort to cancel over $400 billion of student loan debt was struck down by the Supreme Court, according to CNN his administration has quietly managed to cancel $48 billion of debt by cleaning up, correcting and adjusting forgiveness plans that already existed.[14] Since taking office, they note, Biden has managed to discharge $127 billion for nearly 3.6 million people – more than any previous administration. But for many years student loan forgiveness programs have not worked as well as they were supposed to due to different kinds of “administrative failures.” While Biden may not get the sweeping student debt relief that he had hoped for, the efforts are still worthwhile and “illustrate how insufficient it is for a social service merely to exist, and just how essential it is for it to be well-designed”.[15]

Based on U.S. Census estimates, if Americans under 45 (Plurals, Millennials and Gen Z), vote at the same rate as they did in the 2020 presidential election, they will make up more than one-third (37%) of the 2024 electorate.[16]  According to the General Social Survey, the gap in the number of millennials who identify as Democrats rather than Republicans is great, “with more than twice as many self-identified Democrats as Republicans. The next cohort on the roster, Gen Z, is even more liberal and Democratic than millennials and shows no indication of becoming substantially more conservative as it ages”.[17] Nearly 41 million new Gen Z voters (ages 18-27 in 2024) will be eligible to vote, including 8.3 million newly eligible youth (ages 18-19 in 2024) who will have aged into the electorate since the 2022 midterm election, among which young people of color make up an even higher 47% share.[18] This will impact the upcoming election for both parties as the issues important to the new generation of voters become more prominent in the election discourse and media coverage. Republicans will need to grapple with its own ideologues and conservative base to convince the new voters that they share their concerns; and while the Democrats are in comparatively better shape, Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times says, “that’s not the same as good shape”. He recognizes that there is a real disconnect between many younger Americans and the Democratic Party, for example, on student loan debt and US support of Israel.[19]

World Politics:  2024 will be an election year. How much of the political turmoil surrounding the previous presidential change is now affecting the political public sphere, how much fear is there in this regard?

Jody Jensen: Recent YouGov polling suggests that a majority (62%) of voters (with Democrats twice as likely to be concerned as Republicans) fear election-related violence at the next presidential election in 2024, and three former U.S. Army generals raised concerns about the risk of “civil war” surrounding the next presidential election, although some experts downplayed these warnings.[20] In addition, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, nearly a quarter of Americans (23%, up from 15% in 2021) agree that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”.[21]

The United States has clearly become extremely polarized, primarily in terms of ideological differences,[22] with some claiming that a civil war atmosphere prevails. This is exacerbated by, among other things, geographic and social identities, identity politics and resentments, media bubbles, social and economic inequalities, and political manipulation. However, some polls suggest that a majority of voters agree on many policy issues like gun control and abortion rights, and that the polarization is hyped in the media. It appears that the U.S. Congress remains very ideologically polarized, with no overlap on issues (unless you take war funding for Israel and Ukraine which has become more problematic recently). On its own, this “affective polarization” (see footnote 22), as assessed by the Carnegie Endowment, is unlikely to be the cause of democratic backsliding or political violence on its own, but it is “probably contributing to an environment that allows politicians and opinion leaders to increase violence targeted at politicians, election officials, women, and many types of minorities”,[23] and this will impact the runup to and running of the 2024 presidential election. The propensity of guns in the population[24] increases the potential for violence, like the violence witnessed on January 6th 2021 at the insurrection at the capital. However, the mid-term elections in 2022 did not result in an escalation of violence partly because law enforcement was better prepared and not taken by surprise as they were in 2021. But the threat remains, especially if former president Trump or others call for violence. As the Brookings Institution reported, “… the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center warned of the risk of election-related violence,” in 2022 and “Polls found that one in 10 Americans believed violence was justified … and that figure rose to one in five of Republican-voting men”.[25] These threats expanded to include threats against members of Congress, and were also projected at the local level in school board races. The brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at their home in San Francisco home confirmed many people’s fears.

There were in 2022 and will be in 2024 many election deniers running for office that would exacerbate tensions that could incite violence rather than accepting political defeat, especially in close elections and in swing states. This is particularly worrisome with the new Speaker of the House, Republican Mike Johnson, a fervent election denier who worked as the “congressional architect of the effort to overturn the 2020 election”.[26]

The larger problem, with potential political impact in the upcoming elections, is the erosion of public trust in government institutions, the media, and in one another. Pew Research found that in September 2023 only “25% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they trust the federal government just about always or most of the time, compared with 8% of Republicans and Republican leaners”.[27] Pew also reported that in 2021, only 35% of Republicans trusted the national media, compared to 78% of Democrats and this is an enormous gap.[28]

Ian Ward recently published an article in Politico[29] in which he argued “Today, Americans don’t just feel betrayed by the political establishment, or the media, or economic and cultural elites; they also feel betrayed by each other,” and continued “Over a quarter of Americans believe that it might soon be necessary to take up arms against their government.” This is a staggering statistic even after the events of January 6th.  Since the turn of the 21st century Americans, have become increasingly distrustful of each other, and referring to Robert Putnam’s authoritative book Bowling Alone[30], Ward draws upon Putnam’s argument that this reflects on the erosion of social capital, and the networks of trust and solidarity that hold communities together. Americans increasingly spend time alone on computers, mobile phones and at work with fewer and fewer social connections upon which social cohesion and trust are built. Many find belonging in online communities that often manipulate, through the use of technology, peoples’ relationships with facts and reality. This is evidenced by all the conspiracy theories that work through different media outlets and contribute to the decline of social trust today. In his interview Putnam revealed that “… the leading indicator [for societal change] is a sense of morality,” that is missing today, and the need “for a moral reawakening of America.” Reflecting on the increased activism of young people in the U.S. today on issues like gun violence, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and the environment, and their potential political impact on elections, Putman says “I don’t know if I’m optimistic, but I’m hopeful. As an empirical prediction, I can see things getting worse and worse and worse. But I can also see things going in a different direction. I can see how it could happen.”

Thank you!

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-the-nature-of-its-political-divide/.

[2] https://www.axios.com/2023/08/07/americans-disagree-political-issues-divide-gallup-poll.

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/04/20/how-the-american-middle-class-has-changed-in-the-past-five-decades/.

[4] https://www.csis.org/analysis/do-not-blame-trade-decline-manufacturing-jobs.

[5] https://abcnews.go.com/Business/data-expected-show-us-economic-growth-slowed-outset/story?id=98865089;https://abcnews.go.com/Business/us-economy-expected-grown-blistering-pace-3rd-quarter/story?id=104219612).

[6] The Gini index is a measure of the distribution of income across a population. A higher Gini index indicates greater inequality, with high-income individuals receiving much larger percentages of the population’s total income.

[7] Matthew Desmond, Poverty, by America (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2023).

[8] https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/28/5-alarming-stats-on-us-economic-inequality.html.

[9] Deloitte, 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey at: file:///C:/Users/jody.jensen/Downloads/deloitte-2023-genz-millennial-survey.pdf). Deloitte’s Gen Z and Millennial Survey connected with 14,483 Gen Zs and 8,373 millennials

across 44 countries.

[10] https://hechingerreport.org/trade-programs-unlike-other-areas-of-higher-education-are-in-hot-demand/.

[11] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/04/20/how-the-american-middle-class-has-changed-in-the-past-five-decades/.

[12] A decade earlier the gap was 78 and 84, respectively; and about 20 years ago, the gap was significantly less: 77 for people without degrees and 79 for those with.

[13] https://www.axios.com/2023/10/16/life-expectancy-educated-adults-mortality-rate?fbclid=IwAR0pY5Wy4TeYEmiQiU5_KAS5ubi2VvF0E4ljUwQVwA26DJqGW6Kk4nrqfsI

[14] https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/22/politics/biden-student-loan-forgiveness-supreme-court/index.html.

[15] https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/student-loan-debt-forgiveness-biden-rcna121799.

[16] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/how-younger-voters-will-impact-elections-what-happened-in-the-gop-debate/.

[17] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/24/opinion/gen-z-millennials-republicans.htmlí.

[18] https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/41-million-members-gen-z-will-be-eligible-vote-2024.

[19] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/24/opinion/gen-z-millennials-republicans.html

[20] https://www.newsweek.com/american-voters-fear-violence-2024-presidential-election-poll-1667238.

[21] https://www.whqr.org/national/2023-10-25/more-americans-say-they-support-political-violence-ahead-of-the-2024-election.

[22] The term “affective polarization” has been used to describe  to describe that people are emotionally polarized meaning that they do not like members of the other party. (Rachel Kleinfeld, “Polarization, Democracy, and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says,” (https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/09/05/polarization-democracy-and-political-violence-in-united-states-what-research-says-pub-90457).

[23] https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/09/05/polarization-democracy-and-political-violence-in-united-states-what-research-says-pub-90457).

[24] The US has 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, and is the only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-25/how-many-guns-in-the-us-buying-spree-bolsters-lead-as-most-armed-country#xj4y7vzkg).

[25] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-risk-of-election-violence-in-the-united-states-in-2024/)

[26] https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/mike-johnson-now-most-powerful-election-denier-washington.

[27] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/09/19/public-trust-in-government-1958-2023/

[28] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/08/30/partisan-divides-in-media-trust-widen-driven-by-a-decline-among-republicans/.

[29] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/05/12/americans-trust-government-00096509.

[30] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

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