For an American population that has been hit with bad news after bad news, the inflation figures reported this week have been a particularly painful blow. Goods prices rose 9.1% from a year ago – more than economists’ dire predictions and the fastest pace since late 1981. Gasoline prices have fallen steadily but remain high. An anxious electorate looked to President Joe Biden for something to do, but all he could promise was to let the Federal Reserve use interest rates to chill the economy – something that makes people cringe economists about a recession that could well result from an interest rate hike.
While White House officials tried to soften the blow by pointing out that the data is backward-looking and reflects energy costs that have since fallen significantly, inflation optics and policy may be heading being into double digits were hard to avoid.
“Exceeding a new round number, from 8 to more than 9%, has a psychological impact on investors and businessmen”, explains Peter C. Earle, researcher at the American Institute for Economic Research. “There is a visceral fear in the financial markets.”
If it were just inflation, the American public and the leaders they elected or hired might be able to weather the storm. But the news comes after a series of events, experts say, that leave people feeling that so many things have gotten out of hand and that those tasked with solving them can’t or won’t fix them.
Mass shootings were already becoming more common, at first glance a shocking trend. But the chilling video released this week – of law enforcement standing in a hallway, doing nothing (except using hand sanitizer) as a killer gunned down 19 children – had people wondering if they could count on the very people hired to protect them.
Hearings on January 6 revealed how close the country was to a successful armed coup – along with grim warnings that it could still happen. Extreme weather events have damaged communities and sparked anxiety about climate change, and with few concrete responses from elected officials.
Women who support abortion rights suddenly felt like control of their very bodies was being taken away from them after the Supreme Court’s ruling overturned the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing this right. And the Democratic president who supports abortion rights has found himself with a limited playbook to keep abortion available where it is legal – frustrating campaigners who had hoped a Democratic-led government could to help.
The war in Ukraine has not only contributed to high gas prices and food shortages, but it has reminded America of the limits of its power, as Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually pushes the West into war. Meanwhile, Putin has further embarrassed the United States — and damaged Biden’s standing among progressives — by jailing WNBA star Brittney Griner for what the State Department calls “wrongful detention” for possession. drug. Griner pleaded guilty to what she said was an involuntary act, but sports figures and progressives are publicly leaning on Biden to get her released.
And hanging over all of this is the most destabilizing factor of all: the pandemic, which, although better contained than it was in 2020, persists as an ongoing threat and drains an already emotionally and mentally drained audience.
“For two and a half years, I felt like it was just one more thing” after another, says psychologist Vaile Wright, senior director of the Office of Healthcare Innovation at the American Psychological Association. A ABS survey earlier this year revealed that 80% of Americans consider inflation and the war in Ukraine a “significant source of stress” – more than people have felt stressed by a single issue in the 15 years the investigation was carried out.
It’s not just the long list of stressful issues themselves, but social media and ongoing doomsday media coverage that has Americans in such a state of anxiety, Wright says. have “We’re not supposed to live below this level of fight or flight.”
Tony Fratto, a communications consultant who served as President George W. Bush’s deputy press secretary, notes that the country has been through tumultuous times before and emerged unscathed. The 1960s and early 1970s – a period often considered a historic era for civil rights and women’s rights – was also an era of three political assassinations, murders of students by law enforcement in Kent State and Jackson State, the murders of three civil rights workers who registered people to vote in the South, and a long Vietnam War that divided the nation and left tens of thousands dead Americans.
By the 1970s, inflation was high and gasoline shortages were severe enough to necessitate rationing, with drivers only being allowed to buy gasoline every other day.
But now it all seems to be happening at once, says Fratto.
“It’s crazy. I want to believe it’s not that bad,” but it all seems to be happening on an escalated scale. Watergate was a traumatic event in American history, but the Jan. 6 uprising “makes it look like a high school prank,” Fratto says.
Structurally, American politics is not as well equipped to smooth things over, Fratto notes, with few genuine moderates in either party to hammer out compromises or build consensus. The American public – which during World War II willingly engaged in shared sacrifices, such as rationing – is now so politically polarized that it cannot even accept that Biden legitimately won the election of 2020.
Amy Fried, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, compares the American electorate to a new parent, walking a baby into the kitchen at 3 a.m. and wondering if the child will ever fall asleep. It seems relentless, and the physical and emotional exhaustion obliterates any rational thought that, yes, the problem will eventually resolve itself.
“Even short-term things don’t seem short when you’re in the middle of them,” Fried says. “It feels like things kind of spiraled out.” And along with the anxiety comes reduced trust in government to find solutions, adds Fried, author of a book on declining public trust in government.
Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 30s, but he still beats potential GOP rival Donald Trump in a head-to-head 2024 preview, according to a recent survey by the New York Times and Siena College, indicating that Trump is not seen as a viable alternative to voters. Congress fares even worse: A YouGov poll earlier this month, the legislature’s approval rating was 15%.
“For two and a half years, I felt like it was just one more thing.”
The consternation goes as far as the American system of government: the Times Poll found that 58% of all voters say their system of government is broken and needs major reform or a complete overhaul.
Young voters are also pessimistic, says John Della Volpe, director of polls at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”
In the IOPs spring poll36% of 18-29 year olds believe that “political engagement rarely has tangible results, 42% say their vote ‘makes no difference’ and well over half – 56% – agree that “politics today no longer able to meet the challenges facing our country. »
“They have very negative opinions about the effectiveness of political engagement,” says Della Volpe. He adds, however, that many people still say they will vote this fall. “Can people have a negative opinion about the effectiveness of political engagement, while continuing to vote? To this day, I think it’s possible,” says Della Volpe.
For now, much of the burden falls on Biden, who is tasked with solving America’s problems even as he is at the whim of outside forces like the Supreme Court, Putin, global energy markets and a virus that seems determined to stay.
“I’m the only president they have,” Biden said earlier this month, responding to a question about whether he was the best messenger to fight for abortion rights as the courts and the Congress fail to realize this progressive wish. With a divided, discouraged and wary electorate, his fight can be lonely and doomed.
For the moment, however, it is the portfolio issue of inflation that worries Americans the most. And the last time things were this troubling for consumers was 40 years ago.
“Many of us have never experienced this type of inflation,” says Rhea Thomas, senior economist at Wilmington Trust. “Consumer sentiment is at rock bottom and savings are down, so they’ve lost some of their firepower.”
And, with the midterm elections looming, an angry consumer may well become an angry voter.