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Is economic anxiety fueling Trump and Sanders supporters?

February 25, 2016 at 8:07 PM EDT
Why have both Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders taken the country by storm this year? One cause might be fear for the future. Many Americans today are living paycheck to paycheck, worrying that their children won’t be any better off. Those anxieties are driving them into the arms of antiestablishment populists. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, the economic recovery may be well into its sixth year, and the jobless rate is at its lowest point since 2008. Even so, it’s clear many Americans still feel plenty of anxiety, either about their job, their income, their finances or what may be happening to their quality of life.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman dives deeper into what’s behind that with the first of two conversations he has on this subject. This one features a liberal perspective, part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the “NewsHour.”

AUDIENCE: We love Trump! We love Trump!

DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: Oh, we love you, we love you!


PAUL SOLMAN: Not again, you may be thinking.

DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), Democratic Presidential Candidate: There is nothing we cannot accomplish.

PAUL SOLMAN: Another story on Trump and Sanders as political outliers defining this year’s presidential campaign?

DONALD TRUMP: We’re in first place everywhere.

PAUL SOLMAN: But why have they taken America by storm? We put that question to longtime liberal thinker Robert Reich, friend of Hillary Clinton since college, secretary of labor under her husband, Bill, but now a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Are you surprised by the turn America has taken politically in the last half-year?

ROBERT REICH, University of California, Berkeley: I’m surprised at how fast it happened. I predicted in my book “Saving Capitalism” that the biggest political contest in the future would be between, not Democrats and Republicans, but between the anti-establishment populists and the establishment, because I saw the increase in this degree of anxious class, I call it, anger and frustration that the economy and society are no longer working for them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Covering economic developments in America since the 1970s, I too have been chronicling this growing anxiety my entire career.

I met security guard Bobby Hicks five years ago.

BOBBY HICKS, Security Guard: I am the most insecure security officer you will meet, because I’m worried. Right now, I live paycheck to paycheck.

PAUL SOLMAN: Cookie Sheers is an administrative assistant at a Boston nonprofit.

COOKIE SHEERS, Administrative Assistant: We all feel stuck, like you’re just at that edge of water where you can come up for air every few minutes, but never long enough to feel that you have accomplished something. You always have to go back down.

PAUL SOLMAN: But anxiety isn’t limited to the unskilled these days. Mike Najjar is a lawyer in Lowell, Massachusetts.

MIKE NAJJAR, Attorney: I feel like I’m in quicksand, not getting ahead, not having any growth.

MAN: I don’t feel like I’m getting ahead at all. As a matter of fact, I was laid off.

PAUL SOLMAN: After 40 years in the book business, does Brian McCormick (ph) have a job now?

MAN: I do. I do. I’m punching a cash register like I did when I was 22 years old.

PAUL SOLMAN: As recent college graduate Biola Jeje puts it:

BIOLA JEJE, Recent Graduate: Take all this debt, get an education, and have it lead nowhere, to like no sustainable employment, no job with health benefits or pensions or any of that, just be out on their own.

ROBERT REICH: I’m in an Uber, part of the explosion in the so-called sharing economy. This very group includes independent contractors, free agents, temporary workers, the self-employed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Work without employee benefits, one of the topics Reich tackles in a series of videos made with the so-called progressive group

ROBERT REICH: It’s estimated that, in five years, over 40 percent of the American labor force will be in such uncertain work, in a decade, most of us. This shifts all the risks onto workers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Workers like Uber driver Kim Miller, who has to pay for her own car and all related expenses.

KIM MILLER, Uber Driver: Sometimes, I have days where I do only maybe around $12, $15 an hour, and I come home feeling like I wasted my time.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or retail clerks like Melody Pabon, who don’t know when they will work, or for how many hours, from one week to the next.

MELODY PABON, Retail Worker: Am I going to be playing juggling with my money, and work two days a week, three days a week, four days a week not knowing?

ROBERT REICH: No wonder, according to polls, almost a quarter of American workers worry they won’t have enough to live on in the future. That’s up from 15 percent a decade ago.

PAUL SOLMAN: And you see it playing out politically in both parties, right?

ROBERT REICH: In both parties. You have got a large number of people in America, in the middle class, who are working harder than ever, but they’re angry and frustrated because they’re not getting ahead. Their wages are either stagnating or actually dropping. Their jobs are less secure. Two-thirds are living paycheck to paycheck.

PAUL SOLMAN: When you say paycheck to paycheck, the latest data as of this week were that 63 percent of Americans didn’t have more than $500 socked away for a sudden expense.

ROBERT REICH: Almost nothing socked away. Black and minority Americans on average have literally nothing socked away for an emergency. And some people in the middle class, particularly in the lower middle class, look to poor people and say, well, they’re getting all these benefits. I’m the one who’s stuck.

ACTOR: Happy holidays, uncle Bob.

ROBERT REICH: What’s good about them?

PAUL SOLMAN: People like conservative uncle Bob, portrayed by Reich himself in this video.

ROBERT REICH: I’m paying too much in taxes to support poor people who are sitting on their duffs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, in the left-wing camp:

ROBERT REICH: People are caught in a vise, and they feel like the game is rigged.

PAUL SOLMAN: Are they overstating it? Are they picking up on something that’s real?

ROBERT REICH: Unfortunately, the game is rigged.

Just over a year ago, two political scientists, one from Princeton, one from Northwestern, Gilens and Page, did a study looking very carefully at about over 2,000 policy issues. And their conclusion was that the wealthy and big corporations and Wall Street were the only ones that had any influence.

The average American had literally no influence at all.

According to an investigation by The New York Times, half of all the money contributed so far to Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, $176 million, has come from just 158 families, along with the companies they own or control.

I used to think — and I used to write about it — inequality as being the result of globalization, technological change. But what has happened, particularly over the last 20 years, is that there is a third factor, political power. It is this vicious cycle of the wealthy and big corporations and Wall Street getting rule changes, legal changes that advantage them and really disadvantage most other people.

PAUL SOLMAN: When you talk to a rich person who doesn’t agree with you politically, what do you say to them?

ROBERT REICH: I say, you have a stake in raising wages, in expanding the middle class, and more Americans doing better, because then you will do better. Who are your customers, after all?

DENISE BARRANT: The top 1 percent is living well, and they don’t get it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Denise Barrant, a self-described conservative Republican, was unemployed and in foreclosure in 2011.

DENISE BARRANT: There’s tons of people like myself out there who are well-educated, who have had good jobs, who are sort of the middle management people, but they have outsourced our jobs, and the top people are still making a lot of money and then congratulating themselves at how efficient they have been.

PAUL SOLMAN: The term that gets turned around over and over again is the American dream. And it doesn’t seem as if that’s anywhere near as true now as in the past.

ROBERT REICH: No. This is a country that prided itself on upward mobility, on rags to riches, on Horatio Alger stories.

It’s only over the last two years that you see polls saying most Americans believe that their children are not going to live as well as they lived. This is new, Paul. This is counter to our tradition and our history.

PAUL SOLMAN: Which may help explain why this has been, thus far, such an untraditional election year.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the coming weeks, Paul will return with a second conversation, from a well-known conservative thinker and writer, Charles Murray.