Fred Siegel: The Globalization Election

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.]

The common thread that ties Mike Huckabee’s come-from-almost-nowhere victory in Iowa to Hillary Clinton’s unexpected resurgence in New Hampshire is a shared ability to speak to widespread middle- and lower-middle-class economic anxiety. In Iowa, Huckabee effectively disparaged Mitt Romney—who made a fortune at Bain Capital and outspent him 20 to 1—as someone who couldn’t possibly understand “people at the lower ends of the economic scale,” who fear that they’re losing ground in the increasingly globalized economy. And in New Hampshire, while Barack Obama’s rhetorical flourishes spoke most effectively to the young and to the “creative class” that has flourished in the global economy, Clinton—like her husband before her—felt the middle class’s pain, devoting most of her campaign events to highlighting economic issues and offering narrowly tailored programs to address everything from the rising cost of tuition to mortgage defaults. And it paid off: she defeated Obama by ten points among those who felt they were falling behind financially.

Clinton’s comeback aside, the most surprising fact to emerge from New Hampshire was that voters in both parties named the economy as the Number One issue. New Hampshire, where more than 81 percent of the voters have at least some college education, is prosperous by any standard. It enjoys the lowest poverty rate in the country, one of the lowest unemployment and taxation rates, and is in the top echelon of income. Yet only 14 percent of its Democrats and half of its Republicans believe that the economy is doing well, while a stunning 98 percent of voters in the Democratic primary and 80 percent in the Republican primary were “worried” or “very worried” about the economy.

Some of these worries are no doubt a response to $100-a-barrel oil and the decline in home values tied to the subprime lending meltdown. But why aren’t more conventional measures, like high incomes and low unemployment, having a more positive influence on the electorate’s state of mind? The answer, in part, is that the public has a set of fears connected, in one way or another, to the inexorable advance of globalization. Voters see offshoring, increased competition from low-cost countries, and illegal immigration as reflections of an unfriendly world that is closing in on them. Investor’s Business Daily, citing the enormous growth of both jobs and gross national income that freer trade has brought about, insists that “globalization is a boon to all Americans.” But the distributional effects of globalization have been problematic. An October 2007 Pew poll found that “three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality.” The relative stagnation in middle- and lower-middle-class incomes, combined with a net decline in high-tech jobs, has, for once, made palaver about “what will happen to our grandchildren” somewhat credible....
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