It’s the revolution of rising expectations again.
Watching Donald Trump last week, I thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political philosopher whose Democracy in America, published in the 1830s, remains the most insightful study of our national character. But it was de Tocqueville’s other masterpiece, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), that came foremost to mind. In it, he outlined what we now call the “revolution of rising expectations” — a concept highly relevant to today’s presidential campaign.
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The French revolution presented a paradox, de Tocqueville wrote. Before the revolution, prosperity was on the rise; and yet, it wasn’t enough to prevent the revolution. Why? The answer, de Tocqueville argued, was that the first taste of prosperity had whetted people’s appetites for more — and when these raised expectations were not met, there was a furious backlash. Existing ideas and institutions were discredited. There was a power vacuum. Change became chaos.
Something similar is happening now. Our economic and political expectations were raised in the late 1990s — and then they were dashed. The resulting fears and discontents undermined the credibility and prestige of existing leaders and doctrines. There was (and is) an intellectual void that was tailor-made for “outsiders” — think especially Trump and Bernie Sanders — who rejected conventional analyses and offered their own solutions.
To be sure, the United States in 2016 is nowhere near the extreme breakdown of France in 1789. Still, broad parallels exist. Think back a couple of decades to 1996 or 1997. The economy and stock market were booming in what would become the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. The unemployment rate was below 5 percent. Elsewhere, America’s dominance seemed indisputable. In technology, we led in software and personal computers. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States was the sole superpower.
We prepared for a prosperous and placid future. But it was not to be. The stock market bubble burst in early 2000. Then 9/11 exposed our vulnerability to terrorism. The 2008-09 financial crisis and accompanying great recession gave the lie to our presumed control of the business cycle. Both Russia and China emerged as geopolitical rivals and, possibly, military foes.
We had paradise for a fleeting moment — and then it was lost. It is the subconscious comparison between the imperfect present and the idealized past (of the late 1990s) that feeds our disappointment. Otherwise, our situation might seem less desperate. After all, the economy has created more than 14 million jobs since the employment low-point. What’s missing is the sense of boundless optimism and national superiority that characterized the boom years.
Americans are now said to be “angry” and to demand “change.” This is misleading. In the past two decades, Americans have had more change than they wanted. What they’d really like is to repeal the changes — the economic uncertainties, the physical threats, the geopolitical challenges — and revert to the romanticized world of the late 1990s, when the outlook seemed more tranquil.
Trump has cast himself as our savior who will restore the glory days. Whether he can do this — or rather, whether most Americans believe he can do it — is a central fault line of the campaign. That is the thrust of his “America First” slogan. In his acceptance speech, he sounded at times like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic left-wing populist.
“Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent,” he said, “because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”
Oh really, retort Democrats. The man will say and do almost anything to win. What he hasn’t said — and probably never will — is that his vision for America is a simplistic fiction. We can’t repeal the economy’s periodic instability, though we may (perhaps) mitigate it; we can’t isolate ourselves from the rest of the world without being exposed to collateral damage; and we can’t borrow ourselves to prosperity.
As long as we cling to these unrealistic ideas — as long as they are benchmarks for our success or failure — the more we condemn ourselves to the revenge of false expectations.
Mr. Samuelson has written about business and economic issues since 1977.