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A strong economy won't make you popular these days
WITH Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron visiting Donald Trump this week, much of the commentary has focused on how wildly different the staid German chancellor and the globally minded French president are from the mercurial American president. But the three do share one trait: they are all unpopular at home despite the good economic times.
This is new. For most of the postwar era, voters in the big democracies rewarded leaders for strong economies and punished them for policies that hurt growth. Now the link between good politics and good economics seems to have broken.
Last year, the global economy was finally accelerating out of the long torpor that followed the financial crisis of 2008. Unemployment hit lows not seen in decades, and inflation all but disappeared. Yet by January, my index of approval ratings for leaders in 20 major democracies showed their average rating hitting a new low of just 35 per cent, down from a peak of more than 50 per cent a decade ago.
Mr Trump is Exhibit A of this fraying connection between politics and economics. Surveys of consumer confidence show that Americans haven't felt this good about the economy since at least the height of the dotcom boom in 2000. Yet Mr Trump's approval ratings have hovered around record lows for this point in any president's first term. Many commentators assume this is because Mr Trump's divisive personality has overshadowed the strong economy.
But personality can't explain the struggles of Mrs Merkel, who is as bland as Mr Trump is controversial. Germany is enjoying a recovery even more surprisingly robust than the United States'. Yet in September Mrs Merkel led her party to its worst showing since 1949, and her approval ratings remain depressed.
The same decline has bedevilled Mr Macron and other decidedly mainstream leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan. Yet none of these leaders comes close to matching Mr Trump for outrageousness. All three are seen as economic reformers who have produced relatively strong results, yet they all have approval ratings around 40 per cent, just as bad as Mr Trump's.
All politics is local, and maybe all of these leaders are suffering setbacks owing to domestic political issues. But that would be quite a coincidence. Something else seems to be at work. Perhaps the most persuasive explanation is the rise of angry populism, built on a rejection of the established order and a growing focus on issues of culture and national identity, rather than practical economic outcomes.
In the past, populism tended to rise in bad times and ebb in good ones, so you might have expected it to recede as the global recovery increased employment and wages over the past 18 months. But economic factors may no longer matter as much in a bitterly emotional political age, and leader approval ratings have continued to fall. More people are getting their news from highly politicised arms of both traditional and social media, which can turn anything - including the economy - into a partisan issue.
In this environment, the honeymoons granted newly elected leaders are now brutally short. Much of the recent decline in the approval ratings index is explained by the falling popularity of relative newcomers like Mr Macron and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain. Of the 20 leaders in the index, five came to power over the past two years with positive approval ratings, and four of them fell below 50 per cent within a year. Mrs May's approval rating has fallen into the mid-30s, worse than Mr Trump's.
The changing nature and control of the news also helps to explain an even more unexpected disconnect between political and economic reality: the rare leaders who remain popular despite a faltering economy. In my index, which uses only polls independent of government control, there are just two - both elected autocrats.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin's 80 per cent approval rating recently helped him win another six-year term in office, despite painfully bad economic conditions since the 2014 oil price collapse.
Like Mr Putin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has used state control of media, nationalist conspiracy theories and foreign adventures to maintain his popularity.
These trends are worrying. Good economics should remain good politics. Democracies work best when voters hold politicians accountable for economic results. If leaders sense that the economy no longer matters, they are free to push any policy that will energise their base - which may explain Mr Trump's recent nationalist threats against China and populist threats against big companies, both potentially bad economic policies.
And then there is this worrisome thought: If leaders embrace aggressively populist and nationalistic policies in good times, what will happen when the economy takes a turn for the worse? NYTIMES