Jonathan Chait

Economic Growth And The Democrats

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Matthew Continetti at the Weekly Standard argues that faster economic growth won't help the Democrats' political fortunes:

Democrats believe that once the economy returns to normalcy the Tea Party will disappear and Obama's approval rating will climb. They're wrong, because while the economy contributes to Obama's unpopularity, it doesn't explain everything. The Tea Party isn't primarily motivated by unemployment and lackluster GDP growth. It's motivated by tax hikes and government spending and public debt and regulatory overreach and the sense that nobody pays attention to the Constitution anymore. None of those issues is going to disappear once the economy comes back (though debt may be less of an issue if we experience fantastic growth and the government suddenly is flush with cash).

Actually, this isn't so much an argument as a changing of the question, from "will economic growth cause Obama's approval ratings to climb" to "will economic growth make the Tea Party disappear." I'm not sure what to say about this. Nobody thinks economic growth will make the Tea Party disappear, or do anything to placate right-wing groups. The idea is that economic growth makes people who are not right-wing political activists more positively disposed toward the president.

Now, as it happens, I'm skeptical that economic growth per se will restore the Democrats' political fortunes. Jamie Surowiecki notes that, historically, economic growth has a powerful effect on a president's popularity:

Even the high unemployment rate may be less important politically than you’d think. Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, has found that, in midterm elections since 1950, there’s been no correlation between the unemployment rate and election outcomes. The key economic variable for voters, other studies show, has been income growth, or, more specifically, how fast per-capita G.D.P. is rising.

I'd respond by pointing out that the post-1950 data set includes few instances of mass unemployment, and that the de-linkage between GDP growth and unemployment is a new and poorly-understood phenomenon. The peak of the Bush-era business cycle produced decent economic growth, but no wage gains, and had mass public dissatisfaction.

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