The seats of the Orcas Center were full, extra chairs were packed in the back, and overflow spilled into the Madrona Room for author Hedrick Smith’s lecture on Sunday, Nov. 20.
“The election of 2016 is probably the most dramatic outburst of popular backlash against the elite and against the status quo in this country since Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828,” said Smith, who explained that Jackson was the outsider challenging the establishment, much like president-elect Donald Trump.
The event was cosponsored by Orcas Currents and Greg and Patricia Ayers, and it attracted nearly 370 people. Michael Riordan, who founded the lecture program in 2014, said the series has tried to stay away from politics, but “when democracy is hanging in the balance, I don’t think we can be so cavalier.”
Smith, a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning author and producer as well as part-time Orcas resident, spoke of the political “earthquake” that was the 2016 election.
“We are looking at and feeling the tremors of the populist earthquake,” he said. “Use the election as an MRI of America.”
Smith’s lecture was recorded by Erin Bennett of Orcas Video and Kevin Colomby and is available online at http://researchcan.org/hedrick-smith/.
Beginning with the primaries, Smith said that 2016 featured three elections and all of them were important. First was the overwhelming support that Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders received at the Democratic National Convention.
“That’s a huge event in itself and it tells you something is rumbling,” said Smith. “It’s telling you something really big is happening in this country.”
The second election was the non-politician presidential candidate, Trump, who ran against 16 Republican nominees, many of whom were established politicians. The third election was wherein Trump ran against a career politician, Hillary Clinton, and won.
“We’re a really divided country. We’re divided by money for sure, we’re divided by power for sure, we’re divided by who we trust,” said Smith, who noted that many people had made comments about Trump that had their comments dismissed as lies. He also said that the mainstream media is mistrusted by a “tremendous” part of the American population.
Smith said that the key issue to him in the election was inequality. He said that when people talk of inequality in this country, their first thought is inequality of income.
“It’s inequality of power; it’s inequality of being able to help set the nation’s agenda; it’s inequality of being listened to in Washington,” said Smith. “It’s inequality of economic destiny.”
He said that questions of where each individual and their families stands in the grand scheme of this country’s present and future are rooted in the unknown.
“The election hasn’t changed anything, the outcome has happened, but now we’re going to see how it plays out,” said Smith, adding that the issues of inequality need to be addressed or tensions will continue to rise. “This is the table that has been set.”
Populism and rebellion were not invented by Trump and Sanders, said Smith, who noted that existing movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party were there for those men to continue. He asked how a man like Sanders had such a strong following. The answer, he said, is that people no longer trust the system.
“Confidence in the American political system is at its lowest level in 40 years,” said Smith. “People are really deeply feeling uneasy about this country.”
Hedrick said civilizations die if enough people lose faith in the system.
“Typically American elections are fought by polar opposites – left versus right,” said Smith. “This was a bottom up rebellion. This was people who felt left out.”
Since the recession of 2008, the economy appears to be growing. Smith said there are more jobs and a higher average wage. However, even with that economic growth, the median household income for the middle class is lower than it was before the recession. He said the average American family, over the past 17 years, has gone backwards financially.
“Forty-one million eligible voters in America are not registered,” said Smith. “Eighty million people didn’t vote.”
Smith said that, at the time of his lecture, Clinton had 63 million votes, which is more than six million fewer votes than Obama had in 2012.
“These are not just kids – these are not just stupid people,” said Smith.
The six states that voted made a difference in the 2016 election – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida – are where many of the 56,000 factories that were closed since 2000 are located. In those pivotal states, he explained, Trump only won by 112,000 votes. He said that it is interesting that urban areas, which usually vote Democratic, didn’t vote at all in this election. Wisconsin, he said, both voted in a “rabid” Republican governor and an openly lesbian Democrat senator.
“What that tells me is that these voters are casting around for some agent of change,” said Smith. “They don’t know where to go. It’s not an ideological vote; it’s not a racial vote; it’s a vote saying we’ve got to do something different.”
The United States are in turmoil and deeply divided, and citizens are not voting for ideology as much as they are for change, he said. That is how someone from the outside, someone speaking against the status quo, became president-elect.
“Trump overwhelming won the vote of the discontented,” said Smith. “Trump won 79 percent who believe the economy is doing poorly. These are people are down and low.”
Smith said that Clinton and the Republican Party missed those statistics. Neither Clinton, nor any of her surrogates, campaigned in Wisconsin.
“They failed to read what was going on,” said Smith. “That hurt them pretty badly.”
Smith asked what do we do to fix the schisms. He then compared the workforce differences between Germany and the U.S. With the loss of thousands of well-paying factory jobs, many of those employees took a paycut to work in the service industry. Meanwhile, Germany kept a strong industrial workforce – allowing it to have a $2 trillion trade surplus versus the $6 trillion trade deficit in the U.S. during the 2000s.
For several decades there was shared prosperity in the U.S., but Smith said that is no longer the case. When people are paid well, they spend their money – Americans are not good savers, he said.
“When things are good, people spend 95 percent of their income and in bad times they spend 105 percent of their income,” Smith joked. “The point was, they weren’t spending. When they’re spending it drives demand.”
He recalled a period of time when Americans were deeply involved in politics and civic movements. In Washington, the big movement was Earth Day 1970, when 20 million people took to the streets which forced Congress to respond – Nixon signed in seven environmental acts.
Everything was working well, said Smith, but then it began to move the other way. Lobbyists, businesses and shareholders began to change the landscape of power by acting against the populus: the consumers and the workers. The current state of relations has shareholders getting the majority of return rather than reinvesting in their business.
“Unlike Obama, who inherited a total mess from George Bush, Trump has actually inherited an economic tailwind from Obama,” said Smith. “To which Trump will have contributed nothing, but for which he will claim total credit.”
Smith said there’s a chance Trump could do something good. An idea, which actually came from Clinton, is to put a trillion dollars into infrastructure. He said that the Obama administration has been trying to do that for years, but kept hitting a Republican roadblock.
“Rebuilding the infrastructure could actually begin to deliver something – both to the country as a whole – but particularly to the constituents that have bet on him and hope that something good is going to happen,” said Smith. “That’s something that he can do, and I think there’s a reasonable chance that is going to happen.”
An issue that Trump has danced around during his campaign is increasing the minimum wage. He also promised to revoke NAFTA and the trade agreements.
“The thing is, he can’t bring the jobs back, they’re already gone,” said Smith.
What he says will be most interesting is the idea of Trump – who he described as tough and vindictive – being able to make a difference with the trade agreements and its effect on jobs.
Other changes Smith said Trump may do to help the economy, in terms of jobs, are a huge tax cut, big spending on infrastructure and more spending on defense. He said that deficit economics could work very well for a few years, but then the economy could collapse.
However, Smith said the real test will be whether Trump is just “talking the talk or whether he is willing to walk the walk.”
“I have a mixed evaluation of Trumps potential,” he said. “He can do things that will make a difference to the middle class and the issues that have been driving this political season. But there’s also a great risk that he won’t do enough of them, or he’ll do other things that will counterbalance them.”
“Instead of throwing your hands up and saying nothing can happen, don’t do that, it’s actually happening,” said Smith. “There are things that can be done at the state level.”
He ended his lecture by discussing political reform.
“One of the things we have to do is make American democracy work better,” said Smith. “We cannot have the kind of schisms in American society, and not recognize that not only our economic system, but our democracy is in danger.”