Hiding in plain sight.

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The Economics of Voter Backlash

Narayana Kocherlakota is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at the University of Rochester and was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from 2009 to 2015.
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A wave of popular dissatisfaction, expressed in support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, has shocked both of America's leading political parties. The protest vote, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise: For many important demographic groups, the last two presidencies have been an economic disaster.

Let's start with white Americans. If you’re wondering why Trump's anti-establishment rhetoric has attracted so many white male fans, consider this: From 2000 to 2014, a period during which the U.S. had two two-term presidents representing each of the major parties, the median white male's income declined an inflation-adjusted 5 percent. White females saw a 5-percent increase over the same period -- still hardly outstanding, especially compared to the large income gains that both groups enjoyed from 1992 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton.

Index of White Americans' Median Income
Source: Census Bureau, Year 2000 = 100

Black Americans fared even worse. From 2000 to 2014, the median black woman’s income fell by nearly 5 percent, and the median black man’s income decreased by nearly 10 percent (also adjusted for inflation). The decline could prove highly persistent, given the lack of progress in improving education for this group:  From 2000 to 2015, the fraction of African-American men aged 25 to 29 with a college degree has remained essentially unchanged at about one in six, compared with nearly one in two for their white female counterparts.

Index of Black Americans' Median Income
Source: Census Bureau, Year 2000 = 100

Given the economic disparities, what's truly surprising is that more African-Americans in the Democratic primaries didn't turn away from (the very mainstream) Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, or to some other non-mainstream candidate who was more sharply focused on their economic problems.

So why weren’t the ruling elites in Washington more prepared for a backlash? Perhaps they weren’t paying enough attention to truly middle-income folks. From 2000 to 2014, across all the demographic groups mentioned above, the percentage earning $100,000 or more (adjusted for inflation) actually increased even as median income fell in most groups. This means that the economic pain has been concentrated among people who earn considerably less than six figures -- a group with which political operators in the Beltway rarely come into contact.

To turn this economic performance around, policy makers must make choices that are designed to lead to a lot more economic growth in the next four years. Neither Clinton nor Trump used the word “growth” even once in their convention speeches. Hopefully, they will rectify that shortcoming soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Narayana Kocherlakota at nkocherlako1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net