The outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election made it clear: many experts had missed something big. Polls in the run-up to election day had indicated that, although Trump’s narrative of “forgotten men and women” resonated with some Americans, the majority would be swayed instead by broadly positive macroeconomic indicators, including growing GDP, falling unemployment, and rising consumer confidence. However, all these predictions were for naught: Trump rode a wave of anger with the status quo to a surprising victory.
The conundrum of broad disaffection in the face of apparent prosperity is by no means limited to American politics. Thousands of miles from Washington, we tested a related hypothesis in rural Pakistan. We conducted face-to-face surveys with over 1,500 people and found that individuals expressed the strongest dissatisfaction with their government when they met three criteria: they had high expectations for themselves in the future, witnessed mobility around them, and perceived themselves to be growing relatively poorer within their society.
The findings of our study help explain the apparent paradox: why some people, even a majority of people, might reject a governing status quo in times of economic growth. Such a rejection contradicts classic economic voting theory, which holds that, in good times, people reward their government and in bad times, they punish it. But alternate frameworks have existed for centuries: French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that there may be a disconnect between citizens’ aspirations and their actual living standards and that this disconnect may worsen in times of growth and prosperity. As people become aware of the potential for improved living standards, their expectations may increase faster than their actual circumstances. Thus, increased mobility and prosperity on a macroeconomic scale may paradoxically result in dissatisfaction with government. The combination of feeling relatively poor despite a sense that one lives in a prospering society was the true driver of unhappiness.
It is easy to see how this aspiration gap—a gap between what citizens feel they could have in a prospering economy and their actual circumstances—can lead to opposition party victories, political protests, and even outright rebellion.
BOOMING ECONOMY, BUSTING LIVES
We used a face-to-face survey in rural Pakistan to gather our data. We measured the aspiration levels of each of the study participants and divided our sample into four groups: one group was primed to feel poorer than average; the second was primed to feel that the Pakistani economy offers great opportunity for economic and social advancement (in other words, they were primed to believe that advancement to a better economic condition was possible); and the third group was primed to believe both things, that is, that they were poorer than their peers in a mobile and growing economy. The fourth control group was not primed.
We next measured our subjects’ confidence in the government. We asked them questions about whether they support the political system, their level of satisfaction with government leadership, the provision of education and health services in their community, and security. Particularly for those citizens who aspired the most for economic advancement, our results lined up with Tocqueville’s ideas. The respondents primed to feel both that they lived in a growing economy and that they were relatively less well-off than their peers were most likely to express feelings of discontent.
Being primed to feel relatively poor, on its own, did not spur dissatisfaction in nearly the same way. The combination of feeling relatively poor despite a sense that one lives in a prospering society was the true driver of unhappiness.
Our results strengthen the argument that a booming economy may not be adequate insurance for an incumbent administration. Besides the recent U.S. presidential election, other examples seem to tell the same tale. In India, when the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party sought re-election in 2004, it campaigned on a platform of “India Shining” that was meant to marshal support around its impressive record of economic development. But the BJP sustained many losses in that election, and many analysts saw this as a show of disaffection by those who didn’t feel that India was shining quite as bright in their own lives.
Similarly, as China’s economy began to grow rapidly in 2001, China experienced a rise rather than a decrease in the number and scale of protests. In 2000, there were 40,000 documented protests. Over the next three years, China saw a 45 percent increase in the number of protests, with the average size of each protest exponentially growing. Similarly, the United Kingdom’s referendum on Brexit came a full two years after the country’s economy returned to its pre-financial crisis state.
These findings have potentially important implications for Pakistan, where violent extremism continues to rock the country despite recent economic growth that is nearly three times the global average. History has shown that, where confidence in government is low, extremism may thrive. Our findings may help to explain research showing that middle-class Pakistanis are more likely to condone extremism (a form of rejection of the government) than poor Pakistanis.
LESSONS FOR GOVERNANCE
Our findings have potential applications for governance elsewhere. A rising tide may not be enough to ensure political stability even if the tide is in fact lifting all boats. It may be necessary for governments to ensure that discrepancies between different groups’ levels of advancement are addressed. It may also be necessary to undertake a communications strategy that conveys this information to these constituencies. Notably, this is as true in high-income countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States as it is in low- and middle-income nations struggling with political and economic instability. Our research also helps identify which groups are most likely to turn against the government during times of economic growth. As Tocqueville says, it is those who have high expectations for their own futures because they perceive growth and prosperity elsewhere in the economy but feel that they are not getting their fair share themselves.
In a hyperconnected world, it is easy to feel left behind. Broadcast news, advertisements, and social media all provide a barrage of messages on the aspirational good life. Unavoidably, such information leads to a constant recalibration of individuals’ perception of their own prosperity, potentially leading to dissatisfaction. In times of rising inequality, the challenge for governments is not only to ensure prosperity for all but also to be responsive to populations’ discontent with increasing inequality. If citizens feel they are being left behind, even in a broadly successful economy, they may opt for new leaders to protect their interests.