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
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