This presidential election cycle has been marked by a shockingly angry electorate on both sides of the fence. Seems that voters are happy with very little. They’re angry about jobs and taxes and Congress and police brutality and China and immigration policy and Wall Street and terrorism and free trade. To name but a few. A recent Esquire/NBC survey found that about half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. Are affluent Americans in the same boat?
In dollars and cents, anger rises from a stagnating middle class. The median U.S. household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has decreased from $57,843 in 1999 to $53,657 in 2014. That’s not exactly the middle class upward mobility that many felt was a birthright in this country. During this same period, the nation’s upper-income tier has grown, with rapid gains in income at the top. The top 5% and the top 20% of earners have seen their piece of the pie grow steadily for two decades, and fully 49% of U.S. aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014. Affluents don’t have a lot to be angry about; they’re doing great.
The rise of outsiders who address and inflame this anger has been swift. Donald Trump’s rise derives from a patchwork of middle-class voters who have been devastated by stagnating wages, globalization, and de-industrialization, and various forms of social and cultural breakdown. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is galvanized by a different kind of anger. His supporters, often younger and college-educated Millennials, rage against a system that feels rigged against them, and an economy that has failed to deliver real progress to the average American over the past 15 years.
It’s a political compass that’s being completely recalibrated, and it’s possible that Affluents can sense a seismic shift. They may still have a candidate that understands them (at this point, her name is likely Hillary Clinton), and it’s quite possible that this candidate will help them maintain their status quo. But the anger out there will have a cultural impact that will be indelible. And the days of policy that favors Affluents — from tax cuts to financial de-regulation — are likely over.
Regardless of how the election plays out, these divisions are now a fundamental feature of our society. It will likely play out through renewed distrust and potential reform of institutions like governments, banks, schools, and hospitals. These aren’t places that are exclusively the domain of the middle class — they impact Affluents as well.
Additionally, real paradigm-shifting policy changes may also be on the way, including immigration reform, trade policy shifts, and entitlement program changes — again, areas with a profound influence on the higher income brackets. So, while they may not be the ones doing the angry protesting, this election cycle could be the beginning substantial changes to both the wallets and the lifestyles of affluent American as well.