Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

America's economic crisis ignored on campaign trail

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
March 27, 2012 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
People stand in a line that stretched around the block to enter a job fair on March 21 in New York City.
People stand in a line that stretched around the block to enter a job fair on March 21 in New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candidates agree that the economy is the main issue in the election
  • Julian Zelizer says they're ignoring the deeper economic challenge America faces
  • Good jobs have gone offshore, inequality is growing and urban areas lag, he says
  • Zelizer: U.S. economic problems are decades in the making and need serious attention

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and of the new book "Governing America" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- All of the candidates in the presidential campaign agree the 2012 election will revolve around the economy.

Although there are signs that conditions are slightly improving, the high unemployment rate and the depressed housing market are causing immense anxiety among American voters.

As a result, most of the political debate has centered on how the nation will rebound from the steep 2007-09 recession and anemic recovery that has afflicted the nation throughout President Barack Obama's term in the White House.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans and Democrats have tried to walk a political high wire as the release of new economic data continually changes the playing field. Mitt Romney, for instance, fell into a trap when he admitted that there were signs the economy was improving, a statement that caused many Republicans to grumble about their front-runner handing Democrats the key issue. Meanwhile, Obama's optimism has often been undercut with data showing that the situation is still bad.

With all the attention that has been given to short-term economic recovery, however, politicians in both parties have generally avoided the types of long-term structural challenges that are really at the heart of national anxiety and which greatly threaten America's ability to compete with China and other rising economic powers.

Economy top issue for Louisiana voters
GOP: $5.3 trillion cuts in 2013 budget

The first problem has been the exodus of good jobs to other countries.

In one of the most troubling developments of recent decades, many types of industrial jobs have been shipped overseas. And by and large, they won't be returning.

Numerous companies have built facilities in other countries where labor costs are lower, workplace laws are lax or nonexistent and other kinds of regulations are weak. According to a recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the United States lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs in the 2000s. If these trends continue, the tight labor market will become the new normal.

The chances for high school and college graduates to land solid jobs in the U.S. will diminish, as has already been the case for many working Americans who have watched the factories shut down.

Another chronic challenge facing the U.S. is the rising level of inequality in the United States. The gap between the rich and poor has grown dramatically since the 1970s. A troubling trend that has lasted for decades has been that the average income of the top 5% has risen while the average income of the rest of the nation has fallen.

The number of Americans in the ranks of the middle class has thinned. The income supports upon which workers depended have diminished, both those provided by government and by private employers. More Americans find themselves squeezed lower onto the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

As many commentators have noted, there are a number of causes for this growing gap, including public policy.

Without the ability of the government and private markets to reverse this trend, the U.S. will not be able to sustain the kind of vibrant middle class -- which in the 1940s and 1950s was attainable by more and more Americans -- that has been the engine behind the American dream.

The final challenge is an urban crisis that has decimated pockets of America.

As Thomas Sugrue showed in his award-winning book, "The Origins of the Urban Crisis," the breakdown of the cities began in the 1940s and 1950s as racist employment practices and real estate markets hampered the ability of African-Americans to get good jobs or relocate into better neighborhoods. The problems accelerated as jobs continued to move into the suburbs (before moving overseas). Rioting in the 1960s further devastated these communities.

The result of the urban crisis has been that multiple generations of inner-city residents have lived with little hope for a better future and have struggled to make ends meet, trying to survive on streets that are ridden by crime and drugs.

Many black leaders have been deeply disappointed that Obama, the first African-American occupant of the White House, has not done much to address these issues.

Although Republican Rick Santorum recently proposed tax cuts to lure business into these areas, there is little evidence that such a change in policy would do much to reverse decades of decay.

These are not the kinds of issues that politicians like to talk about in their campaigns. As opposed to temporary recessions, these quasi-permanent structural challenges have been decades in the making and will require wrenching policy choices as well as dramatic market developments to resolve.

If our political leaders don't address these issues that underlie the concerns of the nation, it will become ever more difficult to re-create the vibrant economic conditions that existed during the "American Century" when grand expectations about the future, as the historian James Patterson argued, guided public debate.

Then, the nation was strong and the possibilities for growth seemed infinite. Today, even if short-term conditions improve, our economy is far from what it used to be. How to achieve a better future is the debate that we really should be having in 2012.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT