Guest Contribution: “Why Do Americans Vote for the Extremist Party?”

Today, we present a guest post written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. An earlier version appeared at Project Syndicate and LA Times.

         — Americans will go to the polls November 8.  It appears probable that they will give the Republican party majority control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate as well.  The same for Secretaries of State and other statewide offices.  The consequences could be enormous. Especially worrying is the future of US electoral democracy, if the result is further distortions of voter eligibility rules, congressional redistricting, the electoral college, and other structural features.  How could such an outcome of the mid-term elections be explained, seeing as how the Republican party is now dominated by its extremist MAGA faction?

  1. The MAGA party

Before attempting to address the explanation, it is incumbent on me to say what I mean by “extremist.”   I have in mind politicians who claim (or, in some cases, claimed in the past, before the recent primaries for their party’s nomination) that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, that global climate change is a hoax, that Covid-19 was a conspiracy, or that Barack Obama was not born in America.

To be sure, many fine Republicans do not say any of these things. (And many Republican politicians who say them probably do not actually believe them, though this is not to their credit.)  But the MAGA extremists now dominate the party.

Some Democratic politicians, including some on the far left, say things with which I strongly disagree.  But their role comes nowhere near the other side. There are many fewer of them and they are far less prone to factual falsehoods.

  1. “It’s the economy, stupid”

The outcome of this election, like most, will be determined by those who are neither die-hard MAGA loyalists nor determined left-wing progressives. The question becomes, why would uncommitted voters consider casting their ballots for today’s version of the Grand Old Party?

The answer, of course, is that voters deem the economy to be the number one issue, far more important than conspiracy theories regarding past or future elections.  Some of them are under the mistaken impression that Republican presidents have a better track record on the economy.  Many cite current inflation and a supposed recession as evidence that the Democrats are mishandling the economy and that the job should be given to the opposing party.

It is true that the Biden government has made some real mistakes in its policies. But the economy is currently strong.  It is remarkable that so many Americans believe that the economy is in awful shape at a time when the unemployment rate is a low 3.5 %.  To find lower US unemployment, one has to go back more than 50 years, to May 1969.  The Beatles were still recording.[1]

Moreover, there have been almost 2.0 job vacancies per unemployed worker for the last year, signaling the tightest labor market on record.  Normally, this ratio is well below 1.0.[2]

The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates rapidly.  Largely as a result, the probability of a recession coming in 2023 or 2024 is substantially higher than usual.  This is especially true in Europe, where the jump in energy prices over the last two years is having a greater impact than in the United States.  But it is unlikely that the US is already in recession. Nor is it certain that a recession is imminent.

  1. It’s inflation, stupid!

What upsets voters the most is inflation, which ran at 8.2 per cent over the last 12 months as measured by the Consumer Price Index.  The inflation rate was lower, at 6.6 per cent, if one takes out the volatile food and energy components; but this is of no consolation to households, who feel those costs even more acutely than the rest of the CPI.

People are as angry about inflation today as they were in the 1970s and early 1980s, the last time it was this high.  It is not hard to see why. Start with visceral sticker shock. A gallon of milk (3.8 liters) cost more than $4.40 last month.  Milk prices are up 30% since before the pandemic (when measured as a component of the Consumer Price Index[3]).

As prices go up in dollar terms, so do incomes.  It may be surprising to learn that, in the aggregate, US nominal income is keeping up with prices (whether measured by Gross Domestic Income or Personal Income Less Transfers).

For the typical worker, however, wages are not going up as fast as prices. Workers’ real weekly earnings have declined over the last year.  Instead, the share of US income going to the top has been rising.  In fact, this has been true for more than 40 years. The trend since 1980 has been toward greater inequality within the United States.

But concerns about the gap between the rich and the rest are a reason to support Democratic policies, not Republican ones.  Inequality was exacerbated by Republican legislation such as the tax cuts of 1981 (Reagan), 2001 (Bush), and 2017 (Trump) or the blocking of attempts to expand health care coverage.

Policies that Democrats have enacted in the recent past, and are likely to continue in the future if they have the power to do so, operate to reduce inequality. They include, among others:

  • making the US tax system more progressive, starting with abolishing the carried-interest loophole;
  • increasing the number of Americans who have health insurance, by extending Obamacare;
  • lowering prescription drug prices, in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act;
  • and expanding access to education, for example, making high-quality pre-school

Thus, if the economy is the number one issue, I will have no explanation if the MAGA-dominated party indeed prevails in the mid-term elections.

[1] The September 2022 unemployment rate of 3.5 % was tied with that of January 2020.

[2] The statistic has been collected since August 2007.

[3]  $4.18 in September 2022 versus $3.20 in February 2020.


This post written by Jeffrey Frankel.


37 thoughts on “Guest Contribution: “Why Do Americans Vote for the Extremist Party?”

  1. absolutelynot

    This is so unhinged. Democrats tell their share of lies, the mainstream of them and not just the “far left”. Stacy Abrams and Hillary Clinton have spent years saying elections were stolen from them. Several of the Jan 6 Committee members voted against certifying the 2016 election (not to mention 2000). We had nearly four years of Democratic politicians conspiracy theorizing that Trump was a Russian intelligence asset and secretly working for Putin. We have a Democratic Administration (not just AOC) saying corporate greed and monopoly power cause inflation. Many Democratic politicians were saying COVID-19 was a hoax at the beginning–I remember “racism is more dangerous than the virus” as common in Feb 2020, and Pelosi’s brave visit to SF’s Chinatown to warn against fear-mongering. Biden ran an entire ad campaign comparing Trump to Hitler and Republicans to Nazis. Hunter’s laptop, which contains information on business dealings between Joe Biden and foreign governments, was falsely declared by Biden’s press secretary to be “Russian disinformation” and still hasn’t been taken seriously despite corroboration by a former business associate and numerous media studies. The list goes on, and on, and on. To pretend Democrats don’t engage in wide-spread dishonesty is farcical. It’s what politicians do.

    If Republicans sweep in November, it’s because people are sick of pearl-clutching inanity (“extremists!!!”) used as an excuse to cover up gross mismanagement of the economy.

    This blog started as a great contribution which stuck to genuine economic issues by Jim H. It’s really fallen to become a poster boy for why Republicans consider academia a hostile and deeply political actor. The notion that taxpayers subsidize this activity needs serious reexamination.

    1. Menzie Chinn Post author

      absolutelynot: How does the taxpayer subsidize this blog? I’m doing the blog on my own time. No taxpayer dollars were used to pay for an RA to get the data. No taxpayer dollars are used for the blog website. Please elaborate.

      Now, please be sure to recycle the aluminum foil that’s been on your head.

    2. AndrewG

      ” ‘extremist’ … politicians who claim (or, in some cases, claimed in the past, before the recent primaries for their party’s nomination) that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, that global climate change is a hoax, that Covid-19 was a conspiracy, or that Barack Obama was not born in America.”

      How are any of these positions – not simply common, but the basis for the MAGA faction of the Republican Party – *not* extreme?

      How is bringing up any of this “pearl-clutching inanity”?

  2. JohnH

    Ralph Nader’s rebuttal: “ What Does Donald Trump Really Think About Democrats?…

    The Democrats are beyond stupid. They’ve contracted out their campaigns to consultants who, with their loyalties to their other corporate clients, have sold the Dems a strategy of caution – otherwise known as cutting off your cajones. Candidates without balls can’t think for themselves and just follow the script. Lots of Dems don’t want to appear with Bernie Sanders – the one guy I didn’t want to debate – who gets huge votes in conservative Vermont. What chickens!

    This is all so beautiful, so gorgeous for us. Dems without balls means they campaign every day with their political antennae flailing, afraid they’ll say the politically incorrect phrase and upset the word police or deviate from their consultant’s finger-waving “no-no’s” if they want to rake in big money.…

    They don’t know who they are or worse who they WERE! FDR clobbered the Republicans with Social Security, minimum wage, and unemployment compensation, and he pushed for unions, taxed the rich and went after business crooks. He taunted the GOP. They called him a ‘traitor to his class,’ and he said he welcomed their hatred….

    These issues are still very popular today, but the Dems aren’t pulling their base. The idiots even let me take the word ‘populist’ from their shaky hands – me the very core of Big Business.”

    Who would vote FOR a bunch of losers as ridiculous, senescent, and corrupt as Democrats?

    That said, the only thing I can imagine worse than Democrats is Republicans…two evils pushing the extremes of dysfunction and corruption.

    1. Barkley Rosser


      I just read a rather long list of states that Bernie is visiting to support various Dem candidates. It is a longer list than the number of states Obama is visiting and certainly a much longer one than the list that Biden is visiting. What a silly rant.

  3. pgl

    I agree with this post in so many ways but can we call out the trolls here on a few things?

    “that global climate change is a hoax” – CoRev makes this absurd claim routinely.

    ” that Covid-19 was a conspiracy” – one of Bruce Hall’s favorite themes.

    INFLATION – Bruce Hall’s favorite rant.

    RECESSION – our little cheerleaders led by head troll Princeton Steve.

    Part of what is going on is that Putin is funneling the MAGA madmen and he has so many trolls even on this blog (which includes JohnH as Putin’s pet poodle).

    Of course my current state (New York) has its own hysteria where ad after ad tells us that Kathy Hochul is promoting criminals while Lee Zeldin will somehow end all crime. It is utter BS but the screaming is persistent.

    1. Anonymous

      covid restrictions, and imperative based on fear and not risk informed inference is why the Atlantic has
      an article asking forgiveness……

      when the lights are out who will ask forgiving?

  4. Ivan

    The explanation is as always disinformation. Those voters who are not multimillionaires and vote for a GOP candidate fo not understand what they are voting for. Many are actually voting against rather than for things. Again they are poorly informed and, therefore, easily manipulated to fear what the democrats will or are doing.

    1. pgl

      Speaking of disinformation – check out that unhinged rant from absolutelynot. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!

      1. Ivan

        Agree, that one is up there with some of the worst. Completely alternate universe. There are people who disconnect from reality and make up their own little narrative world – I guess it makes them comfortable to thing they know what is going on and who is the enemy.

  5. Macroduck

    Frankel’s conclusion, in a nutshell, seems to be that the majority of voters (or a sufficient minority, depending on which party won the gerrymander) will vote for the party out of power because they are unhappy with the economy. The party out of power is an extremist party. If the part out of power were not extremist, voters would happily vote for an out-of-power non-extremist party.

    Which implicitly suggests there is something wrong with the Republican party; Republicans nominate extremists. Hotelling doesn’t work in the general election because of the results of Republican primaries. Gerrymandering is an obvious problem, though there is research claiming otherwise. Money is an obvious problem. Those problems have, however, been around longer than the current insurrectionist, baby-jailing, crime-loving, election-hating element that is prominent in today’s GOP. Worse yet, a party which panders to extremists eventually loses the ability to substitute mere hypoctrites for actual extremists. Hawley, Taylor-Green, Gaetz, Boebert, Nunez – how did a party which once included Everett Dirksen and Richard Lugar come to this?

    1. pgl

      “how did a party which once included Everett Dirksen and Richard Lugar come to this?”

      When people like Lindsey Graham say racism was a vote getter – they decided Trump had that “secret sauce”.

    2. AndrewG

      The relevance of a “normal” midterm, away-from-WH-party swing works best if many Republicans are a) not themselves extremists but b) don’t seem to notice the extremism of a large part of the Republican Party. They are often distracted by the far less extreme extremism of a tiny minority of Democrats, plus “social issues” that make them feel icky (they don’t want gays on Disney+). The party leadership, in fear of the extremist wing that has control over many primaries, doesn’t want to call out the extremism. But that’s normally *their* job. They fail at their job checking extremism because the extremists are too powerful.

  6. Anonymous

    calling anyone extremist connected to the mid terms is symptom of incumbent party having nothing to sell outside of late term abortion

    1. pgl

      I see you are incapable of rebutting any of the specific claims in this excellent post. So you toss out one of your usual worthless cheap shots.

      1. Anonymous

        inflation and the economy are the same issue, it is keeping the modern monetarists experiment going

        or working out the massive debt hole dug since 2008

        I see inflation and eco as limiting my lifestyle as retiree who watches used car prices explode and I should replace the old hot rod!

    2. Macroduck

      Refusing to accept the results of a democratic election in a democracy isn’t extreme? White nationalism isn’t extreme? Insurrection isnextreme? Attempting to kidnap the elected governor of a state isn’t extreme Promoting theocracy isn’t extreme? Intimidating voters isn’t extreme?

      No, it’s not just an election talking point. The Republican party has embraced a growing extremist element.

      Nothing to sell? The first major federal infrastructure investment in decades? Ended U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan? Largest-ever investment in dealing with climate change? Capped drug costs for Medicare recipients? Temporarily halved the child poverty rate ( thanks for ending that improvement, Manchin)? PACT Act? CHIPS Act? How about this?:

      So again, no. Democrats have lots to brag about, no matter how hard you pretend otherwise.

      1. Macroduck

        I could keep going if that would help. I recall for instance, very few Republicans speaking out against what Timothy McVey did. The drift toward extremism has accelerated among Republicans, but it isn’t new.

        1. Macroduck

          The charge of extremism is just politics? No. Let’s hand the microphone to John Ganz for just a moment:

          “Trump’s campaign began with an assault on the presence of unclean ethnic minorities. The movement is obsessed with national decline and attacking the internal enemies, who it blames for the parlous condition of the country. Although more loosely organized and weaker than those of the classical Fascisms, MAGA also has paramilitary formations that have tried to carry out this project to the point of attempting the overthrow an elected government. He has openly menaced his opponents with the existence of this (sic) groups.”

          “Many of the militia groups that were involved in January 6th can be traced back to the organizing efforts of actual American fascists and to the successor organizations of the Klan, the Silvershirts, and Posse Comitatus. The MAGA Republicans openly embrace the label “America First”, which was, quite literally, a semi-fascist movement, it had a bunch of fascists in it.”

      2. Anonymous

        who said ‘stop the count late in the evening of 3 Nov 2020.

        a lot of gaslighting and no auditing.

        I guess all the shovel ready project Obama ran are chopped liver,

        and where is the money coming from?

        the roads are great if you eat and buy gasoline

  7. Econned

    The final paragraph is confusing.
    “Thus, if the economy is the number one issue, I will have no explanation if the MAGA-dominated party indeed prevails in the mid-term elections.”
    The assumption here is of rational voters who undertake due diligence regarding prior administrations and certain research regarding impact on the macroeconomy. The authors should know this isn’t a rational assumption. Additionally, if “It’s inflation, stupid!“, the citing of research regarding previous tax cuts isn’t very relevant to voters who feel “ It’s inflation, stupid!” and desire lower prices and rising wages today. Moreover, the discussion jumping from “It’s inflation, stupid!” to “concerns about the gap between the rich and the rest” doesn’t seem to be inline with the concern of voters. Here, voters are concerned with their household in absolute terms and not relative to their CEO’s. “It’s inflation, stupid!” holds as a reasonable explanation of why a marginal voter may shift their political preference next week. Aback to the final paragraph, pointing out a “MAGA-dominated party” (or, as described earlier, “extremists” ) is a strawman with respect to voter’s preferences of controlling inflation.

    1. Anonymous

      the economy and maga pale beside the geopolitical danger we are facing with usa supporting attacks on russian fleet totally beyond Kiev’s capacity.

      get rid of the war for zelenski pols

      1. Barkley Rosser


        Oh, you mean that Putin is using this as an excuse to block Ukrainian grain exports thus exacerbating global food shortages? Other than that, US seems to be on the outside of this particular matter. Heck the Ukrainians previously sank the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, as well retook Snake Island. Did either of those actions constitute some enormous increase in “geopolitical danger”? After all, reportedly these vessels were being used as sources of missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, a war crime, even though you keep forgetting that the Russians are constantly committing them and making excuses for them to do so.

        You and JohnH are both truly disgusting with your efforts to justify Putin and his ongoing war crimes.

      2. AndrewG


        Russia is the aggressor here. Russia wants to wipe Ukraine off the map. Russia is committing war crime after war crime. Being blind to all of this is just incredible.

    2. Barkley Rosser


      You may be right that perhaps Frankel should not have jumped to the income distribution issue in the middle of this discussion of “it’s inflation, stupid,” although he after that did note that Biden has moved to lower prescription drug costs, which is a legitimate anti-inflationary policy, and one that should have been enacted in a bipartisan way a long time ago.

      OTOH, what you do not offer is what on earth the GOP is offering as an anti-inflationary policy for all these poor fools who vote for them on this issue. The XL pipeline they keep ranting about? “Energy independence” they keep ranting about, which the US already has according to the definition used by the Trampscheiss crowd? On the latter it is funny that we have people llike JohnH and Anonymous going on about all these petroleum and gas exports by the US, not noticing that this undercuts completely that silly “energy independence” tag line.

      Ah, but there is something we know they will push if they get back in control: tax cuts for the rich, something that in UK caused a crash of the pound and the markets and removal of Liz Truss in the current inflationary environment. Oh yes, that will be a great policy, and it is probably that which lies behind Frankel bringing up the matter of tax policy and whether or not it is progressive. So, not quite as irrelevant to the discussion as you claim,. “Econned.”

      1. AndrewG

        “OTOH, what you do not offer is what on earth the GOP is offering as an anti-inflationary policy for all these poor fools who vote for them on this issue.”

        Yes, the GOP are hypocrites on the issue of inflation.

        Voters don’t care.

        The huge, potentially world-historical mistake was Democrats not taking inflation seriously. It’s very frustrating to talk to intelligent, economics-literate people who don’t want to acknowledge this. The inflation actually experienced isn’t even that bad historically, and the same is likely true of the Fed recession that will end it (as, say, compared to the 80’s). And yet here we are with massive political repercussions. We need to stop pretending Paul Krugman of 2021 is somehow smarter than Paul Krugman of 2022.

      2. Econned

        “Barkley Rosser”,
        Your focus is misaligned. I don’t need to offer anything with respect to what the “GOP is offering as an anti-inflationary policy”. This isn’t about me. I can tell you what the marginal voter would likely say what the Rs offer… change. Doesn’t matter much to voters what the potential change may or may not be. It’s change, stupid!

        As to your assertion that prior tax policy is relevant or not, you haven’t supported that claim. Partially because you’re focusing on potential future changes and thinking like an academic. OTOH, that marginal voter is thinking about change and likely isn’t assessing the potential policies like an Econ model would suggest. You and Frankel don’t seem to be putting yourselves in the marginal voter’s shoes.

        1. pgl

          I don’t need to offer anything with respect to what the “GOP is offering as an anti-inflationary policy”. This isn’t about me.

          So you will not be Kevin McCarthy’s economic advisor. That is a very good thing since you clearly have nothing to offer with respect to economics.

        2. Barkley Rosser

          Sorry, “Econned,” but the people who are “stupid!” here are these voters who want “change” without any idea what that might be, not to mention any realization that the US is doing much better than many other nations in dealing with this global inflation problem.

          Take your “stupid!” and apply it where it belongs, “Econned.”

          1. Econned

            “Barkley Rosser”,
            That’s fine if you think voters are “stupid” but it doesn’t help explain anything – only further exasperates the divided among the public but it’s not very useful for discourse.

            As to your assertion about the “US is doing much better than many other nations in dealing with this global inflation problem” – I fail to see how that’s relevant to the discussion at hand. Are you suggesting that voters should take into account the US fairing better than other nations when visiting the polls? I’m not following how other nation’s inflation, of which the marginal voter couldn’t care less about, will (or should) be a factor at the polls.

            Also, why are you so ornery? The use of “stupid” is following the author’s writing and its well known usage in these topics. Please tell Frankel yo take his stupid and apply it where it belongs. Or maybe stop thinking everything is about you, “Barkley Rosser”.

    3. AndrewG

      >> Moreover, the discussion jumping from “It’s inflation, stupid!” to “concerns about the gap between the rich and the rest” doesn’t seem to be inline with the concern of voters. Here, voters are concerned with their household in absolute terms and not relative to their CEO’s.

      This is probably true. Absolute losses are much worse than relative losses, especially if they’re acute. Mentioning absolute losses then pivoting to inequality is a cop-out.

      Not learning the lesson of 2021 – that we in no circumstances should take the threat of inflation lightly – will have repercussions for us all. It’s precisely the kind of mistake future Democrats could make that puts someone worse than Trump in the White House in the future. That is the end of the Republic, full stop. And it’s also the end of the current US-led global order – which means major-power war. There’s no point in sugarcoating it.

  8. Rick Stryker

    Wow, what a great point Jeff makes! How could any American vote for an extremist party that consistently denies the results of elections?

    2000 Presidential Election
    Joe Biden, 2013: Al Gore “was elected president of the United States of America.”
    Joe Biden, 2016: “I think [Gore] won.”
    Hillary Clinton, 2016: The Supreme Court “took away a presidency.”
    Barack Obama, 2005: “Not every vote” was counted.
    Bill Clinton, 2001: “The only way they could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida.”
    Jimmy Carter, 2005: “There’s no doubt in my mind that Al Gore was elected president.”
    Al Gore, 2017: “Actually I think I carried Florida.”
    Jamie Raskin, 2003: George W. Bush was the “first court-appointed president.”
    Terry McAuliffe, 2004: “We won that election!”
    Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 2016: “The Supreme Court elected the president. Al Gore won the state of Florida in 2000.”

    2004 Presidential Election
    Hillary Clinton, 2005: “It’s fair to say that there are many legitimate questions about” the “accuracy” and “integrity” of America’s election system, “and they’re not confined to the state of Ohio.”
    Howard Dean, 2006: “I’m not confident” the election “was fairly decided” because “the machines were not reliable.”
    Jerry Nadler, 2005: “The right to vote has been stolen from qualified voters.”
    Sheila Jackson Lee, 2004: “We cannot declare that the election of November 2, 2004 was free and clear and transparent and real.”
    Maxine Waters, 2005: “Problems in the Ohio election” could have been “outcome determinative.”

    2016 Presidential Election
    Joe Biden, 2019: “I absolutely” agree that Trump is an “illegitimate president.”
    Hillary Clinton, 2019: The election was “stolen.”
    Jimmy Carter, 2019: “Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016. He lost the election and was put into office because the Russians interference on his behalf.”
    Kamala Harris, 2019: “Absolutely right” that Trump “didn’t really win.”
    Karine Jean-Pierre, 2016: It was a “stolen election.”
    Jerry Nadler, 2017: It was a “tainted” and “illegitimate” election.

    2018 Gubernatorial Elections
    Stacey Abrams, 2019: “We won!”
    Cory Booker, 2018: “Stacey Abrams’ election is being stolen from her.”
    Sherrod Brown, 2018: “They stole it. It’s clear.”
    Hillary Clinton, 2018: “If she had a fair election, she already would have won.”
    Kamala Harris, 2019: “Without voter suppression, Stacey Abrams would be the governor of Georgia; Andrew Gillum is the governor of Florida.”
    Karine Jean-Pierre, 2020: “Brian Kemp stole the gubernatorial election.”
    Terry McAuliffe, 2021: Abrams would have been governor “had the governor of Georgia not disenfranchised 1.4 million Georgia voters.”

  9. 2slugbaits

    Extremist GOP candidates are also pumping the crime issue despite the fact that violent crime started to rise during the Trump years. The 2021 data is still incomplete, but early data suggests it actually fell slightly during Biden’s first year. Now I don’t happen to believe that presidents have much to do with violent crime, but to the extent that some gullible voters think presidents are responsible for crime, then they should be voting out all those GOP politicians who think Trump did a great job with crime.

    A lot of these issues like inflation and crime come down to significant autocorrelation in the minds of ignorant voters. They tend to think in terms of accreting levels rather than rates of change and they do so with significant lags. So what happened three or four years ago somehow gets misremembered as happening last week. This problem is particularly acute with conservative brains because they are already hardwired to think in term of long lags with boatloads of autocorrelation. It’s almost the definition of what it means to be conservative! I guess there’s no getting around the fact that half the electorate has an IQ under 100.

    1. pgl

      Lee Zeldin’s plan to reduce crime appears to be let people carry guns into Times Square and on the subway. If he becomes governor, I may have to move.

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