Donald Trump undoubtedly disagrees, but a surprising portion of Americans think their nation is great right now. In 2016. No fooling.
To plumb Trump’s popular campaign slogan, “Make America great again,” Yahoo Finance recently ran a series of online polls asking our audience when they felt America was last great. First we asked that open-ended question on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Then we narrowed hundreds of responses into six specific years: 1952, 1962, 1969, 1988, 1999 and 2016. Each of those years more or less corresponds with a cyclical peak in employment and the sweet spot in the business cycle.
Nearly 6,000 of you responded to our survey, and the winning year was 2016, the choice of 31.6% of respondents. The second choice got 22.2% of the vote—though we’re not saying yet which year that was, since that will be the focus of a forthcoming story.
Here are a few reasons people gave for choosing 2016: “It’s no longer a white man’s world.” “America has never stopped being great.” “Look around and appreciate the goodness of America.” “Things are always progressively better if you continue to make better opportunity.” In general, those happy with the state of things in 2016 were refreshingly optimistic.
The vote for 2016 was obviously no landslide, or even a majority. Yet it seems surprisingly high given the sour mood the whole country seems to be in. More than two-thirds of poll respondents say the nation is heading in the wrong direction, according to Real Clear Politics, with only 27% saying it’s on the right track. Gallup’s economic confidence index is at -14, which means more people are downbeat on the economy than upbeat.
But life is still good for a significant portion of Americans, reflected in a low 5% unemployment rate, new record levels of household net worth and an economy that’s trudging forward more convincingly than in most other countries. Car sales are strong, the U.S. housing market is back on its feet and cheap gas is saving the typical family up to $1,000 per year.
The prevailing story on prosperity in America, however, is a tale of two economies: a booming one linked to digital technology and globalization, and a declining one tethered to 20th-century industrialization. It’s no accident Donald Trump, with his gloomy characterization of a nation on its back, appeals to millions, making him the leading Republican presidential candidate. Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders has capitalized on the same anger and frustration as he pillories crony capitalism and calls for radical new ways to redistribute wealth. Millions of Americans have been displaced in a turbulent economy, and worsening income inequality makes it harder today to migrate from the have-nots to the haves.
Still, the two Anger Candidates may want to poke their heads out of their respective bubbles and see just how deep the anger flows, because it’s not universal. Many coastal cities and some Midwestern ones are thriving, their residents baffled by Trumpian protestations. Many companies say they can’t find qualified workers to fill all open jobs. Even the farm economy is strong.
The ultimate poll on the direction of the country will come in November, when voters choose the next president. Meanwhile, we’d like to keep this conversation going. So let us know what you think about America’s greatness – past or present – on the Yahoo Finance Twitter or Facebook page, using the hashtag #greatagain. And watch soon for a different view of the last time America was great.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.