“It’s the economy, stupid.” The words date from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, but the basic idea that political shifts are the visible manifestations of hidden economic developments was first articulated by Karl Marx, who wrote before the word “economy” had its current meaning. When he declared, in 1848, that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” the notion was truly revolutionary. It has become a commonplace. Pundits ferret out economic causes for everything, politicians strive to present voters with economic good news, and careful studies show that economic trends influence elections.
Like most often-repeated generalizations (“Germans are orderly” or “an army marches on its stomach”) the claim that politics is fundamentally about economics has some truth to it. But I think pundits, politicians and voters would all benefit from a bit of revisionism. It’s not always the economy, and when it is, politicians cannot do much about it in a hurry.
Start with the expert commentators. I’m thinking of the people who confidently declare that the Arab Spring was caused by the increased cost of food. Or the ones who explain the poor performance of Vladimir Putin’s party in the recent Russian parliamentary election as a reflection of stagnating average incomes. The invasion of Iraq? It was the oil, stupid. The rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe? Look no further than the job market.
Such claims cannot be disproved, since they concern motivations which are unknown to the actors themselves. I may “think” that I want to get rid of a kleptocratic government or that I’m uncomfortable with the president’s autocratic tendencies, but I’m just being, well, stupid. Idealism and xenophobia are mere covers for a calculation, possibly erroneous, of economic self-interest.
But it is the pundits who are being simple-minded, if not devious. Most of the leaders of the Arab revolts had prospered under the old regimes, and the recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt have been won by parties with a clear religious agenda but only vague economic plans. When protesters say they thirst for justice and when voters indicate they desire holiness, there is no good reason to think their stated views hide a more ignoble reality. An excessive focus on economic issues makes the pundits unreliable guides. They should remember that economic issues are sometimes crucial in people’s lives, but more often not.