acemoglu18_Drew AngererGetty Images_usflagprotestjobs Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Post-Trump Agenda

The stakes in November's US presidential election are high, given how much damage to America and the world a second Trump term could cause. But even if Trump is defeated, Americans must address the deeper problems that made his presidency possible.

CAMBRIDGE – The experience of the past three years has shattered the myth that the US Constitution on its own can protect American democracy from a narcissistic, unpredictable, polarizing, and authoritarian president. But the country’s problems are not limited to the menace in the White House. All Americans also bear responsibility for the current state of affairs, because we have neglected critical institutions and ignored the intensifying structural weaknesses that created the conditions for a demagogue like Trump to emerge in the first place.

At least three major fault lines underlie America’s current structural problems. The first is economic. In the decades after World War II, the United States achieved not only rapid but also broadly shared growth, with wages for most workers tracking increases in productivity at a rate of around 2% per year, on average. This growth was bolstered by labor-market institutions such as minimum wages and unions, and by technological changes that generated good (high-paying, secure) jobs for the majority of US workers.

These institutional arrangements started to come apart in the 1980s. Good jobs began to disappear, inequality began widening, median real (inflation-adjusted) wages stagnated, and real wages for low-education workers actually started to fall. A variety of factors drove this turnaround, including the erosion of the federal minimum wage, new laws and court rulings undercutting collective bargaining, changes in wage-setting norms, trade with China and offshoring, and automation.