OPINION: Weathering the politics of high inflation

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black at a DeKalb County grocery giveaway.

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DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black at a DeKalb County grocery giveaway.

If you want a sign of how the economy in Georgia is really doing, look at DeKalb County on the last Saturday of every month.

That’s where you’ll find county CEO Michael Thurmond and a fleet of volunteers and county employees handing out boxes of groceries. The containers of fresh fruits and vegetables go into waiting cars, along with a dozen eggs and a pack of frozen chicken. It’s almost all grown by Georgia farmers and is free for residents, paid for by COVID relief funds.

Thurmond said the lines at the eight DeKalb locations usually start forming around 5 a.m. By 8 a.m., they’re 400-people deep.

He thought the program with Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black would last a few months during the height of the COVID pandemic, but it never stopped. The lines of people waiting for food never got shorter. And so the grocery giveaway continues — with 5,000 boxes handed out every month.

“At first people didn’t have jobs,” Thurmond explained. “Now they’re back working, but inflation has kept them struggling all the same,” he said. “So it is a crisis within a crisis within a crisis.”

It’s the same story across the country, where inflation hit 9.1% in June, the fastest increase in more than 40 years, and gas prices, while dropping recently, are still about 40% more than consumers paid last year.

The Federal Reserve has said interest rates are likely to jump again soon, and three-fourths of voters say the country is headed down the wrong track.

Add to that President Joe Biden’s approval ratings in the 30s, former President Donald Trump waiting in the wings, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and you’ve got a political dynamic so volatile that political watchers I spoke with likened this era to the Great Depression or the Civil War.

A more recent, and less dramatic, corollary for the upcoming 2022 elections might be the 1978 midterms when President Jimmy Carter struggled to contain his own combination of spiraling inflation and sky-high gas prices.

Trying to get energy policy under control ahead of the midterms, Carter didn’t need another headache, which inflation was shaping up to be, David Broder wrote in the Washington Post.

“As far back as December 1976, Patrick Caddell, Carter’s pollster, wrote that if Carter were to be reelected, ‘We must alleviate fears of inflation. Simply telling the public that inflation is not a problem is not going to do the trick.’”

Democrats lost seats in those midterm elections — 15 in the House and three in the Senate. It was enough to end Democrats’ supermajority in the House, but not enough to flip control of either chamber to Republicans.

It was a better result than Democrats expected.

But it was also the night Newt Gingrich finally won his Congressional seat in Georgia and Bill Clinton became the governor of Arkansas. It set the stage for California Gov. Ronald Reagan to run and win the White House in 1980 — and for a new generation of leaders to begin to take the reins of power.

Randy Evans, the GOP lawyer who is well-known in Georgia now, worked on Gingrich’s ‘78 campaign.

While the leadership in Georgia was still dominated by Democrats, he said, in 1978, “There was clearly a transition on the part of the electorate. It started a process of realignment where the parties started aligning with the voters.”

It’s possible we’ll look back on the 2022 elections as the ones that opened the door to another new generation of leaders, too. Democratic voters are losing confidence in Biden, while more than half of Republican voters say they’re ready to vote for someone other than Donald Trump.

In DeKalb, Thurmond predicted the 2022 midterm elections will be about, “Gas, guns, and groceries,” even in the deep blue county he serves. That’s his shorthand for the combination of the economic and social issues he hears about from voters every day.

Along with gun violence and new worries about access to abortion, he said the anxiety he hears from his constituents about the economy has never gone away since COVID hit.

“I’ve said to politicians, ‘Do not underestimate the significance of inflation and the impact it is having on working people,’’ he said. “They’re having to make hard choices.”

The best response he’s ever heard a politician give came from Bill Clinton.

“Clinton distinguished him during another economic crisis when he said, I feel your pain,” Thurmond said. “You have to show that you care.”

Dr. Charles Bullock, the longtime professor of politics at the University of Georgia, said along with voters’ anxiety about inflation and gas prices, he also sees a focus among Georgia voters on the social issues Thurmond talked about.

“On abortion and on constitutional carry, there are a number of things Republicans are doing nationally and in the state of Georgia are out of step with Georgians and Americans,” Bullock said.

The result, for now, is statewide Democratic candidates running about even with statewide Republicans, even as Biden’s approval ratings reach new lows.

But Bullock also added that recent history has a lesson for the party in power: “The pattern seems to be now — if you’re in the first term of a presidency, watch out.”