Last September, a Christian Science Monitor article suggested that "if the 2008 election was about hope, the 2016 race is about anger." The angry electorate has been a common narrative throughout this election cycle. Support for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Bernie Sanders is thought to be due in large part to frustration with the current political system. Fed up with business as usual, many voters are opting for anybody but Washington candidates.
To hear the candidates, the End is near. Speaking about the Iran nuclear deal, Ted Cruz declared that "people will die...Americans will die. Israelis will die. Europeans will die." He went on to link the deal with Osama Bin Laden, suggesting it would provide far more capital to those who would do America harm--noting that with rudimentary tools, Al Qaeda was able to kill over 3,000 Americans on 9/11.
"When did we beat China in trade? When did we beat Japan in trade? When do we beat ISIS? Do you ever hear a good story? We don't win. We don't win ever. When was the last time we had a victory? We don't have victories anymore. We lose on trade, we lose on health care--Obamacare is a disaster--we lose on every single aspect of our life with these politicians."
It would appear that America has fallen as the City Upon the Hill. Trump has staked his campaign on making American great again--implying that we are no longer great. In his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses, Marco Rubio noted that "everything that makes this nation great now hangs in the balance." Likewise, Bernie Sanders has put banks, the health care industry, and corporations on notice that if he becomes President, he will be looking to change business as usual.
The narrative of anger and pessimism pervading the 2016 election is rampant, and for good reason. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say things are going badly in the country. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans feel they are poorly represented in Washington.
The actions of the candidates over the past few months have fueled a great deal of frustration over politics. In 2008 and 2012, Republicans frequently invoked Ronald Reagan in the debates. Ignoring Reagan's "11th Commandment" that Republicans should not level personal attacks against fellow Republicans, the Republican debates in 2016 have been downright ugly. They have attacked one another with the same fervor with which they attack Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. While much of the nastiness has been attributed to Trump, plenty of mud was slung among one another in Des Moines, Iowa when Trump was not even on the debate stage.
The lack of comity in the campaign has made for a particularly jaundiced election cycle. Yet, in spite of all of this rancor another reality exists. It is a reality that receives little media coverage. In this reality, a vast majority of citizens are not particularly angry, nor are they any angrier than they have been in the past. A recent poll finds that only 24 percent of Americans consider themselves to be angry about the way the federal government works. The number of angry Americans was actually much higher two years ago in the midst of the last government shutdown (35 percent). One poll finds that 62 percent of Americans think all or most of their fellow Americans are angry at Washington. So while most people are not angry, we think most people are. This disconnect can be explained not only by candidates appealing to voter frustrations, but a media that is happy to run with the angry narrative--because it sells.
Similarly, while most Americans are not optimistic about the country's economic outlook, the majority of Americans actually feel good about their individual economic outlook. In fact, 63 percent report being "confident and optimistic" about their own financial situation when looking forward to the next year. This is the highest level of individual economic optimism in 6 years. Once again, this is far less likely to be the subject of media reportage.
President Obama gave a decidedly optimistic state of the union address last month. He argued that we are living in a time of extraordinary change and rather than fear it, we should embrace it. The President claimed that we have made change work for us in the past "and because we did, because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril, we emerged stronger and better than before." He added that
"our optimism and our work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to the rule of law. . . give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come."
It was a speech that was well-received in Democratic circles, showing signs of the 2008 Obama. It served as an answer to the dominant rhetoric of the 2016 campaign. At the same time, the President lamented that his biggest regret has been the increasingly bitter tone in Washington.
There has undoubtedly been a lot of "mourning in America," but it is not all doom and gloom. Frustration and anger are not necessarily bad, but making decisions based out of fear, misinformation, or emotion is. Let's do better America.