Divided by politics, united in anger
Americans are angrily divided, the polls and TV shows tell us, but take heart. There’s one point on which most people agree: America is on the wrong track.
The problem, though, is that half of us think it’s on the wrong track because Barack Obama is the current president and half think it’s on the wrong track because Donald Trump may be the next one.
We just see things differently. Half the electorate sees the country in decline; half sees it getting better. Half seems to love 20th century America but have little use for 21st century America. But you don’t have to be nostalgic for the past to be worried about the future.
The divide between Republicans and Democrats has never been sharper. A recent analysis by Michigan State political scientist Corwin Smidt of more than 50 years of voting records finds that the number of swing voters has dropped. In 1956, 15 percent of the electorate was up for grabs, he says. They might identify with one party, but could easily be enticed by a candidate from the other party. Today, less than 5 percent could be classified as “floating voters,” he says.
Smidt explains this trend by noting that political parties have defined themselves more sharply. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have all but disappeared. The party distinctions are evident even to voters who pay little attention to politics.
This changes the way campaigns play out. With fewer swing voters, non-ideological factors like the state of the economy or the personal qualities of the candidates don’t matter as much in the general election. If your top priority is abortion rights or gun rights, your vote is locked in long before the nominees are chosen. Candidates worry less about convincing swing voters and more about mobilizing the base, which pushes rhetoric further toward the extremes in the primary campaigns, sharpening the partisan divide even more.
But anger crosses party lines. A recent Esquire/NBC News poll found that half of Americans say they are more angry than they were a year ago. Two-thirds say they hear or read something in the news that makes them angry at least once a day.
They’re angry about the economy, with 54 percent saying they are worse off financially today than they expected when they were younger. The same percentage say the U.S. is no longer the most powerful country in the world. A similar share agreed that “the American dream – if you work hard, you’ll get ahead – once held true, but does not any more.”
There are gradations in America’s anger, the poll found. White Americans are angrier than blacks, who are more optimistic about the future. Women are more angry than men, and middle-aged people are more angry than the young or the old.
But the poll found broad agreement about who holds power in Washington, with 78 percent saying elected officials generally enact policies that favor the wealthy. Three-quarters agree that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else is getting larger. Resentment of corporations defrauding consumers and billionaires buying elections is widespread, and nearly everyone is mad at the dysfunctional Congress.
Another area of agreement was spotlighted in a recent Pew Research Center poll: On matters of politics, 64 percent said their side was “losing.”
How can that be? I expect it’s because we all live in our own customized media bubbles. It’s no longer just New York Times readers vs. Wall Street Journal readers, or Fox News vs. MSNBC. Now people get their news from their Facebook friends and their Twitter feeds – sources selected because they share and reinforce our opinions.
We get the news we want, delivered with the spin we like best, packaged to highlight particular issues. We inhabit different worlds, unable to relate to each other’s concerns. Democrats are left to wonder why Republicans are so obsessed with Benghazi. Republicans can’t see what’s behind the Black Lives Matter movement or take climate change seriously.
And in a changing media environment, there’s one constant: Bad news sells more papers, generates more clicks and attracts more viewers than good news. So every threat is inflated, every event is a disaster, every trend is a downhill slide. During an election year, the media and political interests align, as candidates and commentators fight for attention by seeing who can scream “emergency” the loudest.
Even great news can’t compete against the machinery of anger. Iran can dismantle its nuclear program, unemployment can hit 5 percent and gas prices can settle below $2 a gallon. But reality can’t compete with the anger so many are eager to inflame.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.