By Matt Bai, National Political Columnist
Trumpmania may be telling us a lot less about the dominant mood in the electorate at large than we think. (Photo: Dominick Reuter/Reuters)
Voters of America: Get ahold of yourselves, please.
I know you’re irrational and seething with anger. I know this because I keep reading about it, in every somber piece of punditry about Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or what’s going to drive the 2016 campaign. I hear it on my Twitter feed and in the fundraising emails that batter me all day long.
Apparently the entire country got hit with some kind of gamma ray, and now everybody’s all huge and green and hurling campaign buses willy-nilly across the highway.
Except that when I meet American voters, they don’t generally seem so unhinged to me. They mostly seem bewildered by our politics, and maybe a little too busy to care. Which makes me wonder if this whole year-of-the-angry-voter thing might be one of those instances where we think we’re seeing one thing, when really we’re seeing something else.
The chief exhibit in the case for voter rage, of course, is Trump. In case you haven’t heard, because maybe you’re all about Caitlyn Jenner and can fixate on only one attention-craved reality-TV star at a time, Trump is the clear frontrunner in the Republican field and the instrument of our blinding national outrage.
Also, just by the way, he’s phenomenal to the women.
Democrats and liberal commentators love the Trump story. It underscores, at a glance, how twisted with bile and bigotry the Republican Party must be. The guy excoriates Mexicans and manages to make Megyn Kelly look sympathetic, and still he’s ahead! What does that tell you?
Maybe not as much as you think.
Yes, there’s a sizable segment of enraged voters in the GOP — and on the left, for that matter. The angry vote is a fixture of the modern political landscape and has been, more or less, since at least the 1970s.
But Trumpmania may be telling us a lot less about the dominant mood in the electorate at large than we think. As one of the more astute liberal bloggers, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, points out, Trump has been drawing the support of less than a quarter of Republican primary voters, who in turn make up less than a quarter of the voting public.
And not only are Trump’s mad-as-hell voters a fraction of a fraction of the electorate, but they represent even a subset of that small group who are engaged in the campaign at this point and angry enough to actually take a pollster’s call.
In other words, Trump’s summer surge tells you about as much about prevailing political attitudes in America as the line outside the Yogiberry tells you about the state of the American dairy industry.
Here’s something interesting to consider: According to the Pew Research Center, which to my mind does the best polling on public attitudes across a range of topics, anger in the American electorate actually peaked in 2013 (at about 30 percent), after Republicans in Washington decided to turn the budget process into a series of hostage crises. Since then, the number of voters who identify themselves as angry has actually dipped precipitously, to about 19 percent last year.
It’s also worth noting that, according to the latest data from the University of Michigan, consumer confidence in the economy — which is what voters are said to be most angry about — is considerably higher than it was a year or two ago.
What Pew’s polling consistently shows, and has for a long time, is that voters trust their government less and less; that the share of voters who decline to join either party continues to rise; and that Republicans in particular are now disillusioned with their party’s leadership. The hostility that partisans from one side of the spectrum feel toward partisans of the other has also risen sharply.
But none of this suggests that voters want more extreme leaders who will impose their will by casting out all the immigrants or repealing all the trade deals. What it tells you is that most voters, conservatives included, have real anxiety about the ability of government to meet the moment, and they just want it to work better than it does.
They get frustrated at the futility of it all — and then they change the channel.
In truth, far from marking some new crescendo of outrage, this moment looks a lot like 1992, when the independent candidate Ross Perot managed to ride an undercurrent of anger to a stunning showing in the fall election, capturing 18 percent of the vote. (And before you start making comparisons, Perot appealed not just to conservatives but to the reform-minded middle, too; if Trump can get anything close to that as a third-party candidate, I’ll grow out a comb-over and dye it orange.)
What’s different now, 20-plus years on, is that the pockets of rage in our society are about a thousand times louder, to the point where those of who live in a political world can quickly lose our perspective on it. Blogs and social media create an effect that a friend of mine who works in politics likes to describe as putting a trash can over your head and letting someone beat on it with a stick.
If you’re covering the news or working on a campaign, and all you do is visit the same sites and watch the tweets roll in all day long, the anger can feel deafening and ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean it feels that way to the rest of the country.
Trump’s mad-as-hell voters are a fraction of a fraction of the electorate. (Photo: Charlie Leight/Getty Images)
And the problem with repeating this constant mantra of unprecedented voter revolt, as if the streets of America were overrun with pro-Trump parades, is that we’re not just overstating the reality. We’re also affecting it.
The more we portray the angriest and least flexible elements of both parties as in charge and indicative of the national mood, the more the broader, disaffected swath of American voters turns away from the process altogether, seeing nothing in it that makes them anything other than depressed.
More to the point, no matter what they might say, the candidates and their advisers watch cable TV and read the paper, too. And that’s probably a big reason why nine other Republicans stood onstage with Trump last week and mostly stared at the backs of their fingernails while he mocked the very idea of political service and reduced their entire party to a prop in “The Apprentice.”
A Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio doesn’t stand up, I’m betting, because they’re afraid the mob will turn on them. They’re not going to encourage what they imagine to be the rioting masses, but neither are they inclined to stand on top of a car and plead for sanity.
And yet everything about our modern political history suggests that both they and we are looking at this entirely the wrong way. Perot, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Michele Bachmann — all of them rode some significant wave of anger to a crest in the primary season. But none of them were nominated, or even came close.
Why? Because more thoughtful, more optimistic politicians figured out how to channel enough of that anger while appealing, at the same time, to the much larger part of the electorate that just wants some real and compelling answers to the dilemmas of modern life. Two of those candidates, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, won four presidential elections between them.
I’ll bet good money that the next Republican nominee will be the one who ultimately makes voters feel less anxious, rather than angrier. When it comes to the sound and fury of modern politics, it’s best not to mistake one for the other.