Here's Why Voters Are So Anxious This Election

Jan 25, 2016
Originally published on January 27, 2016 6:54 pm

This week, NPR and some member stations will be taking the temperature of the electorate in communities around the country. You can follow those stations, via Twitter, here.

The mood of the voters is one of the most important political factors in an election year. This year voters are anxious, frightened and angry.

Candidates in both parties are trying to show they get it.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders' angry tirades against Wall Street have found a receptive audience (more on that from NPR's Brian Naylor here).

Hillary Clinton often talks about the fears and insecurities of ordinary voters.

And on the Republican side, no one has identified with or stoked voters' anger better than Donald Trump.

In the latest Republican debate, Trump declared, "I will gladly accept the mantle of anger."

There are a lot of good reasons voters are ticked off this year. Here are some:

Stalled economic progress

No. 1 is the absence of the kind of broadly shared economic growth that makes the American dream possible.

"When you consider the fact that household incomes are still thousands of dollars below where they were at the end of the Clinton Administration," explained Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, "people have gone a long time without making a lot of progress. They know it, they're feeling it, and they're not very happy about it."

Terrorism

Whether or not you think ISIS poses an existential threat to the United States, after December's attack in San Bernardino, Calif., there was no question that the war on terrorism has come back home. And that's scary.

Demographic change

Then there's demographic change: 2014 was the first year the majority of American kindergartners were minorities, Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen points out.

"We're only a dozen years away from majority-minority voting cohorts entering into our voting ranks," said Allen. "In some parts of the country, there's just a sort of incredibly durable tradition of white political and social control, and that demographic transition is forcing to a head the question: 'What happens now?' "

Immigration

This is why immigration has become such a flash point — particularly in the Republican primaries.

"One of the most illustrative things that has happened this year was in the way that Donald Trump switched from Mexicans to Muslims almost instantaneously," said professor Roberto Suro, an immigration expert at the University of Southern California. "It was a simple pivot after San Bernardino. Terrorism and labor migration became one thing."

According to Suro, it's not specific immigrants, or even immigration itself that voters are angry about. Instead, he said, immigration has become a vehicle to touch people's anxieties about a whole bunch of other matters, such as jobs, terrorism and the failure of government to perform basic functions — like policing the border.

Dysfunctional politics

Exacerbating all these anxiety-producing factors is a gridlocked political system that can't seem to solve big problems, no matter which party has control.

And here Republicans are angry at their own party's leaders in Washington in a way Democrats just aren't, says conservative analyst Henry Olsen, author of The Four Faces of the Republican Party.

"They've been listening to politicians who've been telling them for decades now that government can and ought to shrink quickly," he said. "And they think that when Republicans get elected that that's what Republicans got elected on. So they are angry for things they've been told they can have but most people in politics know they really can't."

Voters in both parties are angry at elites. But just like everything else this year, says Galston, Democratic and Republican populists are pointing their pitchforks at two very different targets.

"For the Republicans, the anti-elite focus is on government and professional experts of all kinds," Galston said. "And for the Democrats, and especially for the more left-leaning Democrats, the focus is on economic and financial elites."

It's not clear which candidates will benefit most from all that angry anti-elitism when voters finally start going to the primary polls next month.

One of the functions of elections is to hold up a mirror to society and to reflect what voters are feeling and what they want through the electoral process. And those feelings of anger and anxiety coming to the surface are defining the 2016 elections.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to spend much of this week probing the mood of American voters. It's an election year, when many people are anxious or frightened or angry. We can already sense some of what that means. Strong emotions have shaped the presidential campaign. In the coming days, we'll ask why people feel as they do. By the end of this week, listeners around this country will have a chance to offer their views. We begin with NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: You can't talk to voters this year without hearing some pretty powerful emotions. And all the candidates are trying to show they get it. For Republicans like Marco Rubio, it's President Obama's fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: A president that on 10 occasions around the world has apologized for America - apologized. And this is why people are so frustrated. This is why they're so angry. This is why this election's played out so differently.

LIASSON: On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders' angry tirades have found a receptive audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class. Yes, we have the guts to take you on.

(CHEERING)

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton has talked herself hoarse explaining that she takes seriously the fears and insecurities of ordinary voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: They're worried that they're going to be left behind while the people on the top, the guys who always get ahead, keep taking, taking, taking, leaving very little for anybody else. There's a lot of worry.

LIASSON: And no one has identified with or stoked voters' anger better than Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief.

LIASSON: There are lots of good reasons voters are so ticked off this year. Number one, says former White House aide Bill Galston, is the absence of the kind of broadly shared economic growth that makes the American dream possible.

BILL GALSTON: When you consider the fact that household incomes are still thousands of dollars below where they were at the end of the Clinton administration, people have gone a long time without making a lot of progress. And they know it. They're feeling it. And they're not very happy about it.

LIASSON: Another big factor is terrorism. Whether or not you think ISIS poses an existential threat to the United States, after San Bernardino, there was no question that the war on terror has come back home. And that's scary. Then there's demographic change, says Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen, who points out that 2014 was the first year the majority of American kindergartners were minorities.

DANIELLE ALLEN: So we're only a dozen years away from majority-minority voting cohorts entering into our voting ranks. So in other words, in some parts of the country in particular, there's just a sort of incredibly durable tradition of white political and social control. And that demographic transition is forcing to a head the question of what happens now.

LIASSON: This is why immigration has become such a flashpoint, particularly in the Republican primaries. Professor Roberto Suro is an immigration expert at the University of Southern California.

ROBERTO SURO: One of the most illustrative things that has happened this year was in the way that Donald Trump switched from Mexicans to Muslims almost instantaneously.

LIASSON: It was a simple pivot after San Bernardino. Terrorism and labor migration became one thing.

SURO: And what that tells you is that it's not specific immigrants. It's not even necessarily immigration itself. But this becomes the vehicle to touch people's anxieties about a whole bunch of other matters.

LIASSON: This year, immigration became all wrapped up in people's anxieties about jobs, terrorism and the failure of government to perform basic functions, like policing the border. Exacerbating all these anxiety-producing factors is a gridlocked political system that can't seem to solve big problems, no matter which party has control. And here, Republicans are angry at their own party's leaders in Washington in a way Democrats just aren't, says conservative analyst Henry Olsen, author of "The Four Faces Of The Republican Party."

HENRY OLSEN: They've been listening to politicians who have been telling them for decades now that government can and ought to shrink quickly. And they think that when Republicans are elected, that that's what Republicans got elected on. So they are angry for things that they've been told they can have, but most people in politics know they really can't.

LIASSON: Voters in both parties are angry at elites. But just like everything else this year, Democratic and Republican populists are pointing their pitchforks at two very different targets. Again, Bill Galston.

GALSTON: For the Republicans, the anti-elite focus is on government and professional experts of all kinds. And for the Democrats, and especially the more left-leaning Democrats, the focus is on economic and financial elites.

LIASSON: And it's not clear, says Galston, which candidates will benefit most from all that angry anti-elitism when voters finally start going to the polls next month.

GALSTON: Elections serve a number of very important functions. And one of them is to hold up a mirror to society. We learn something about who we are and what we're feeling and what we want through the electoral process. And a lot of things that are beneath the surface come to the surface during the intensity of electoral combat.

LIASSON: And those feelings are defining the 2016 elections. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.