It has been stated many times in the last few months that the American electorate is angry. Eight years ago we elected Barack Obama and his platform of “change we can believe in.” Now it seems that large numbers of voters are casting ballots on platforms of “change that is completely unbelievable, if not certifiably crazy.”
The standard reason given by political experts for the unpredictable voting pattern this year is simply that voters are angry. There is certainly plenty of documentation of the anger, but virtually no data on the specific reasons for it.
So, what is making us mad?
I did a Google search of “why Americans are angry,” and came up with plenty of opinions but no actual data. As is often the case in my research department, many theories I assumed were the source were ultimately shown not to be.
First, the theory that “it’s the economy, stupid” turns out not to be it. Yes, Americans are earning almost exactly what we earned twenty years ago. But those numbers are adjusted for inflation, which means the middle class actually is standing strong. Polling data, the rise in the work force and the strength of a national unemployment rate that dipped below 5% this year, all combine to indicate that the workforce is not angry at all. In fact, poll after poll confirms this.
Second, I assumed that the appearance of unsecured borders, outdated immigration policies, and a new and ominous terrorist organization had America completely spooked. Nope, that’s not really it either. The data here fluctuates faster from year to year, and while there are differences among us on how to address these things, there is not uniform pessimism regarding solutions for progress.
The “differences among us” is the key phrase there.
After reading a dozen or so media reports from my Google search and my customary deep dive into the Pew Research Center library of topics, I am convinced that the anger being expressed by the electorate this year is a result of a phenomenon called “sorting.”
Sorting was first identified in an article by Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders of Emory University in 1998. Much of the gridlock and partisanship that characterizes our politics and government appear to exist as a result of what is more often referred to as voter polarization. In politics, polarization and sorting seem like the same thing even though political scientists know the specific differences.
To average Americans, sorting is a term that translates more broadly because it is not just politically based. For example, there is no evidence that religious liberty is actually under threat here. Many conservatives, however, believe that it is. And culturally these people are drawn to each other in a sorted group, bonded by their shared view that something precious to them is in danger.
Likewise, many liberals believe that civil rights protections are either inadequate or under siege. That shared perspective has bonded this separate group through similar fears. Through their bond, this sort also has a clear picture of the opposing group at whom to direct its anger.
And our politicians are campaigning to the sorts within their parties, exacerbating the trend. For example on the larger political stages, the pro-choice Republican is extinct, as is the NRA Democrat cheerleader.
The divides are also becoming more and more distinct among racial and religious lines. Our culture is becoming more diverse in both of these categories each year, and though our civil rights policies continue to expand, sorting continues to create divides here.
Party affiliation numbers are unchanged. But today’s devotion to either party has made those devotees less tolerable to members of the other.
And all of this is occurring during good times.
There does not seem to be a governmental or political answer to this problem, and neither is the real reason for it. We may very well need to rely on culture and commerce to adapt and realign us.
Nearly 53 years ago, JFK gave his famous commencement at the American University when he said: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
The “we” he referred to included the source of our fear and anger then, the Soviets. Today, the source of our anger is each other, a more worthy opponent. And we will need to conquer our anger without defeating its source.