Is America Really in an Anti-Establishment Rage?

Voters are angry. They just don’t agree on what they’re angry about.

Supporters of the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally on May 25, 2016 in Anaheim, California.
Supporters of presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally on Wednesday in Anaheim, California.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The great cliché of the 2016 presidential election is that there’s an anti-establishment mood in the electorate. That Americans just aren’t going to take it anymore. It’s why Republicans have picked Donald Trump to lead their party—and their country—for the next four years and why millions of Democrats have lined up behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his strong primary challenge to Hillary Clinton.

And there’s evidence to back the claim that we’re living in the “year of the outsider.” More than 78 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress; nearly 65 percent say the country is on the wrong track; and upward of 47 percent of registered voters say they would consider a “generic third-party nominee.” Together, that is a clear vote of no confidence in our political system.

But there’s another side to public opinion and when you plumb the facts of how Americans feel and where they stand, you come away with this: Either the country is confused or Americans aren’t experiencing a single, generalized frustration. The latter would have profound consequences for how our system deals with the present turmoil.

The evidence for confusion is strong. The same people who disapprove of Congress will readily re-elect most members to the House and Senate, as they have in almost every election year in modern memory. The same Americans who say the country is on the wrong track also approve of President Obama’s performance 50 percent to 45 percent. Earlier this year, in a survey on public attitudes by ABC News and the Washington Post, just 24 percent of Americans described themselves as “angry” about the federal government, the lowest total in five years. Forty-seven percent said they were dissatisfied, which is similarly low compared with previous surveys.

Well, what about the economy? Are Americans anxious about where they stand? When asked about satisfaction with their lives versus the country, 85 percent of Americans said they were satisfied, compared with 78 percent in 2013. Consumer sentiment is up substantially over previous years, and the number of Americans who say they are personally worse off has taken a sharp decline since the last presidential election. Indeed, for all the problems in our economy, broad conditions are OK. Layoffs are down relative to where they were four years ago; job openings are up; earnings are up; and gasoline prices are at decade lows.

Further complicating the popular portrait of an electorate gone mad is actual voter behavior. For all the talk of anger and dissatisfaction in the Democratic primary, it’s also true that a majority of Democrats back the establishment candidate for president, who promises continuity with the Obama administration. And while there’s plenty of evidence for the case that Americans are angry with the political system—in a November survey from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 54 percent said the system was “stacked” against them—this doesn’t jibe with the fact that most Democrats are fine with Hillary Clinton as their nominee or that—before Trump won—most Republicans were fine with a conventional candidate as theirs.

It’s hard to build a clear answer from these facts and trends. Conditions are decent; political behavior is largely normal; and when asked, most people express satisfaction and even optimism about their lives—so much that Obama holds the highest approval rating of his second term. Despite this, Americans also insist they’re angry about the political system and dismayed at the country’s direction. And while primary electorates are far from representative of Americans at large, the obvious popularity of figures like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump speaks to something brewing in American politics.

If anything, at least, we should avoid attributing this unusual election to a general anger. Voters aren’t uniformly frustrated or frustrated in the same ways, and whatever anger and frustration they have doesn’t translate to broad support for either of the candidates who seek to harness it.

What we should do, instead, is try to pinpoint the nature of the most salient kinds of anger and frustration. On the right, the most important dynamic is racial resentment and white status anxiety tied directly to a decline in relative fortunes for white Americans, and the rise of an unprecedented nonwhite symbol in the form of President Obama. On the left, we’re looking at the rumblings of a generation hit hardest by the Great Recession caught in the winds of rising global inequality. And insofar as nonwhites are frustrated with their place in society, it likely owes to moments of highly visible and still consequential discrimination, whether it’s anti-immigrant bigotry or police violence. But even this complicates the question of discontent. Blacks and Latinos saw the worst of the recession and the recovery: Among Americans, they have the strongest case for disrupting the system. And yet they back Hillary Clinton, who is running for modest gains over the status quo, not political revolution. Perhaps they don’t trust the consequences of overturning the present order; perhaps the reality of Obama has deepened their faith in the democratic order as it exists.

In practice, all of this means there’s no actual constituency for an independent candidacy or third-party movement since these frustrations lie at cross-purposes with each other. Anxious white Americans—Trump supporters—won’t sign on to a social-democratic agenda if it includes racial justice. (Which, given the role of nonwhites in sustaining left politics, it has to.) In turn, insecure millennials and older nonwhites won’t join a campaign devoted to restoring white dominance.

Barring a decisive national majority that can act to satisfy some portion of frustrated America, the best odds are that we’re stuck with the present disenchantment. A President Clinton won’t be able to stem white anxiety as it’s tied to vast demographic changes. And a President Trump—if he follows through on his nativist agenda—will spark new forms of fear and anger. Americans cherish the belief that we can power through our divisions; Obama thrust himself into national prominence on the strength of that idea. But right now, and for the foreseeable future, we may just be at a place where a reconciliation of our foul moods simply isn’t possible.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.