I’ve been rather preoccupied (obsessed?) with the day-to-day ebb and flow of the political fortunes of our various contenders for the Democratic and Republican nominations for president, as well as the implications of their titanic battle for delegates and the direction of their respective parties.
In part, it’s an occupational hazard for someone with my professional background and interests. In part, it’s because of the now-visible public rage that apparently lay just below the surface of our domestic political landscape.
That rage has surprised me.
It’s not that I’ve never encountered it myself; I have. As one who has been active in politics and, more recently, in the analysis of politics, I can tell many a story about individuals and small groups that were fueled by rage. But I never had the sense that it was pervasive or endemic. Now, not only watching the candidates and their supporters, but reading the public opinion polls, I’m encountering a different reality . . . different, and troubling.
Anger is useful for tearing things down. Anarchists love to stir up people’s anger. Revolutionaries often do, too.
But anger never built anything (except hypertension). Anger may need to have its season, but it ought not to become either all-consuming or all-embracing. Generalized anger is a portent of disaster, whether the anger is generalized for an individual or for a society.
A recent AP-gfk poll has helped me reframe my thinking. Perhaps it will have value for you as well. The story can be told in two charts I’ve constructed from the reported results.
This first chart shows the level of dissatisfaction and anger directed toward government. Fully a third of respondents are not only unhappy with the federal government, they’re angry. More than three-quarters are dissatisfied or angry.
The picture is somewhat better for state and local governments. Instead of a third, it’s a fifth of respondents who are angry. Instead of three quarters dissatisfied or worse, it’s only three-fifths.
That’s a lot of angry and dissatisfied people. For a meaningful percentage, that anger seems to apply equally to all levels of our federal system of government. Whether that’s because they have concrete reasons to be angry at their state/local government as well as their federal government, or whether we’re all being painted with a single swipe of the brush, is unclear.
Just how broadly does that brush paint?
Much less than I feared.
Over 80% of respondents in the same poll expressed satisfaction with their personal and family relationships (nearly half saying they were “enthusiastic” about them). Almost two-thirds were at least satisfied with their personal financial situation. Results were similar (not shown here) for careers and work-life balance.
What’s my takeaway?
The American public is not angry. Most are reasonably happy with their lives on a personal, professional and financial level. Neither the Great Recession, nor the global threat of terrorism, nor the violence in our communities, nor the clouds on our collective horizon from a variety of sources have dimmed our overall outlook on life.
But ask us about the performance of government, especially Congress (The poll shows Obama’s approval rating at 50%, but Congress’ at 13%), and one can expect to get quite an earful.
Some of that deep dissatisfaction reflects the deep divisions in our society about the direction we want our government to go. In that regard, government is a victim of our own attitudes, not of its own performance.
But the in-depth interviews with some poll respondents also suggest that voters of all ideological stripes see in their representatives, not advocates for their constituents’ interests nor champions of the common good, but self-serving members of a ruling class with little regard for anything other than their own political and personal fortunes.
That’s not just about policy. That’s about how we see them act, the persona they project, as filtered through a variety of media that thrive on stories of controversy and personal misconduct.
That’s an invitation, for all who lead or would seek to lead. Be someone we can trust . . . not agree with all the time (we won’t, and we know that). Just remind us, by your words and by your actions, that we are your primary concern. We’ll forgive differences of opinion on policy if we know you share our opinion about your duty.
Which is, of course, to serve the people who put you in office. Serve well, so that we can be at peace about the future and enjoy the present, the lives we live about which, on balance, we are feeling pretty good.