By Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman
Voters this fall aren’t just sharply polarized; they’re also very angry — whether they’re Democrats, Republicans or even independents.
In partnership with YouGov, Penn State’s McCourtney Institute of Democracy has been polling Americans to assess the overall mood of the nation. We conduct each poll over the Internet with a non-probability sample of 1,000 Americans selected to closely match the characteristics of all U.S. adults.
We ask respondents to tell us, in their own words, what in the news or in politics makes them proud. We then ask about the intensity of their feeling. For instance, if they say that “Colin Kaepernick is getting some respect” makes them proud, we ask how proud that makes them on a 0-4 scale running from “not proud at all” (zero) to “extremely proud” (four). We then ask them what makes them angry, hopeful and worried.
Americans are angry. Really angry.
Remarkably, our poll has found consistently high levels of anger since we began in June 2016. As you can see in the figure, the average American remains so in our latest poll, conducted Sept. 5-9. Republicans’ anger scarcely dissipated after the party’s success in the 2016 presidential and Senate elections.
Donald Trump has been the No. 1 source of anger among Democrats since he became the GOP nominee for president in the summer of 2016. Democrats also are angry at the political system — especially the role of money in politics — and what they see as their political opponents’ racism, sexism and other kinds of intolerance. One 36-year-old homemaker from Michigan wrote, “I hate how guns, racism, bigotry, callousness, and greed are causing our country to implode.”
Meanwhile, Republican citizens have been consistently angry at the media, the Democratic Party and its leaders, and left-leaning social groups. For instance, a 54-year-old Texas woman told us she was angry at “Fake news & the skewed media (which is tied in to the Democrat party), the Mueller ‘investigation.’ ”
Republicans are frequently angry at protesters and others they feel don’t show tolerance or respect for the president and his supporters.
Independents consistently say that a broken political system gets them angry — lies, bickering or the inability of Congress to get anything done. A 51-year-old Ohio independent woman was typical, saying she was angry at the “lack of civility, lack of bipartisan agreements, Congress getting nothing done.”
Does all that anger mobilize citizens or alienate them from politics?
In our September poll we added new questions about how Americans respond when “something in the news or politics gets me really angry,” giving them six options.
As you can see below, 40 percent said that when they were really angry, they often (15 percent) or sometimes (25 percent) say they comment on social media or news sites. And 30 percent said they often (7 percent) or sometimes (23 percent) “take steps to volunteer for a candidate, a group, or a civic or political organization.”
But most often, angry Americans distract themselves. Two out of every three angry respondents said they “want to escape with an activity or hobby, so I don’t have to think about politics”; 20 percent say that happens often, and 44 percent sometimes. Similarly, half said they often have an urge to get involved but in the end don’t do anything.
And one in three describe something like clinical depression, saying they often (9 percent) or sometimes (24 percent) “just feel empty and nothing gives me pleasure.”
How might Americans’ anger affect the midterm elections?
The most common reactions to political anger are withdrawal and inaction. Many fewer Americans’ anger pushes them to get politically engaged.
Of course, withdrawal and action are not mutually exclusive. Substantial numbers of Democrats report that they sometimes withdraw, sometimes comment on social media, sometimes act and more often don’t. For example, among Democrats who say they “often” escape with an activity or hobby “so I don’t have to think about politics,” 36 percent also say they sometimes or often take steps to volunteer because of their anger. Overall, the poll reveals an electorate filled with angry citizens who often want to crawl under a rock and nevertheless sometimes act.
The angriest Americans are more likely to be registered to vote, more likely to have voted in the past, and follow public affairs more closely than those who aren’t as angry. These are the characteristics that pollsters use to identify likely voters.
All that suggests that if escapism is the dominant feeling on Election Day, many regular voters might be staying home. But if action is the winning impulse, registered and engaged citizens will be the most likely to vote in November.
Eric Plutzer is editor of Public Opinion Quarterly and professor of political science at Penn State, where he also serves as director of polling for the McCourtney Institute of Democracy.
Michael Berkman is director of the McCourtney Institute and professor of political science at Penn State University.