Lynn Vavreck APRIL 2, 2016, New York Times
image from article
Americans are angry. That’s the sentiment that many believe is driving the
2016 election. They are angry because the rich are getting richer, the average
guy is struggling and the government in Washington hasn’t done anything to
stop the trend.
But it may not be that simple.
Data on the nation’s economic recovery, people’s reactions to current
economic conditions and their overall sense of satisfaction with life do not
suggest Americans are angry. In fact, historical measures indicate people are
about as happy and satisfied with the economy and with their lives as they
were in 1983, when Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning again in America.”
So why does it feel more like a 1 a.m. bar brawl?
The answer may have more to do with political parties than economics, or
at least with the interaction of the two. Today’s voters have sorted themselves
and polarized into partisan groups that look very different than they did in the
late 1980s. And members of each side like the other side less than before.
Americans aren’t annoyed only by the economy; they’re annoyed with one
Objective economic conditions measured by the Federal Reserve suggest
that the nation’s recovery began in 2010, when gross domestic product started
to expand, unemployment started to fall and real disposable income began to
increase. By 2015, the misery index — a combined measure of unemployment
and inflation — was about as low as it had been since the 1950s, meaning an
active demand for goods and services along with low unemployment and
Most Americans seemed to appreciate this growth. Data on the Index of
Consumer Sentiment, one of the longest-running measures of Americans’
views of the economy, shows that by the end of 2015, consumer sentiment was
as positive as it had been in the mid-2000s and mid-1980s. It was nearly
identical to where it was at the end of 1983, when Mr. Reagan’s re-election
romp began to take shape.
Even breaking the consumer sentiment data down by income levels does
little to buoy the argument that Americans were pessimistic. From 2009-2015,
the average gap in economic satisfaction between the upper and lower thirds
of the income distribution was 13.7 points, much lower than it was during the
Reagan years (21.3) and lower than the gap during the administrations of the
elder George Bush (14.7), Bill Clinton (16.7) and George W. Bush (18.4).
As we entered 2016, Americans of all income levels felt positively about
the economy, though by some indicators many people had not recovered. The
employment-population ratio and median household income, for example,
began to recover only in 2015.
To get a sense of whether these economic factors were affecting the
general mood of the nation in a way not captured by consumer sentiment, I
examined one of the longest-standing measures of general happiness. Since
1972, the General Social Survey has asked people to “take things all together”
and rate their level of happiness. The 40-year trend shows only modest
changes — and may actually suggest a small increase in happiness in recent
Describing Americans’ mood as distinctively angry in 2015 elides this
evidence. Americans were optimistic about the nation’s economy and generally
happy — in fact, no less optimistic or happy than they had been historically.
But there was a sense in the fall and winter of 2015 of one change. Using
analytic tools provided by Crimson Hexagon, I calculated the average monthly
increase in the share of news articles about the 2016 election with the word
“angry.” Between November 2015 and March 2016, the share of stories about
angry voters increased by 200 percent.
Some evidence suggests that the ire came from politics. When asked by
pollsters about trusting the government, the direction of the country,
American progress or the president, Americans were gloomier than their
economic assessments might have predicted. Broken out by party, these
pessimistic views reveal a growing partisan divide, one that’s been distilling
around racial attitudes for nearly two decades.
The increasing alignment between party and racial attitudes goes back to
the early 1990s. The Pew Values Survey asks people whether they agree that
“we should make every effort to improve the position of minorities, even if it
means giving them preferential treatment.”
Over time, Americans’ party identification has become more closely
aligned with answers to this question and others like it. Pew reports that,
“since 1987, the gap on this question between the two parties has doubled —
from 18 points to 40 points.” Democrats are now much more supportive (52
percent) of efforts to improve racial equality than they were a few decades ago,
while the views of Republicans have been largely unchanged (12 percent
That Democrats and Republicans have different views on issues is not
surprising. But recent work by Stanford University’s Shanto Iyengar and his
co-authors shows something else has been brewing in the electorate: a growing
hostility toward members of the opposite party. This enmity, they argue,
percolates into opinions about everyday life.
Partisans, for example, are more concerned that their children might
marry someone of the opposite party (vs. people in Britain today and the
United States in 1960). They found partisans surprisingly willing to
discriminate against people who are not members of their political party.
We’ve entered an age of party-ism.
Writing in The Washington Post, Michael Tesler, a University of
California, Irvine, political scientist, explained that because the growing
partisan divide is partly fueled by racial attitudes, partisans (in Washington
and in the electorate) also take increasingly opposite positions on many
racially inflected controversies.
Some are political, like police misconduct. Others spill into areas we think
of as more social than political, like sports, music and movies: about Academy
Awards nominations, for example.
Democrats and Republicans like each other a lot less now than they did
60 years ago, in part because they have sorted into parties based on attitudes
on race, religion and ethnicity. These attitudes and emotions have been
activated in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Add to this the fact that the
country is becoming less white and that nonwhites are disproportionately
more likely to be Democrats, and an explanation for the anger emerges.
Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at U.C.L.A., is a co-author
of “The Gamble,” about the 2012 presidential campaign.