What if the (non-Republican) electorate isn’t as angry as everyone says it is?


Right now, the Republican Party is in crisis, at least at the presidential level. Donald Trump’s ascendance reveals the depth and appeal of white identity politics within the GOP’s nearly 100% non-Hispanic older white Christian core of supporters. The rise of both Trump and Cruz, and the implosion of Marco Rubio, also indicates the depths of Republican primary voters’ antipathy towards the elites in their own party. Combine this unruly GOP fight with Senator Sanders’ unexpected success among young progressives, it’s easy to see Sanders and Trump as populist mirror images of each other, and to believe that the American electorate wants to throw the bums out.

But what if this entire framing is fundamentally mistaken? By all indications, most Democrats are happy with President Obama, and want to see their favorite aspects of his presidency continued. Of course there are many facets of the Obama presidency. And of course the Democratic Party includes real ideological divisions. Some Democrats tend to the neoliberal. Others are more drawn to economic populism. So Democrats will choose to weigh Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses differently. Young Democrats tend to the left, especially on foreign policy and Wall Street. Senator Clinton must respond to that reality.

In the end, though, she and Senator Sanders are competing for the title of Obama’s rightful heir. There’s every reason to believe that the Democratic race will end much less acrimoniously and much less reflective of deep differences than the horserace coverage of the moment and the heated Twitter fights would suggest. Neither Clinton nor Sanders really represents the long-term future of the Democratic Party. But both credibly promise to protect the gains of the Obama years, to restock the group of Supreme Court liberal justices, and to keep a frightening demagogue out of the White House.

I’ve always believed that Hillary Clinton will easily beat Sanders, and then will clobber whichever Republican nominee emerges from a deeply damaged primary process which seems specifically designed to alienate huge swathes of the American electorate.

2016 will be a colorful election year. It may prove a wild ride, but I believe it will produce a boringly predictable ending. Democrats shouldn’t be complacent. But there’s good reason to be confident, too.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “What if the (non-Republican) electorate isn’t as angry as everyone says it is?”

  1. Nice post and we all have to remember that only a small and unrepresentative slice of American adults vote in primaries.

    1. Perhaps they turn out because primaries are generally proportional. In primaries, Republicans in California and Democrats in Mississippi have a genuine voice. In the general, their going to the polls is an exercise in civic virtue as abnegatory as voting for the Supreme Soviet.

  2. In the past week, Trump has issued threats against (1) the Speaker of the House, who, he says, will "pay a big price" if he and the Donald do not just hit it off on the latter's terms, (2) John McCain, who joined Romney in criticizing Trump's fitness for high office, saying that the Senator needs to be "very careful" and only saying that this means that "he will find out," and (3) the owner of the Chicago Cubs, who also joined in criticizing him, saying again that she needs to be "very careful" as well.

    This has gotten no play in the news that I have seen. But this seems to me to be a new development in the Trump campaign. It is one thing to encourage your brownshirt followers to rough up a minority protester at a rally; it is another thing to threaten wealthy and prominent white people with unspecified consequences if they fail to play ball with you. We have heard lots and lots about whether Trump has disavowed the KKK, but have heard no one confront him on this new kind of behavior.

    He is promising to use the powers of the office of President of the United States to punish his political opponents with unspecified consequences other than to say that a "big price" will be involved. This will not cost him anything with his base, of course, but it could give Bernie and Hillary a valuable talking point. Perhaps one of them will openly and loudly pledge that none of their opponents of either party will ever need to be "very careful" after expressing their political opinions. Then the talking heads would have to pay attention and play those clips, which should have gone viral before now.

    1. It could give Bernie a valuable opening but it would be a double-edged sword for Hillary because it has the potential to get mushed in with how she'll govern once in office—who will she protect, who will she favor, how will she resolve conflicts between what the Democratic base wants and what her personal base of lobbyists and fixers wants? Remember, to a lot of angry people who suffered and are still suffering from the crash, bankers and hedge funds guys are very much "the other" and I doubt if Trump's going after them with fair means or foul will draw even crocodile tears from most people. Especially those like me who thought Obama went way too easy on the criminals.

  3. You better hope that the non-Republican voters are happy with the establishment because if they aren't as content with things as you seem to assume, Trump could very easily win with a message of economic hope and the implicit promise that once he's in office, he won't be beholden to the establishment.

  4. "I believe it will produce a boringly predictable ending." That holds for the Presidency. But it is still completely up in the air whether President Hillary will be able to govern.

    The scenarios are:
    A. GOP House and Senate. Gridlock as before, down to SCOTUS nominations, because a woman can no more be a Real President than a black male.
    B. Democratic Senate, GOP House. This will be good for SCOTUS and Cabinet nominations and treaties, assuming Schumer has the cojones to kill the filibuster, but no legislation. Budgets will be trench warfare. Governability depends on the extent of GOP losses in the House and the caucus' reaction to the result.
    C. Democratic Senate and House. In a normal presidential democracy like France this would be the likeliest result, but in the USA it's the least likely outcome, and requires a Trump meltdown with overt GOP intraparty conflict, which McConnell is reported to be planning for. (I assume that Cruz is far more disciplined and that his many GOP enemies would fall in line.)

    The bookies will do well.

  5. Clinton is likely to beat Trump badly, but the media narrative will be of a close horse race, because this will boost ratings and profits. No one wants to tune in daily to a story whose ending is not in doubt. Trump is the ratings gift that keeps on giving; CBS News benefits from having given him a free ride to where he is now, and will continue to benefit from showing him a couple of percentage points from Hillary as the election season wears on. It is not difficult to design polls whose question formats and sampling frames will accomplish this goal. Watch for them to emerge in large numbers just after the conventions this summer.

  6. To put the question another way: if people who turn out for the primaries are voting with their middle fingers and the people who turn out for the general election vote with their index fingers, the results of the former need not predict the outcome of the latter.

  7. We are just as angry on the Democratic side we just don't by Trump being willing or able to change anything. Of course neither will HRC but at least she doesn't make me vomit, Nauseous though. We have government of by and for the rich. As to what were angry about: Having watched 2 jobs shipped to Mumbai with a tax write off for my employers shipping my job to India. 2: At yet another job in order to collect my severance pay I had to train my own H1B replacement. 3: After the disaster in 08 both parties bailed out wall street and even payed their bonus's, The poor we got a lecture on how helping us was a "Moral Hazard" to us so sorry. I won't vote for president at all this year as far as I can tell the only thing they stand for is let's make the rich richer.

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