Sanders and Trump seize on misplaced anger

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts that will feature analysis of data released as part of the Brookings Democracy Dashboard.The first one is available here.

In a recent post, my colleague Elaine Kamarck contends that the anger of American voters goes a long way toward explaining the current presidential race; that some voters have concluded that only by breaking the mold in a big way—by electing a billionaire with no government experience or a Socialist—can America be saved. There is much to agree with in that post, but I think there is much more to the “anger” story surrounding Trump and Sanders.

The Sanders and Trump candidacies largely reflect Americans’ disgust for government dysfunction, cronyism, and corruption, and the passion and participation they are motivating are all good for democracy. These candidates are bringing people who feel voiceless into the political conversation, and motivating turnout and other forms of participation (donating, volunteering, and rally attendance) among groups with traditionally lower levels of participation. These are democratic benefits that everyone should applaud—I certainly do.

Voter turnout that looks more like the rest of America helps ensure the voices heard in the political process are more representative of the population at large. That means that specific groups with specific interests do not have a disproportionate say in the leadership of the United States.

Today, passion for that ideal is being channeled into support for presidential candidates. These voters want a new president with a unique approach. They are starving for an outsider or (dare I say) maverick to shake things up in Washington. They’re not looking for a Bush-esque “compassionate conservative.” Nor are they looking for an Obama-style warm and fuzzy, feel good, “hope and change” kind of candidate. No, these voters are mad as hell, and they want someone to swear an oath to break stuff.

We love them, we love them not

Yet, therein lies the contradiction with the fervor currently taking American politics by storm. Americans, by and large, aren’t distrustful of their presidents or of the executive branch. In fact, even on bad days, presidents are among the most liked and approved of political actors in our system. By contrast, Americans are largely fed up with Congress. Brookings’ new Democracy Dashboard sheds some light on this phenomenon.

The approval rating for presidents is rarely a consistently stellar number. But relative to Congress and its approval rating, the President is well liked and trusted. According to the Democracy Dashboard, since 2008, presidential job approval has hovered between a high in the 60s to about 40 percent, with recent years having President Obama’s approval rating consistently at or around 50 percent.

Nearly mirroring presidential job approval, trust in the executive branch has varied within that same 40-60 percent range. It is true that those levels do not reflect a resoundingly satisfied nation. However, presidential job approval is considered quite good when it is in the 60s, making approval ratings around 50 percent not too bad.

Of course, when we compare the president to Congress, he looks like Superman. Since 2008, congressional job approval has consistently registered at or below 20 percent. Most remarkably, that approval rating has been consistent across all types of Congresses: unified Democratic, unified Republican, and each chamber being controlled by different parties. The short of it: America just doesn’t like the job Congress is doing. Not surprisingly, Americans don’t trust Congress either. Trust in the legislative branch has dropped precipitously since 2008—from around 50 percent to less than 30 percent. These numbers offer context to how unhappy Americans are with their elected representatives.

During this same period (since 2008), Americans’ perception of the “way things are going in the US” has been pitiful. The percentage of people satisfied with how things are going ranged from 14 to 26 percent. Similarly, during that time, only between 19 and 24 percent of Americans reported that they “trust in the government to do what is right.”

The Democracy Dashboard tells us a few important things about public perceptions of government. First, it shows how deep dissatisfaction runs and helps explain how Sanders and Trump have been effective at building and sustaining their respective coalitions. Second, it highlights that Americans’ discontent has been stable and prolonged over much of the last decade, and if anything, that anger and distrust has only deepened of late. Third, and finally, Americans’ unhappiness has been asymmetrical. That is, they are not equally dissatisfied with all aspects and institutions of government. Instead, the driving force behind much of the ill will comes from one source: the United States Congress.

Targeting America’s political frustration

If Congress is really what’s getting Americans down, why can’t this newfound, grassroots passion sweeping the presidential race trickle down into congressional contests? Part of this is explained by the common declaration: “I hate Congress, but love my congressman.” But that is only part of the answer. The issue is compounded by a media cycle that includes continuous coverage of the presidential campaign. Often, the only mention of individual legislators happens when they endorse a presidential candidate or land themselves in a scandal.

But in many instances, the only way to fix America’s biggest problems—the ones most troubling to the average American—involves electing a better Congress. Trump’s light-on-specifics, heavy-on-vitriol ideas need a Congress to pass them. Sanders’ big proposals and sweeping reforms will be dead-on-arrival in the current Congress or one that looks anything like this one.

No, I’m not saying the Trumpeters or Sandernistas should drop everything presidential and focus exclusively on their hometown legislative races. Again, the enthusiasm around these campaigns has important democratic benefits. But real change will require a broader effort. Those fed up with the system need to target enthusiasm toward the whole system, including but not exclusively the highest office. They should donate, volunteer, and do what they can to assist like-minded members of Congress and especially like-minded challengers who will help their presidential candidate remake America in the mold they most desire. Sure, there won’t be such candidates like that in every state and congressional district, but there will be many—many more, frankly, than will be elected.

And enthusiastic supporters are not the only ones who seriously need to spread the love. The presidential candidates do themselves. This may be a hard sell for Bernie and the Donald. Both Sanders and Trump have gotten limited support (endorsements) from sitting members of Congress. Those elected officials have opted either to endorse competitors or stay silent during the primary thus far. Yet, Sanders and Trump could focus more exclusively on like-minded challengers. They can raise money for and hold joint rallies with prospective “revolutionaries” or “America’s greatness makers.”

They need to signal that their candidacies are about more than just them in the effort to bring transformational change to American politics and policy. If they are willing to do that, they can accomplish three complementary goals. First, they can attract additional supporters who see their candidacy as more legitimate, serious, and committed to real change. Second, they can begin to build alliances before ever even having the opportunity to move into the White House. Those alliances will not just prove helpful, but they will be absolutely essential to enacting the policies and programs these candidates see as critical to America’s future. Third, they can more seriously rehabilitate the public’s view of American politics. For an angry and cynical public, simply electing their dream candidate will do little to change the manner in which government works on their behalf.

American politics is serious business. New candidates and new voters can often create a strategic vision that aligns poorly with the realities of governance and policymaking. The excitement that surrounds a new and inspiring presidential run often glosses over what the first day, first month, and first term of an administration will require (see Barack Obama for proof). A few things are certain about November 2016. We know we will elect a new president. We know we will have the opportunity to elect a very different Congress. Those two items are not mutually exclusive if candidates and their supporters work tirelessly to make sure that reform via election is comprehensive and not simply raising one individual on a single pedestal.