Surging populist campaigns by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have convinced many observers that 2016 represents a “year of anger” but no one can agree on what, exactly, the American electorate is supposed to be so angry about.
On the right, activists say people are furious because Barack Obama has “fundamentally transformed” our society and the Republican Congress has done nothing to stop him. On the left, true believers insist that GOP obstructionists have thwarted the public will by blocking constructive attempts to address economic and racial injustice.
The two claims can’t both be true and, as it happens, they both count as demonstrably false.
Sure, the president enjoyed major Congressional triumphs in his first two years when Democrats ruled both houses of Congress, but his legislative achievements since the GOP House takeover in 2010 have been virtually non-existent. At the same time, conservatives who resisted the Obama agenda didn’t stymy the public’s fervent desires; they merely reflected the wishes of the same voters who re-elected the president at the same time they returned a Republican House to serve alongside him –then added a Republican Senate (along with an increased House majority) two years later.
Today, fierce rhetoric on both sides condemns the corrupting influence of money in politics. But isn’t it obvious that that the rough balance between the power of lobbyists on both sides is reflected in Washington’s much-derided gridlock? Big labor hasn’t succeeded in pushing redistributive policies any more than big business has brought about sweeping deregulation.
Meanwhile, the two presidential candidates who talk most indignantly about the evil impact of free-flowing cash on the electoral process illustrate the pervasive hypocrisy dominating all discussion on this irrelevant issue. Socialist firebrand Bernie Sanders has set several fundraising records while recently drawing more money than his establishment rival, while flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump proudly boasts about the millions he personally pumped into past campaigns for candidates of both parties.
On issue after issue, the anger fomented by media manipulators and pandering politicos is not only unfocused but largely groundless. In the process, voters lose sight of some of those areas where our institutions and public initiatives have produced undeniably positive results.
Liberals want new firearm regulations to combat a perceived surge in gun violence – but evidence shows a dramatic decline in all violent crime over the course of three decades, regardless of rates of gun ownership or government restrictions. Conservatives complain of a tidal wave
of unauthorized entrants across our southern border but ignore dramatic reductions in illegal immigration under both Bush and Obama, with more Mexican nationals now leaving the country than entering it.
Liberals lament ruination of the environment, while failing to acknowledge spectacular long-term improvements in air and water quality, not to mention availability of park land, in every region of the country. Conservatives decry a perceived abortion “Holocaust” but remain blind to statistics showing the abortion rate cut nearly in half over the course of 40 years, thanks to pleas from the pro-life movement and better dissemination of birth control.
To highlight the misdirected nature of many of today’s most persistent complaints isn’t to deny that 21st Century America confronts significant problems. But concentrating on phony failings prevents progress on real challenges.
Take the widespread leftist claim that the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes–despite statistics showing the top 2.4% of taxpayers already covering 48.9% of all revenue from individual income tax. Meanwhile, we fail to address the real scandal of a tax system that inhibits growth by wasting time and money with its confounding complexities. For some right-wingers, paranoid delusions about looming federal schemes to confiscate fire arms (despite undiminished availability of guns nearly everywhere), get more attention than real threats from growing numbers of mentally deranged, potentially dangerous people camping out in parks and on sidewalks.
Who’s guilty for the distracting impact of misdirected, destructive anger? The blame falls largely on anger entrepreneurs who raise money and build careers by frightening the public over various non-existent crises. But voters and pundits should also accept responsibility for our tendency to excuse or even justify political posers who focus public rage on diminished dangers, while all but ignoring the nation’s more serious perils.