Election 2016: Why is everyone so angry?

Some 62 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track – the sixth straight year the majority of voters have reported that America is headed in the wrong direction, according to a new survey.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pose for a group picture during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. Some analysts have suggested that voter anger has bolstered 'outsider' candidates like Cruz, Carson, and Trump.

If the 2008 election was about hope, the 2016 race is about anger. 

After all, it's being called the driving force behind the 2016 election, a major factor behind the surprising and stratospheric rise of Donald Trump, and the reason two Emory University political scientists say 2016 "promises to be a long and nasty campaign." 

"A lot of voters are angry. Very angry," Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz and PhD student Stephen Webster wrote in a recent analysis. "Now voter ire appears to be shaping both parties’ 2016 presidential nomination races."

In fact, some 62 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, the sixth straight year the majority of voters have reported that America is headed in the wrong direction, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.

The survey revealed just how angry many Americans are – and why. 

Respondents were asked which of the two following statements better describe their sentiment:

"I feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than it working to help everyday people get ahead."

"I feel anxious and uncertain because the economy still feels rocky and unpredictable so I worry about paying my bills, day to day living costs, and whether I can count on my own situation being stable."

The results were revealing. A combined 80 percent of Americans said they are angry at a political system they see as rigged against them (44 percent), anxious about the economy (28 percent), or both (8 percent). 

Republicans are more likely to be angry about abortion and the need to enforce immigration laws. They show an interest in defunding Planned Parenthood and impeaching Obama. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to be angry about threats to the funding of Planned Parenthood and the need to get big money out of politics. They show an interest in promoting equality and human rights as well as the "Black Lives Matter" movement. 

Anger over these issues is fueling the 2016 race, say Professor Abramowitz and Mr. Webster. 

"Democratic and Republican primary voters in 2016 are likely to be drawn disproportionately from the angriest segment of each party’s base," they write. "[C]andidates who can tap into that anger are likely to do well."

That voter anger has manifested itself in a crop of "outsider" presidential candidates who are resonating with frustrated voters: most prominently Mr. Trump on the right and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left, but also retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who casts himself as an outsider. 

Voter anger and anxiety about the economy has also informed policy proposals. Senator Sanders has made increasing the minimum wage a central part of his platform, and a number of candidates, including Trump and Sanders, have promised to raise taxes on the rich.

It's also fueled scapegoating, like attributing the country's economic woes to illegal immigrants, a fear both Trump and Mr. Carson, among others, have capitalized on. 

Both Republicans and Democrats are trying to channel Americans' anger and fear, but in different ways. 

"Republican rhetoric is much more growth-centric: 'The solution to this is economic growth,'" Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, told NPR. "That's a very common Republican theme, whereas Democrats are more regulatory and redistributive. In other words, they're reverting to type."

Which is why self-described Democratic socialist Sanders says "The people on top have lost any sense of responsibility for the rest of the society," while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush talks about getting government out of the way of the "gig economy," and allowing Americans to work longer hours. 

And while an election driven by negative emotions like anger, fear, and frustration, rather than, say, hope, may be concerning, there may be a silver lining. 

Despite the doom-and-gloom reports, 53 percent of Americans say they are "confident and optimistic" about their own financial situation over the next year, compared to 45 percent who are "worried and uncertain," according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.  

That's a change from the beginning of the financial crisis in Sept. 2008, when 58 percent said they were worried and uncertain. 

And there appears to be a strong relationship between anger and political involvement – voting, canvassing, donating. The angrier the voter, the more engaged he or she is in the political process, according to Abramowitz and Webster of Emory University. 

In other words, if voter anger continues to swell this election cycle, expect crowded polls in 2016. 

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