we may see what collective rage looks like

May 12, 2020 

By Mark Funkhouser 

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like, we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

That line, from Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health and The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, comes from a New York Times column about her by Frank Bruni. 

It resonated with me because anger as a political force has been on my mind for a while. I first began to think about it when I read Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics, the 1992 book by Thomas and Mary Edsall. People talk about voter apathy, but anger matters. It’s what drove the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010. And arguably, many of the voters who chose President Trump in 2016 were driven more by their antipathy for Hillary Clinton than by their love for him.

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It resonated with me because anger as a political force has been on my mind for a while. I first began to think about it when I read Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics, the 1992 book by Thomas and Mary Edsall. People talk about voter apathy, but anger matters. It’s what drove the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010. And arguably, many of the voters who chose President Trump in 2016 were driven more by their antipathy for Hillary Clinton than by their love for him.

It cuts both ways: Anger toward the president and his policies fueled the Resistance and led to the Democratic takeover of the House in the 2018 mid-terms. That result was predicted most precisely by Rachel Bitecofer, a tough-talking, Grateful Dead-loving political scientist at the Niskanen Center. A Politico article about her says that “Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place.” Anger makes people vote, and not just in national elections. In an exchange on Twitter, Bitecofer pointed out that we’ve seen an increase in local voter turnout since the ascendance of Trump.

That’s important in more ways than raw numbers. An analysis of mayoral elections by researchers at Portland State University in 2016 found that “city residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than younger residents between the ages of 18 and 34.” Given the extremely low overall voter turnout in most mayoral elections — in Dallas, Fort Worth and Las Vegas it has been in the single digits — the effect is that older voters are virtually deciding the outcomes.

No more. Young people are voting in greater numbers, and I think it’s anger that’s driving them. Research by Pew found that “turnout rates increased the most for the Millennial generation, roughly doubling between 2014 and 2018 – from 22% to 42%. Among Generation Z, 30% of those eligible to vote (those ages 18 to 21 in this analysis) turned out in the first midterm election of their adult lives.” This is especially true for young women. Another piece of Pew research found that women voted more than men and that the gender gap was wider for younger voters than for older ones.

I believe that local-government leaders who know the anger is coming and prepare to meet it with empathy and respect can turn this righteous wrath into a positive force that gets them and their communities through this crisis and helps them shape a new normal. We all know there’ll be a different world after the pandemic. I’d love to help you make it a better one. Give me a call or drop me a note.

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