The angry voter is a handy explanation for unexpected election results—as in the presidential primary and caucus wins for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Because Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders both tell average Americans that they’re being victimized (whether by immigration and free trade or by a “rigged” economy), it is easy to conclude that we are living through a mass therapy session for a nation suffering from rage and panic. Mr. Trump’s success is also prompting fears of resurgent racism or even a slide into totalitarianism.
But even if you’re alarmed by the election results so far this year, there is other evidence that America is not becoming unhinged, and that Mr. Trump’s success comes more from a dysfunctional nomination process and divided opposition within the Republican Party. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan pushed back against the prevailing narrative a few weeks ago, tweeting about Mr. Trump’s rise, “I’m dubious about all the root cause psychologizing—where’s data showing economic anxiety or racial hatred is much higher?”
Another (spoilsport) political scientist, Lynn Vavreck, wrote in The New York Times this weekend that economic and polling data simply do not support the angry-voter thesis: “historical measures indicate people are about as happy and satisfied with the economy and with their lives as they were in 1983 when Ronald Reagan told us it was ‘morning again in America.’” (A new Pew Research Center survey found that 51 percent of Americans say jobs are “difficult to find” in their community, but that’s down from 85 percent in 2010.)
She suggests that voters are not angry but partisan. Their mood turns sour only when politics are mentioned: “When asked by various pollsters about trusting the government, the direction of the country, American progress or the president, Americans were gloomy—gloomier than their economic assessments might have predicted.” Ms. Vavreck points to evidence of a growing partisan divide that “percolates into opinions about everyday life,” especially on topics involving race, religion and ethnicity. I’d add that this year’s presidential debates, in which candidates warned of the irreversible calamity that will befall America if the other party wins in November, can’t have helped the national mood.
The National Review, which has been leading the anti-Trump movement within the Republican Party for months, had already voiced skepticism that economic fears have upended the political establishment this year. In mid-March, that magazine’s Scott Winship wrote that Mr. Trump has not done better in primary states where voters say the economy is the most important political issues (as opposed to immigration, terrorism and government spending). “Trumpism is being driven primarily by cultural anxiety,” writes Mr. Winship, “by dissatisfaction with cultural change and perceived cultural decline.” He writes that many Trump voters don’t share his anti-immigration views on economic grounds but as a matter of national security, if not “racism and nativism, plain and simple.”
A couple of weeks later (after Mr. Trump won several more primaries), the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson really savaged the idea that the white working class had legitimate fears leading them to support someone promising to overthrow the political order:
Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.… The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
That’s brutal, especially because the white “underclass” is hardly voting as a bloc for Mr. Trump, even if that’s the mainstream narrative. In early March, The New York Times reported on “Trump Country” emphasizing his support in “economic hardship” communities. One of them was Fall River, Mass., a former textile-manufacturing center with high unemployment and a low median income, where Mr. Trump got 62 percent of the Republican primary vote. But Mr. Trump got only 16 percent of the combined Democratic and Republican vote in that city, far less than either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. By that measure he fared best in suburbs closer to booming Boston, getting 32 percent of the combined vote in Lynnfield, Dracut and Saugus—all places with unemployment rates below the state average and median incomes above the state average. Combine that with his strong showings in retirement communities in Florida, and the “Trump Country” stereotype of economically distressed communities has a lot of holes in it.
Still, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that economic anxiety is genuine in large parts of the United States. The overall picture obscures an uneven recovery from the recession of the last decade, with communities that were already lagging now falling further behind the most prosperous parts of America. And the latest Census estimates showing that more than half the counties in America are losing population—a high share by historical standards—lends credence to the idea that voters sense some troubling economic trends that may not be visible in Washington, D.C. Mr. Trump tends to do well in these “left behind” areas, or at least in the overwhelmingly white ones in the East. He wouldn’t have gotten this far without significant support in upscale counties as well, but economically stressed places are making their voices heard more than usual this year.