2012 Elections Will Be About Anger

Recent disapproval ratings for president and Congress only prove general anger, not ideological shifts.

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Two Republican state legislators were ousted in Wisconsin in recall elections—one short of the number needed to flip control of the state Senate, but enough to send a message that people are pretty unhappy. Liberals are forging ahead with a recall effort against the governor, Scott Walker.

Congress's approval rating is at an average of 16.8 percent, according to statistics culled by RealClearPolitics. Democrats do slightly better than Republicans on a generic ballot, but both parties are held in pretty low esteem by voters. President Obama's approval rating has dropped to an average 43.3 percent, the website reports—a grade that would be alarming in an earlier era, but which seems like a mandate in these unhappy times.

Both parties have misinterpreted the polls. Democratic congressional campaign officials are crowing about a Public Policy Polling survey showing that on a generic ballot, Democrats beat the GOP, 47 to 40 percent. That poll is, of course, meaningless—House members are not elected nationally—but more to the point, it doesn't indicate that Americans are choosing a definite ideological direction. The same goes for Obama; while his poll numbers would normally indicate an incumbent in deep, deep trouble for re-election, his would-be opponents aren't generating much enthusiasm, either. And while you can beat something with nothing in a congressional race, you can't beat something—even a less-than-popular something—with nothing in a presidential campaign. 

And as for the Wisconsin races: Republicans are understandably relieved that they didn't lose control of the state Senate, but the recall flips aren't an endorsement of GOP policies there, either. And if Democrats truly had a sweeping mandate, they might have picked up the three-out-of-six victories they needed to take control.[Vote: Were the Wisconsin Recall Elections a Failure for Union Groups?]

If the polls are baffling, it's because they have little to do with ideology. While the parties tend to read elections as affirmations or rejections of the previous leaders' policies, recent elections have been all about generalized anger. And 2012 is shaping up in the same way. 

Even the misread polls offer proof of that. After Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, an extraordinary moment in U.S. history, Obama's approval rating was 56 percent. That's high, especially in our deeply divided and angry nation, but nonetheless startling, given the bipartisan desire to get bin Laden. Or, as Saturday Night Live pointed out in a sketch, it proves that for 44 percent of the country, there is literally nothing Obama can do right. [See a slide show of who's in and out for the GOP in 2012.]

But Obama, post-bin Laden, still fares better than God. The Supreme Being, a recent poll found, has just a 52 percent approval rating. And that was among people who believe in God; the bare majority of those who like how God is performing don't even include those who don't believe God exists.

What's happening is not a series of dramatic mood swings among the American public, with people changing their minds constantly over how the nation should be run. The mood is constant—mad. And the anger has endured so long that basic faith in institutions—government, media, business, and, apparently, not just religion but God himself—is diminishing dramatically. Politics and policy may change with every election. But if the institutions don't start behaving in a way to keep public faith, no election will solve the nation's troubles.

  • See photos of the Wisconsin protests.
  • Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?
  • See the GOP's top Senate targets for 2012.