How Our National Insecurity Colors the 2016 Race
The first in a weekly series this month on national security -- in its various forms -- as an issue in the 2016 campaign.
Sixteen-year-old Mason Wells, the oldest of five kids in a bustling Utah family, was positioned near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, getting ready to watch his mother pass by when the ground shook beneath him and he heard a terrific explosion.
Neither Mason nor anyone in his family was hurt in the April 15, 2013 bombings that killed three innocent people and wounded many others. The Wells family did what most people do after terrorist attacks: They counted their blessings and resumed their busy lives. That’s how it came to be that Mason Wells, now 19 and serving in Europe on his Mormon mission, found himself in Belgium last month.
Standing in line at the Brussels airport, the young man had pulled out his iPad when a huge explosion lifted him off the ground, severely burning him. Though injured, Mason survived. “Hopefully he's run his lifelong odds,” said his father, Chad Wells, “and we're done.”
In truth, Mason Wells’ parents don’t know if they and their loved ones will be safe. None of us knows, which is the problem. Millions of Americans believe danger and chaos are the new normal. This anxiety manifests itself as fear in some voters. In others, it has metastasized into disgust with politicians—and a white-hot anger at a government it no longer trusts to protect them.
These feeling are roiling American politics. The 2016 election season was only a few weeks old before it was dubbed the Year of the Angry Voter.
“I am angry,” a scowling Bernie Sanders proclaimed before winning the Democrats’ primary in New Hampshire. “The American people are angry.”
“I’m very, very angry,” added Donald Trump, who has ridden this emotion to a large lead in the GOP delegate count. Trump’s habit of naming names when venting his ire—immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and China—became so alarming to Republican officials that in her response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged voters to ignore “the angriest voices” on the issue of immigration.
This advice went unheeded. In the ensuing Republican presidential debate, Trump said he would “gladly accept the mantle of anger” and then doubled down on his rhetoric equating immigrants with economic disruption and terrorism—and promptly carried New Hampshire and Haley’s South Carolina.
“I think Islam hates us,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.”
Even Americans who have little use for Trump are worried about the threat of terrorists. Even before the recent attacks in Belgium, polling at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 revealed that security concerns have overtaken the economy as the dominant issue in voters’ minds. A survey done for Third Way, a moderate political group, revealed that 29 percent of Americans were worried about national security/terrorism—nearly twice as many who listed the economy as their top priority.
These numbers fluctuate, depending on the proximity to a major terrorist event and by how the question is worded. But the theme has remained constant. In late January, the Gallup Poll found that 23 percent of voters listed national security/terrorism/foreign affairs as their chief concern, compared to 17 percent who named the economy.
So is anger really the most precise term for what is going on with the electorate—or are these emotions more properly classified as fear? Or is it a combination of the two? A more accurate description of 2016 might be Year of the Insecure Voter.
Considered broadly, this insecurity isn’t limited to anxieties about terrorist attacks against Americans from foreign fighters or radicalized Muslim extremists—or from hostile nation states.
The murder rate has skyrocketed in many major U.S. cities, wages have been stagnant for a generation; entire industries have been disrupted by technology and globalization. The federal debt is out of control. We’re besieged by the relentless threat from computer hackers, many of them from enemy nations or overseas-based criminal networks, along with a debilitating lack of privacy that comes from knowing you’re being constantly followed online. Nothing is safe: not our online viewing habits, our private medical records, our personal financial information—even if we work for a sensitive government agency.
Not all Americans perceive threats in the same way. That surge in violence on our city streets rekindled fear of African-American males among certain segments of the population. But many African-Americans themselves harbored a different fear: being shot by the police for no real reason, a recurring worry that spawned Black Lives Matter.
Occupy Wall Street directed its outrage at corporate excess, while the Tea Party movement focused mainly on government overreach. What they shared was a hatred of “crony capitalism,” along with the sense that politics and business in this country are rigged games.
In the coming weeks, RealClearPolitics will explore various aspects of Americans’ insecurities. In the meantime, each major political party is trying to negotiate uncertain terrain. For Republicans and Democrats alike, the Year of the Insecure Voter presents an opportunity and a challenge.
Democrats are finding that voters simply do not trust them to keep the country safe, as the following chart, prepared by Third Way, illustrates.
“In the 2016 election cycle, Democrats are facing a challenge they haven’t seen since the Vietnam War,” wrote Mieke Eoyang and Ben Freeman, authors of a new report for Third Way on the partisan ramifications of voters’ fears. “National security, specifically terrorism, is now among voters’ most important public policy concerns, and they overwhelmingly trust Republicans more than Democrats to keep them safe.”
This is not news to party strategists, who were buffeted by a recent Pew Research Center survey showing just how little confidence Americans have in the Democrats’ ability to keep them safe from ISIS and other terrorist groups.
“There is no question that we’ve got to address that issue,” Rep. Steve Israel, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters earlier this year. “There is anxiety about a global threat across the board.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have challenges of their own. At the outset of this election cycle, Republicans wanted a national security election. The emergence of Donald Trump has been a cautionary tale about the vagaries of getting what you wish for.
Last month, 121 prominent Republican national security experts signed an open letter reproaching Trump for his views. “We are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head,” they wrote.
The authors were Eliot A. Cohen, a State Department official during George W. Bush’s second term; and Bryan McGrath, a retired U.S. Navy officer who is a defense consultant. “We have disagreed with one another on many issues,” they wrote in reference to the 10 dozen signatories to the letter, “but we are united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.”
But there’s some evidence that Trump’s tough talk on every subject from immigrants and Muslims to torture and the Islamic State is resonating with voters. And it was Ted Cruz, not Trump, who casually called for “carpet bombing” in Syria as a way of destroying ISIS.
Hillary Clinton criticized Cruz for this line, saying that it didn’t make him sound tough, it made him sound “over his head.” But in the Year of the Insecure Voter, millions of Americans are receptive to draconian appeals. They feel as if they are treading water—and are afraid of going under.