Anger just isn’t enough

Are you angry with your government?

Regardless of your views, there is ample reason for you to be angry about recent governmental actions. Conservatives have reason to be angry at the continued fecklessness and irresponsibility of the federal government, which has run up trillions of dollars in debt with little to show for it but a languid economy at home and a host of dangers abroad.

Here in North Carolina, liberals have reason to be angry about their inability to halt conservative policy innovation. Over the past five years, the state’s new Republican leaders have cut taxes by billions of dollars, kept spending growth below inflation and population growth, and pursued deregulation and consumer choice in many sectors.

As we enter this pivotal election year, then, candidates wishing to reverse the partisan gains they dislike — Republicans running against Democratic policy wins in Washington and Democrats running against Republican policy wins in Raleigh — will be tempted to focus their efforts on channeling voter anger. If history is any guide, however, such a focus will prove ineffective in the long run in attracting and retaining political power.

Why? Because most voters are not, in fact, stomping around in a blind rage. They are disappointed with and distrustful of government, to be sure. But they spend most of their time thinking about other things — about their families, their work, their faith, their personal interests. Unlike political junkies, they neither credit nor blame government for most of what is going on in their daily lives.

For a recent report, the Pew Research Center asked a series of survey questions about voter sentiment. While the vast majority of respondents said they trusted government only sometimes or never, only 32 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents said they were “angry” with the federal government. Not surprisingly, the figure was even smaller among Democratic-leaning voters, at 12 percent.

The two groups clearly diverged on matters of public policy. Asked if government was doing too many things that would be better left to businesses and individuals, 71 percent of Republican voters and 29 percent of Democratic voters agreed. Asked if government was almost always wasteful and inefficient, 75 percent of the Republicans and 40 percent of the Democrats said yes. Asked if government needed major reform, 75 percent of the Republicans and 44 percent of the Democrats said yes.

The two parties, then, see things more differently today than at almost any other time in modern history. You can understand why Republicans are desperate to change the direction of federal policy. And you can understand why Democrats are similarly motivated in North Carolina.

They won’t succeed simply by appealing to voter anger, however. That’s not what Ronald Reagan did in 1980 to launch the political phase of the modern conservative movement. That’s not what Barack Obama did in 2008 to launch his political counterrevolution. They married strong, effective criticism of the present with a hopeful, appealing vision of a better future.

In our state, successful candidates for governor are never strident. They run as helpful problem-solvers, not whining worrywarts. You can run reformist, optimistic campaigns from the Right or the Left. Jim Martin and Pat McCrory ran such campaigns in 1984 and 2012. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley ran them in 1992 and 2000.

Anger is a powerful emotion. It certainly has its place in politics. But hope is even more powerful. In the presidential race, I think only a Republican who can combine attacks on Obama’s liberal legacy with a positive agenda for conservative reform can defeat Hillary Clinton. In the gubernatorial race, I think likely Democratic nominee Roy Cooper cannot possibly defeat McCrory if he indulges the Fury Caucus of his party, which seems to think outraged voters from Murphy to Manteo are ready to march on Raleigh to demand tax hikes, Medicaid expansion, and windmill subsidies.

That’s an ideological fantasy, not a realistic appraisal of voter sentiment. Some Republicans have similar daydreams. These all point the way to defeat, not to triumph.

John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.