Opposition is Easier Than Sustained Change

Why are voters motivated by anger more than anything else?

There is a theme that emerged from several of the stories I included in yesterday’s Quick Takes that deserves some exploration.

To begin, let’s take a look at the fact that yesterday Pat McCrory conceded the governor’s race in North Carolina. Tom Jensen gave a data-based analysis of how the opposition to McCrory’s extremist policies from Moral Monday’s played a pivotal role in his defeat.  But it’s worth noting that Donald Trump carried the state by by 3.7 points. In that case, opposition to Hillary Clinton’s attempt to build on President Obama’s record carried the day.

As I noted, Michael Grunwald wrote about how the Republican plan to obstruct everything Obama and the Democrats tried to accomplish worked to gain the party control of the presidency as well as both houses of Congress (something Steve Waldman had written about previously here at Political Animal). Once again we can note that opposition worked.

If we step back and take a big picture look at what has happened in presidential elections over the last 30 years, a bit of a pattern emerges. Twelve years of Ronald Reagan and Bush, Sr. led to eight years of Bill Clinton. We then had eight years of George W. Bush followed by eight years of Barack Obama before electing Donald Trump. It is pretty difficult to find a common ideological thread that explains that kind of see-saw. While we might note that sitting presidents have done well in getting re-elected, it is difficult to ignore that an open race tends to go to the opposition. The one exception in the last 30 years is the election of Bush, Sr. after Reagan’s eight years. But even that was not sustainable, as Clinton demonstrated in 1992.

The truth is that American voters tend to resonate with a message of opposition more than they do to a message of sustained change. That is not necessarily a unique insight. We’ve known for a while that anger mobilizes more effectively than anything else. And Mario Cuomo captured something important when he said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The prose of governing doesn’t tend to sell as well to the public as the anger of opposition.

I was reminded of all that in a third story I included in Quick Takes yesterday. The protesters of the Dakota Access pipeline won a victory when the Army Corps of Engineers did not approve the easement needed to allow the pipeline to cross under North Dakota’s Lake Oahu. I’ve noticed over the last few months that almost everyone was aware that the pipeline protests were taking place. The opposition mounted by the tribes and their supporters was big news. In other words, the protests were successful in garnering attention to an important issue.

What has gone almost unnoticed are the promises kept by President Obama to Native Americans over his two terms in office. I chronicled them here when he announced that he would restore Mount Denali’s original name. Even before work was completed on the settlement of over 100 claims by various tribes for $3.3 billion, Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker named Obama “the best president for Indian Country in the history of the United States.” For the most part, that story has not been told.

When we contemplate why anger and opposition is effective, it is important to remember that both the media and the American public contribute to that via a continual focus on problems/failures/challenges while spending almost no time celebrating successes. This problem is especially acute among liberals (notice that Trump supporters are having no trouble acting like the president-elect saved the world by keeping a few Carrier jobs here at home). For example, Keith Humphreys ran into trouble with criminal justice advocates for noting a drop in prison admissions.

But a small group of people are upset that I have engaged in what might be called “airing clean laundry”. Their argument is that by letting the public know that incarceration rates are going down, I am effectively declaring that mass incarceration is over (even though I have repeatedly said just the opposite) and implicitly encouraging everyone to move on to some other social problem.

At this point in our presidential see-saw, it is now the Democrats’ turn to occupy the position of opposition. Trump and the Republicans are serving up healthy doses every day of items that require resistance. But let’s not forget how we got here. Over the long term, liberals will need to do a better job of laying the groundwork for sustained change. Otherwise we will simply continue the see-saw.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.