(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is being run courtesy of The Akron Beacon Journal and The Ohio Newspaper Association as part of a statewide series leading up to the 2016 election)
As she realized what she had in her hands, Andrea Barnes’ eyes lit up like she was holding toxicity.
“It’s not that Glenn Beck,” she said of the author’s name on the book.
But, as she turned to the inside jacket cover and saw a portrait of the polarizing, conservative radio and talk show host, she knew otherwise.
“Oh,” she said.
Barnes, 44, likens Beck to Rush Limbaugh, another divisive commentator.
“Anger. Everybody is so angry. I guess that leads into fear,” she said, referring to the rise of unconventional presidential candidates who rally worried voters by identifying and denigrating a perceived enemy.
Preferring that opposing views be respected and not indiscriminately rejected, Barnes took a few minutes to reflect on the state of politics then slipped the book back on a shelf at the Cuyahoga Falls Public Library.
“If we’re going to solve any problems, we have to have civil discourse and be tolerant of others,” Barnes said, feeling better to have released some of her own frustration.
Call it fear. Call it anger. Call it discontent.
As Americans grow unusually interested in a presidential election that is a year away, they come to the party with an unusually high level of disgust, according to a recent poll by the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Asked in November to rank their satisfaction with American politics on a scale of one (utter disgust) to 10 (complete satisfaction), 24 percent of Ohioans picked the number one.
Only 1 percent picked the highest satisfaction rating of 10.
It was that lopsided.
The poll on political approval found a majority of Ohioans are disgusted, to some degree. What’s acutely noticeable is that the response rate for those with absolute disgust (that bottom rating of one) has tripled since 2008.
Is Trump a sign?
The results leave Bliss director John Green contemplating whether Donald Trump is the man of the hour or a sign of the times.
His provocations seem to boost his ratings, but for which reason?
“It could very well be that when we look back, we’ll say, ‘well, Trump was a very unique person’,” Green said.
“But, when I look at it I see that whatever uniqueness he may have in his background, he does sort of capture a lot of the trends in media and the decline of civility and the rise of an adversarial culture that many of us have been talking about for a couple decades.
“And that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Bliss surveyed 600 registered Ohio voters after the November election to find that 57 percent give American politics a negative score, up sharply from 22 percent in 2008. The poll has a 4 percent margin of error.
When the poll was done in 2008, the economy had not yet fallen off the cliff and a nation weary of war was watching exciting presidential campaigns begin to solidify.
War hero and elder statesman Sen. John McCain had locked up the Republican nomination and Democrats were weighing two historic candidates: An African American and a woman.
Green noted a groundswell of “hope and change” from both parties at that time.
Could it get worse?
There’s much debate about the effects of negative advertising on the emotions of voters, but campaigns increasingly attack opponents because they believe it works. Research shows that campaign advertising hit an all-time high in the 2012 race, and negative ads accounted for more than 60 percent of the air time, also an all-time high.
Already in Ohio, a powerful swing state in presidential elections, negative ads have been aired on prime-time television against Hillary Clinton a half year before the Ohio Primary Election and a year before the general.
The question is, does that kind of activity give rise to more angst among voters?
In Ohio, according to an analysis of the Bliss poll, voters most dissatisfied with American politics are more likely to be among these groups: young; white; men; without advanced college degrees; residents of southeast Ohio; regularly attend church; or are more concerned with terrorism, immigration and abortion than the economy or climate change.
National polling by the Pew Research Center suggests Republican candidates (reinforced by debates that have broken records for cable viewers) are hitting a sweet spot with angry voters by pounding issues such as national security.
But playing to disgruntled voters has the added effect of souring others.
“The problem is you have so many big issues facing the country in terms of the economy and social issues, but everybody is hung up on the idea of Muslim terrorism and whether we should allow Syrian refugees into the country,” said Brian Baker, a 29-year-old chef in Cuyahoga Falls.
Baker rates his satisfaction in American politics a miserable two out of 10 partly because candidates dwell on issues that don’t appeal to his more liberal leanings. More importantly, though, he said the issues are blown out of proportion.
“They’re nice things to talk about but they don’t really affect us greatly,” said Baker, whose never voted in a presidential election when American troops weren’t fighting terrorism.
Baker wouldn’t be upset if Gov. John Kasich’s message of compassionate conservatism prevailed. But Kasich, too, has called for a pause on some immigration amid fears of terrorism, a move Baker can’t condone.
The young man prefers candidates who address starvation, homelessness or even Planned Parenthood. All, he said, are more manageable than the thoughts of a fanatic who might want to sneak in and hurt America.
In whom can we trust?
General disapproval of politics is hurting legacy candidates. Disgusted voters prefer private-sector, anti-establishment newcomers who are believed to be better at understanding ordinary people (even more so than being honest), the UA poll found.
“It is disturbing because it suggests the levels of distrust are so high that voters are unwilling to trust anybody very much,” Green said. “They just want someone who is outside the system.”
With unemployment rates approaching pre-recession levels, disgusted voters have shifted their attention away from the economy and toward more controversial issues, among them abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration and national security.
The Ohio data mirror a national shift, with the spotlight apparently guided by an angry hand and a souring public opinion of the federal government.
An ongoing survey by the Pew Research Center shows Americans now hold the lowest opinion of the federal government’s ability to thwart terrorism since 9/11. Yet, Americans most often say Uncle Sam’s top job is keeping them safe. And on immigration, they say the feds do worst.
The research also indicates Americans consider the GOP better suited to deal with terrorism and immigration, the only two issues Republican respondents told Pew they would like the federal government more involved in.
Hope and despair
Millennials, ages 18 to 34, are simultaneously the most satisfied, disgusted, opinionated and indifferent voters represented in the Bliss poll.
The youngest (ages 18 to 24) were the most likely to take a neutral position on politics in the poll. The older portion — idealistic, fresh out of college or launching a career — flowed to opposite ends of the spectrum with the highest rates of satisfaction (20.3 percent) and dissatisfaction (62.3 percent), and the lowest neutrality.
With age, the level of dissatisfaction waned. Ohio voters in every older generation consistently moved toward a neutral position on satisfaction. Baby boomers, the second largest generation behind millennials, voiced less disapproval than all but the youngest first- or second-time voters.
Research shows millennials vote less often than prior generations. They’re also distrustful of government and the least likely to affiliate with conventional political parties. Couple these suspicions with gridlock in Congress and fighting on the campaign trail and what you get, Green says, is “a recipe for a great deal of dissatisfaction.”