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Iowa: Americans are united by a single emotion: Anger

Candidates in the presidential race are not promising hope, they’re chasing mad-as-hell voters who feel the system is rigged against them.

The Iowa caucus is a poor predictor of who will win the nominations for the Democrats and the Republicans. But the results of Monday's caucusing show it can sometimes be a good indicator of what the election is really about. Different as the Democrats and Republicans may be, voters for both parties are facing the same question: do you want a partisan or an outsider?

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In Iowa, the partisans won. Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, who both came out on top, are driven by a deep desire to defeat the opposition, then use the system to advance their political goals. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the second place finishers, seek to upend the system altogether. Trump wants to show that the usual political rules can be ignored. Sanders want to show they can be overcome.

So why are two very different parties facing the same dynamics? Because across party lines, the American electorate is united by a single emotion: anger.

Illustration: John Spooner
Illustration: John Spooner 

This is a dramatic change in American presidential politics. Anger-driven politics is not new, of course. Candidates like George Wallace in 1968 and Pat Buchanan in 1992 leveraged it to great effect. But in the first decade of the 21st century, the nomination contests regularly rewarded Reaganesque optimism. George W. Bush ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism." Barack Obama promised hope and change.

In those days, pundits argued over which candidate voters would most want to have a beer with. Likeability was the make-or-break metric.

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No more. According to a December 2015 Gallup poll, Cruz, Clinton, and Trump all have negative favourability ratings. Cruz is famously reviled by his Senate colleagues, Trump by people across the board. Barrels of ink have been consecrated to Clinton's likeability problem.

But voters aren't looking for someone to like. They're looking for an avatar for their anger.

Those who believe their party is the last best hope to save the nation will pull the lever for Hillary Clinton ...
Those who believe their party is the last best hope to save the nation will pull the lever for Hillary Clinton (pictured) or someone like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.  Photo: Bloomberg

In the wake of the global economic crisis, the American electorate took a turn toward "mad as hell." This discontent produced two major movements, the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. Both roiled the nation between 2009 and 2012. While Occupy failed to penetrate the Democratic Party, tea partiers fashioned themselves into a powerful electoral force within the Republican Party.

Yet while the tea party and Occupy movements had wildly different levels of success, both were thwarted in the 2012 presidential primaries. Unable to organise itself into an effective political force, Occupy wilted in the face of Obama's renomination. The tea party, while mounting a revolving slate of candidates to challenge Mitt Romney, failed to unseat the establishment favourite. All that organised anger seemed unable to remake presidential politics.

Political analysts saw these protest movements as a response to the immediate economic crisis, so they expected them to fade as the economy recovered, radicals transformed into rank-and-file partisans. With the US economy chugging along, 2016 should have been a return to normalcy.

But that hasn't happened. The financial crisis instead laid bare the structural inequalities in the American economy. Indeed, economic recovery has only stoked the anger of those Americans who see themselves falling behind even as the country surges ahead, victims of a system rigged against them. Their anger hasn't dissipated. It has sharpened, finding its focal point in the 2016 primary battles.

Across the board, candidates are appealing to those angry voters. Clinton's stump speech argues the economy could be better, but "the deck is stacked in favour of those at the top." Cruz's victory speech inveighed against Washington and "a corrupt class that enriches itself and leaves behind the working men and women of this country." To explain his unexpected surge in Iowa, Sanders said that "the American people are saying no to a rigged economy."

The candidates agree that the American people have been swindled. Where they differ is in their theory of the crime. Are their respective parties prosecutors or co-conspirators, the solution or the problem? Those that believe their party has been captured by special interests, be it Wall Street or the political class or immigration reformers, will vote for an outsider like Sanders or Trump. Those who believe their party is the last best hope to save the nation will pull the lever for Clinton or someone like Cruz or Marco Rubio. 

What's clear after Iowa is that American politics has, for the moment, changed. No more hope, no more compassion, no more "who would you like to have a beer with"? American politics has gotten angrier, and Monday's results show the electorate is split in two, not between Democrats and Republicans but between outsiders and partisans.

Voters on both sides face a choice. Which do you want? The brash-accented New Yorker with no real party fidelity, fuelled by an anti-establishment rage? Or the brass-knuckled southern transplant with a likeability problem, driven by an aching need for victory? On Monday, Iowans chose the latter. The question now is whether the rest of the nation will follow suit.

Nicole Hemmer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and a visiting research associate at the Miller Centre of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, USA.

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