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Why is Bernie Winning? Maybe Because He’s Angry

The anger of Bernie Sanders has often been discussed as a political liability. Could it actually be the very reason he's doing so well?

With Senator Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in Nevada, the national conversation has shifted decidedly to acknowledging him as a strong front-runner for the democratic nomination. 

Does this surprise you? 

Maybe it shouldn’t. Ever since Joe Biden started considering entering the race, I’ve been telling friends he had no chance—“He’s the Jeb Bush of this race.” 

Safe. Establishment. And way too upbeat and affable for many people today.  

Certainly, most of us really do like those insisting on kindness and civility—especially in normal, pleasant times. It’s been hard not to be impressed with Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s reminders of American democratic ideals, along with Joe Biden’s insistence on bipartisanship as the pathway forward. 

But these aren’t normal times. And if there’s nothing else we agree upon across the political spectrum, most Americans would acknowledge even more dislike of their political opposites than before.

There are lots of reasons for this—but none more salient than the current White House administration. As one left-leaning dialogue leader told me last year, “Every day President Trump gives my side more reason to hate your side. He seems almost custom-designed to harden us against each other.” 

In normal times, of course, this kind of mounting negativity would deeply concern most people—and, indeed, surveys have consistently shown large majorities of people still concerned with growing polarization. 

Other forces, however, keep fueling the spiraling hostility. Media on both sides continues to follow financial incentives to frame issues and stories in a way that evokes the most anger (and return traffic).  And political circumstances have gladly provided plenty of fodder, with leaders on the right continuing to go to great lengths to justify President Trump’s harsh way of interacting with others as justifiable given his other achievements. 

Meanwhile, the political left has seethed for years… 

Chronic anger has a way of wearing you down. Rather than taking the burden of this anger seriously, however, the common response of many on the right has been flatly dismissive – epitomized by designed-to-inflame phrases like “Trump derangement syndrome” that effectively write off and mock our fellow countrymen and women. 

And on it goes, metastasizing all over the body politic

Which brings us back to Senator Sanders—and his current baffling-to-many rise. 

Seriously, now: who do you want to be around when you’re in a foul, discouraged mood?  The cheery coworker who tries to remind you of the importance of working through problems? Or the friend who’s only too glad to join you in a late-night vent session? 

Sanders is more of the second friend, and Biden and Buttigieg more of the first. 

That there’s a lively debate between these two options is predictable… but also is the increasingly apparent reality of how substantially the venting-with-you friend is beating out the let’s-not-give-up-on-civility friends. 

Some are still surprised by this, though. In commentary following the Las Vegas Democratic debate, left-leaning pundit Mark Shields called Sanders “the angriest front-runner I’ve ever seen,” adding that “his default mode is angry.” Shields remarked on this as something he clearly saw as a liability (“I don’t know how long that’s going to wear—it wouldn’t wear long in a carpool”). 

But here’s the point: this is clearly not a liability for many Americans who feel enraged by a number of things under President Trump, including  frustrations with his response to climate change, income inequality, health care access, civil rights, and other aspirations on the left. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote this week, Bernie Sanders “channels the rage so many Americans feel not only about Trump, but of the entire system he represents.”

That’s why it maybe shouldn’t shock any of us see Bernie Sanders rising to the top (and continuing to rise over the months ahead). 

Four years ago, we witnessed the American right embrace an unconventional candidate speaking to their deepest fears. (While many have attempted to portray that turn of events as driven by underlying bigotry, that’s simply not an honest portrayal of the matter.  As University of Columbia scholar Musa Al-Gharbi has detailed, the election data doesn’t support that simplistic story – instead, calling for more attention to legitimate fears many on the right had about being marginalized culturally by an aggressive progressive left). 

Just as a Fearful America ultimately embraced a candidate that best spoke to that scary emotion, so also will an Angry America most likely continue to embrace a candidate best able to speak to that other unsettling emotion. 

Just as a Fearful America ultimately embraced a candidate that best spoke to that scary emotion, so also will an Angry America most likely continue to embrace a candidate best able to speak to that other unsettling emotion.

Of course, it’s more than simply anger that draws people to Sanders, just as it was more than fear or frustration that attracted people to President Trump. Senator Sanders speaks poignantly to the concerns of many who are working hard and barely getting by—including those confused to see ultra wealthy Americans growing even wealthier. 

While there are sensible ways to explore income inequality—a crucial issue—the story Sanders tells about it, as David Brooks keeps pointing out, is distinctively Us vs. Them. 

Just like President Trump’s narrative has always been. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t truth to narratives like this either. And it’s also important to recognize that anger can be a reflection of true injustice as well.  Frustration is not always wrong, and there is such a thing as righteous indignation.  In that vein, one critic wrote me in response to this piece, “looks like you haven’t read your Bible lately, Jacob. Yeah, you know…Isaiah, Jeremiah…the prophets. All sweetness and light. Not.”

Good point. This isn’t so simple as reducing anger.  This is also about working through anger together – and understanding its sources (right or wrong).

This spring, Public Square Magazine will feature a series of articles on the dynamics of anger playing out before our eyes in America today. With the enormous amount of public and clinical attention given to emotions such as depression and anxiety, anger not only often escapes notice – but has increasingly come to be generally valorized as a kind of enlightenment (“If you’re not angry, you just don’t have your eyes open”). 

As this great country steps even deeper into a state of contempt and vitriol—despite eloquent warnings from many wise leaders, from Arthur Brooks to Russell Nelson and beyond—it seems especially crucial to pay serious attention to how anger plays on our minds, influencing what we see (and don’t see)—along with the semi-compulsive way it can get a hold on us once it’s in our blood.   

We invite additional submissions on these and related themes, including essays exploring broader concerns at the trajectory of our nation in the years ahead. 

Whatever that may be, it seems clear (or should be clear): It’s not more suspicion and animosity we need in this country. 

Too many Americans have been persuaded otherwise, however—including otherwise thoughtful, goodhearted people who are plenty worried, fearful, and frustrated. 

What then lies ahead? 

Two years ago, I started asking friends on the left, “What would happen if you faced a similar ethical dilemma as Republicans did in 2016: the choice of whether or not to take a deep breath and support a candidate that would advance your core values—albeit in a more aggressive, harsh way than you were personally comfortable with?” 

So far, not a single one has told me anything different than what I heard from my community on the right four years ago: When push comes to shove, even if it’s difficult, the candidate advancing our core agenda is who (most of us) are gonna support… even if the “details aren’t ideal.” 

If that’s indeed what happens—despite a great many protestations from moderate liberals and never-Trump Republicans—well…

Don’t be so surprised. And go ahead and mark your calendars now… Bernie v. Trump. 

The brawl of the century.

No matter the consequences, it’s time to admit it:  the left is too angry to nominate anyone else. 

About the author

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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