From the 1980s through the early 2000s, Americans from both parties were generally satisfied with the direction the country was going, but things started to change around 2004 and hit a peak in 2008. What’s going on? What does it mean for elected officials? A recent analysis from the Gail Fosler Group aims to answer those questions.

The Gail Fosler Group, a private advisory network that serves business and government leaders, compared public opinion data from Gallup’s “Satisfaction with the United States” survey with changes to the political makeup of the House of Representatives. That analysis found that, the more dissatisfied Americans were with the state of the country, the more likely the party in power was to lose congressional seats.

During the late 20th century, when agreement on the state of the country was high, changes to the political makeup of the House were relatively small. Just as with any decision or purchase in your life, if things are going well, you tend to stick with the status quo — and that’s largely what happened in politics.

As the political uneasiness grew, so too did the swings in Congress. Dissatisfaction was at its highest in 2008 at the end of the George W. Bush presidency and the start of the financial crisis. As a result, Republicans lost 24 seats in the House and voters elected a President, Barack Obama, who ran on campaign messages of hope and change.

The swings continued from there, with the creation of the Tea Party after the 2008 election that led to Democrats losing 64 seats in 2010 — erasing the gains they made in 2008 and then some. The swings have continued since then and were only intensified in the Trump era.

The Gail Fosler Group’s analysis also found that, while Republicans and Democrats are divided in their candidate preferences, they largely agree about the issues that politicians should focus on addressing. Those issues include health care, education, COVID-19 response, immigration, and climate change. 

However, candidates from both parties tend to focus on the issues that divide people, not those that unite us, in an effort to win or maintain their party’s power. Fosler argues this dynamic gets in the way of successful governance and presents a growing problem if we ever hope to solve or move the needle on any of the nation’s problems.

“Democrats and Republicans likely do not agree on how to address issues, but at least they agree on the agenda,” Fosler wrote. “These issues are not understood by the voting public and poorly communicated by the legislative class.  Candidates, more preoccupied with attacking opponents, spend little time communicating the issues they care about.”

Fosler says it’s important for the public and the candidates to focus on finding areas of agreement and working toward shared solutions to problems before it’s too late to solve some of them. She writes:

“Just how “divided” Americans are on how to approach these issues remains to be seen.  At a minimum, issues of this scope and magnitude overwhelm our simple binary election system.  Their complexity gives rise to dangerous voter narratives that threaten the very foundations of the American election system itself.”


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Image Credit: Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash