Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are all vying for the presidency amid an anxious populace.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES; SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES; Andrew Burton/Getty Images

News outlets across America are talking about how anxious the American voter is heading into the 2016 election. We’re anxious about the economy, anxious about national security, anxious about criminal justice; the whole country just seems like a bundle of nerves looking over its collective shoulders at every new drip of news.

Generally, this anxiety is described as a bad thing, as if somehow the electorate would work better if we viewed candidates with some sort of Terminator vision devoid of making connections between facts, stats and humanity. The truth is that this mass anxiety we’re having before going to the polls in 2016 is a good thing for the American electorate; it makes us smarter and, at least in theory, more likely to make good decisions in the voting booth.   

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It is nothing new that Americans are not happy with how government has been operating. According to a poll last November by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Hispanics all said their “political side” loses more often than it wins. In a Brookings Institution study, when American voters were asked, “Are our best days ahead of us or behind us?,” it was a 50-50 split, with “our best days” losing a full 5 points since President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012.

This sense of anxiety about our current political state often breaks down along racial and class lines as much as party identification. African Americans and Latinos tend to be less anxious and more likely to see the future as a brighter place than white voters at all education levels. Unfortunately, those distinctions tend to get lost in the rush to proclaim that the American electorate is clutching the steering wheels of life like the brakes just went out.

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More importantly, the emotions of anxiety, anger and even, to a certain extent, enthusiasm get conflated in political analysis and haphazardly used to explain just about any phenomena. Anxiety in the electorate has been used to explain the rise of outsider candidates like Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, while at the same time Bernie Sanders voters are supposedly angry at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for not getting enough done. Neither of these assessments truly stands up to real scrutiny.

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Political science has long held that anxious people are actually pretty good at and good for politics. Why? Because anxiety makes you pay attention.

Researchers at Political Research Quarterly last year explained that anxiety is when you sense that a situation is threatening but also unfamiliar. Consequently, your old strategies and habits get thrown out and you’re forced to evaluate different ways to go forward. This is opposed to anger, which is when you face a situation that is threatening but is familiar to you, and thus you can draw upon past behaviors to remedy it. When you spin this out into campaign 2016, the anxious voter is actually doing us all some good.

We already know what angry voters are doing. They’re voting for Donald Trump. That’s nothing new; wasn’t it then-Sen. Obama who back in 2008 said that when voters get angry and bitter, they cling to what they know: guns and religion?

It’s nothing new for angry, working-class white voters to be drawn to candidates with anti-immigrant, populist rhetoric. The only difference between the Trump campaign in 2016 and Pat Buchanan’s in ’92 and ’96 is how much time they get on Fox News. (Hint: Fox News didn’t exist when Buchanan was running.)

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However, anxious voters are the ones who have sustained a field of 10-plus Republican candidates and are the reason Bernie Sanders is nipping at Hillary Clinton’s heels in Iowa.

The choices about how to fix the economy seem unclear, and the classic Reaganomics way clearly doesn’t work, but the Obama strategy hasn’t relieved much economic anxiety. The choices about how to fight terror aren’t clear because it’s no longer possible to view the Islamic State group as an “over there” problem when you have random mass shooters in the United States who can’t be easily tracked or identified. The old methods of handling health insurance were a disaster to millions, but the new method might not be financially sustainable.

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In other words, anxiety abounds in the electorate. We’re in unfamiliar territory, and it has forced people to look at candidates with more care and scrutiny than in the past. This is ultimately a good thing.

So, the next time you turn on the television or read an article about the anxious electorate, rejoice. Revel in the anxiety. Hopefully, it will guide us all to cautious reasoning and paying rapt attention to everything coming out of the mouths of the men and women running for president. If not, we can always fall back on anger, which is pretty much the emotion that got us to this state of affairs to begin with.

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.