By Steven Webster
Regardless of whether they live in a red state or a blue state, identify as Democrats or Republicans, or claim to be ideologically liberal or conservative, Americans have one thing in common.
They are angry – especially about this year’s midterm elections.
Americans’ anger is driven by contemporary political events.
Republicans are enraged by troubling economic indicators and perceived spikes in crime. Democrats, meanwhile, are angry about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned abortion rights enshrined by Roe v. Wade.
Politicians on both the left and the right are eager to capitalize on this anger. In fact, Democratic and Republican politicians alike deliberately and repeatedly seek to elicit voters’ anger. And, predictably, this anger leaves voters in a sour mood.
Recent polls reflect this reality.
Whipped into an emotional frenzy, Americans are likely to believe that things in the country have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track. So, too, do Americans believe that their preferred political party loses more often than not in legislative disputes.
Why, then, do politicians provoke anger if this emotional state leads to such pessimism? As a scholar who studies American politics and the author of “American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics,” I believe the reason for this is quite simple: Anger provides ample benefits to those politicians who are able to use it most skillfully.
Angry voters, loyal voters
To begin, anger encourages Americans to vote.
Across a range of political settings, angry people are more likely to participate than those who are not angry. With elections increasingly being determined by which side can best motivate its base into showing up to vote, anger has become a powerful tool in a politician’s arsenal.
In addition to its propensity to boost participation, anger has been shown to play a role in shaping individuals’ decisions at the ballot box.
The angrier voters are at the opposing political party, the more likely they are to vote for their own party. Guided by the mantra that an angry voter is a loyal voter, politicians have a strong incentive to agitate the American public – incumbents and challengers alike.
Anger and negativity, rather than adoration and optimism, drive contemporary American political behavior.
Political anger and social consequences
Though politicians’ strategy of appealing to the public’s anger brings them electoral benefits, this anger is not without costs. In fact, anger can cause Americans to lose trust in the government and alter their views about the opposing political party’s legitimacy.
Alarmingly, political anger has consequences that extend beyond how Americans view their governing institutions or the opposing political party.
When American voters are angry about politics, they are inclined to avoid social interactions or social events where they are likely to come into contact with those whose political leanings differ from their own.
I have found that anger leads Americans to avoid assisting neighbors with various chores, such as watering houseplants or watching over property when the neighbor is out of town, if the neighbor supports the opposing political party.
Political anger also can lead Americans to refuse requests to go on a date with those whose political leanings are opposed to their own.
Most concerning, political anger has the ability to alter Americans’ friendships and familial ties.
When angry about politics, Americans are more likely to express a desire to end friendships with those who support the other political party. So, too, do angry individuals express a desire to reduce – or completely eliminate – contact with family members whose political preferences deviate from their own.
Anger’s ability to cause individuals to socially polarize has potentially drastic ramifications for the health of American democracy. Crucially, social polarization precludes opportunities to form ties and build relationships with people from diverse backgrounds.
In societies divided along many lines, these interactions and relationships are essential to a healthy and functioning democracy. Among other things, such relationships forge bonds of mutual understanding and facilitate a climate in which good-faith cooperation is possible.
As American politics becomes increasingly fragmented along racial, religious and ideological lines, the need to form these cross-partisan social ties will become more pressing.
Anger’s ability to induce social polarization, combined with politicians’ overwhelming incentives to appeal to our emotional fury, means that this will be no easy task.
This story incorporates material from a story originally published on Sept. 10, 2020. Steven Webster is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Indiana University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
The Geode says
“Perceived spikes in crime”? LOL. It must be nice to live in Wonderland…
Dennis C Rathsam says
Angry….You bet America is Angry!!!!! We went from energy independence, to the highest gas prices in my 69 years. Inflation has crippled us all. We are being invaded at our southern border, thousands a day cross into the US…Fentanyol is killing our kids, and no one is doing anything to stop it. Biden and his handlers have made a mockery of the democratic party. The daily lies, & foolish policies from our president is more than alarming, its simply crazy. After the last 2 years it isnt any wonder Americans will ride the red sunami come election day, and make America great again.
This article is so correct, and I am angry.
This is not the United States of America I grew up in. I am not interested in Fox Entertainment or MSNBC as both try to rile us up for the sake of their ratings, not for our best interest or our country’s best interest. What bothers me though, is people buy it. A man went after Nancy Pelosi yesterday and attacked her husband with a hammer. His intent was to kill her. Now, he’s a martyr and a hero to some. Margery Taylor Green told the base that Democrats want to kill Republicans. Kevin McCarthy said Nancy Pelosi should be hit in the head with a gavel.
“Nancy Pelosi” has been thrown around like a dirty word, yet I bet very few people know what she does that is so terrible that the mere mention of her name draws ire. What I do know is that she is a strong intelligent woman. What are the Republicans doing to stop this ire? Not a thing. You will vote Republican. You will be complicit in the attack now, January 6th and in the future. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson and company will egg you on.
Have you had enough yet? Would you rather continue to support attacks on the capital or pizza parlors over absurd conspiracy theories? Is it more important to shoot hogs from helicopters or find the dumbest black guy to run against a smart black guy? Do you want to continue to support the Proud Boys, Neo Nazis and Oath Keepers? Even by voting for local politicians who support the likes of these shit stirrers is supporting all this.
Dump Fox. Drop MSNBC. Turn off the radio hate shows. Vote against the crazies. Reclaim your Republican Party, and tell the Democrats you want civility again. If you continues on the current road, the United States of America will no longer be the country we all grew up in.
Michael Cocchiola says
I don’t know to what extent extremist Republicans will go to dismantle our democratic republic should they take over congress. But I suspect that after enraging their base they’ll have to show visible progress or at the very least visible attempts.
The good news is that we have a Democratic president who has veto power. And if the Senate is split nearly evenly, the extremists will find it hard to get the 60 votes needed to enact big legislation.
The bad news is that the extremist Republican majority will probably attempt to change the filibuster rules – the “Nuclear Option”. And they’ll change other laws to limit the power of the presidency. That is until they take over that office.
This is an existential struggle between the extremist Republican minority and the majority of moderates in this country. We’ll see in November which way this country will go.
Perhaps sanity will prevail.
jim morrison says
mike, the “nuclear option” as you stated was started by who? that’s right harry reid a dem… please tell us about harry and his sons Chinese business interests – probably the same as crack head biden. oh Mike, tell joke b that we don’t have 54 states and our gas price was not $5 a gallon when he took office as he said in PN last week, this guys is delusional if not bat shit crazy –
William Moya says
I t doesn’t seem to surprise me how many, seemingly savvy people, think of democracy, as civil, proper, and harmonious; democracy is loud, contentious, and at times violent, and only after that tumultuous affair we have elections, to be decided by popular voting, no electoral college, it should be mandatory for all eligible citizens to vote, political parties would have access to public financing so that corporation and billionaires don’t end up buying political parties, including all media outlets, which have become beholden and part of a corrupt system. What we ended up with a facsimile of democracy, a system created by people, while very familiar with the writings of the Age of Reason were contemptuous of democracy, and we have no way out.
I agree 100% with the context of this article. Admittedly, over the past six years or so, I have been guilty of avoiding /reducing social interactions with friends and family who hold the opposite political view. Part of that was due to the politicalization of the Covid pandemic. As an immunosuppressed individual with vulnerable, elderly family members, I did not wish to interact with people who did not follow masking/social distancing guidelines and who were anti-vaccine. Unfortunately for some of those individuals, their political beliefs cost them their lives.
Well I tried very hard not to sever ties, the distancing has had a negative effect on relationships. And I am trying very hard to keep those relationships intact to some degree for the exact reasons postulated here. We must find ways to embrace what we have in common and we must find ways to have open conversations about our differences.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
One commonality is our National Constitution…
Lets rejoice in it, not attack it, or twist its meaning.
Why have you allowed the media to affect you to the point of causing strife within your family. That leads to breakup of the family, which is currently one of our big problems?
Christopher Lemke says
My wife and I have friends who have developed a permanent psychosis with respect to C-19. That is really unfortunate. It seems that their overwhelming fear prevents them from living their lives based on real information, not fear mongering. The information is out there, but they will never seek to find it or won’t believe it if they do. We see these people as being too far gone psychologically to be able to come back to rationality. It’s a terrible shame. Fear is a very powerful weapon.
A lot of people are angry. Does anger change anything? Anger energy channeled the wrong way will bring bad results. Look at the history of this country will not go into details. Anger energy channeled the right can bring good results. When we vote let us vote for the party that will help the people. Use your judgement I am using mine and will vote Democratic, they try to help people more than the Republicans.