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Anger, Politics and the Wisdom of Uncertainty

• May 16, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Angry citizens, new research confirms, are motivated citizens. But they are not motivated to seek out new information. But anxious citizens do.

To say that these are angry political times is perhaps to state the obvious. Commentators and analysts bemoan the lost civility, wondering what is to be done. But here’s something hopeful: New understanding of how emotions operate in politics might help us to better manage these emotions as a society.

The first thing to know about anger is where it comes from. Research suggests it begins with a threat (in these political times, say, rising economic insecurity). But whether it gets translated into anger depends on a few things.

First, it matters how the threat is described. If there’s somebody or even some institution to blame, it turns out people are much more likely to get angry.

In a paper titled “Fight or Flight? When Political Threats Arouse Public Anger and Fear” (presented at a recent conference but yet unpublished), University of Michigan political science professors Ted Brader and Nicholas Valentino and University of Memphis political science professor Eric W. Groenendyk report on experiments in which they found that respondents react differently to fictitious news reports on outsourcing and a viral outbreak. News articles that identify individuals and organizations as the culprits generate significantly more anger than those that ascribe it to impersonal causes. Without someone to blame, respondents mostly just grow fearful and anxious.

Anger is also more likely to arise when individuals feel as though they have some control over the situation — that they have a sense of political efficacy, and the resources and experience to know how to get involved in the first place. Again, without a feeling of control, fear predominates.

This matters, because people act differently when they are angry as opposed to when they are simply afraid or anxious.

For one, anger tends to inspire individuals to engage in more political activities than they would otherwise. “The one thing that seems particularly true about anger is that it is powerfully mobilizing,” said Brader. “It’s a very high-energy emotion.”

In a recent Journal of Politics article titled “Election Night’s Alright for Fighting: The Role of Emotions in Political Participation,” Brader, Groenendyk, Valentino and two other colleagues (Michigan political scientist Vincent L. Hutchings and Michigan doctoral student Krysha Gregorowicz) reported on experiments and crunched American National Election Studies data to show that when citizens get angry, they get active.

In an experimental manipulation, the researchers used “an emotional induction task” — asking participants to recall and write about an experience that made them either angry, anxious or enthusiastic. After the manipulation, subjects were given questions about their intention to participate in politics. Anger inducement boosted intention to participate by one-third of an act out of five possible acts; anxiety and enthusiasm had no effect.

Similarly, survey data on citizen self-reports of anger are predictive of campaign participation, whereas fear and enthusiasm are not. In particular, voters who report anger are much more likely to engage in what political scientists describe as “costly” activities (because they require extra resources): attending rallies, donating money, volunteering for campaigns.

“Anger gets people engaged,” said Brader. “There’s a tendency among scholars and others to say that things like negative advertising are bad. But our paper points out that negative emotions like anger can bring people out and get people more involved. So the consequences aren’t all bad.”

And Groenendyk notes: “If anger is on your side, and it’s mobilizing people to get involved, anger can be a great thing.”

A particular danger of anger seems to be closed-mindedness. Research finds that when citizens get angry, they close themselves off to alternative views and redouble their sense of conviction in their existing views. Fear and anxiety, on the other hand, seem to promote openness to alternative viewpoints and a willingness to compromise.

“Fear alerts you that something is amiss in your environment and draws your attention and says you should consider your action,” said Groenendyk. “Anger tends to move people beyond that and suggests to them to invest resources in participation and pursue riskier strategies that might cost them something.”

The research also shows the stronger your partisan identity the more likely you are to get angry. In many respects, this becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop in which anger deepens the grooves of activism, and the habits and confidence of political engagement that follow lead citizens to get angrier even more easily in the future.

There are also additional dangers. “Anger pushes people in directions that are punitive and aggressive,” said Brader. “That can be appropriate in its time and place. If somebody attacks America, it’s good to have the capability to mobilize Americans or to get people to fight.

“But anger can be an issue if it’s creating motivations to lash out. Does it stop at just spreading leaflets or voting? Or does it extend to punching opponents or throwing a brick. Politicians might be unleashing it for their own purposes, but it’s unleashing a powerful force that’s hard to control.”

Historically, anger in politics has gone up and down depending on who is in power. In “Election Night’s Alright For Fighting” the authors charted feelings of political anger between 1980 and 2004 (the research was done before the 2008 numbers). Anger toward the Democratic candidates peaked in 1980 and 1996; anger toward a Republican candidate peaked in 1984, 1992, and especially 2004.

Not surprisingly, these were all years in which an incumbent of that party was running for re-election. “Incumbents have a record and so they can be blamed,” said Groenendyk.

And blame, of course, is a pre-requisite for anger. One can almost be sure anger will be widespread wherever we look 2012.

In many respects, anger and fear in politics pose a delicate tension between competing democratic values. On the one hand, anger promotes what many observers see as civic virtues of increased participation, but it also tends to close people off from new information, to drive people to their respective sides and to encourage aggressive and punitive actions — all hallmarks of increased political polarization.

Anger also arises out of and promotes a politics of blame, but a politics of blame (which we tend not to like) is sometimes hard to disentangle from a politics of accountability (which we tend to like).

Alternately, a political culture with less accountability and fewer habits of participation would produce more pure anxiety, which research suggests would lead people to seek out more alternative sources of information and also be more willing to embrace compromise (which we also like).

Perhaps the best we can hope for among politicians and commentators is more self-awareness of the consequences of how they describe the world, particularly in how they ascribe blame. But for those who hope for more compromise and thoughtfulness among the public, maybe the answer is to spend more time acknowledging the complexities and ambiguities of public problems, trying to reduce certainty and blaming that leads to anger.

If the goal is to get people to think more carefully, maybe a little bit of the anxiety of uncertainty might not be such a bad thing after all.

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Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

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