American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics

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Preface to American Rage

One of the most notable characteristics of American politics in the 21st century is the degree to which both Democrats and Republicans are angry at the opposing party, its leaders, and its supporters. In a January 2016 opinion piece for The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin argued similarly, saying that "[a]nger has almost become a fad, a way of signaling that you know what's going on, you're sophisticated enough to see you're being taken advantage of." Yet, if anger is a fad or the signal emotion of our day, the current body of scholarship knows far too little about the causes and political consequences of anger. Utilizing a combination of novel datasets, new measures of anger, and a series of experiments on people throughout the country, this book argues that anger is a powerful and all-present force in shaping patterns of political behavior and public opinion. Specifically, I argue that anger has served to reduce Americans' trust in their governing institutions, has weakened the citizenry's commitment to democratic norms and values, and has given rise to extraordinarily high levels of voter loyalty at multiple electoral levels.

Given such a holistic view of anger, this book is divided into two main parts. In the first part of the book I give an overview of how anger affects American political behavior and public opinion. I also consider three primary developments that have given rise to the heightened levels of anger that currently exist in American politics. The first development that has given rise to anger is the sorting of partisan identities with racial, ethnic, cultural, and ideological identities. The increasing alignment of these crucial identities has led to a society where the demarcations between "us" and "them" have grown ever clearer. These divisions, in turn, have helped to create and perpetuate an anger-fueled style of politics.

The second development that has contributed to the growth in anger is the development of what Prior (2007) has labelled the "post-broadcast" media environment. Characterized by explicitly partisan and ideological news outlets, this new media landscape has allowed Democrats and Republicans to self-select into news outlets that do little more than confirm their pre-existing beliefs and further entrench their partisan identities. The third -- and related -- development that has helped to fuel the growth in anger is the emergence of the Internet and associated technologies that serve to exacerbate partisan divisions. How these three trends have led to the creation of an increasingly angry electorate is the subject of Chapter 1.

After outlining an argument as to how partisan sorting has led to an anger-fueled style of politics, I finish the first part of the book by showing in Chapter 2 that political elites actively seek to elicit anger among the electorate. Utilizing the universe of tweets sent by presidential candidates during the 2016 campaign, as well as the transcripts of broadcast TV shows that aired on Fox News and MSNBC between 1999-2016, I show that political elites do seek to elicit anger among their supporters. Additionally, I present evidence that suggests that political elites are more likely to elicit this anger during key points of a campaign.

In the second part of the book, comprising Chapters 3 through 6, I illustrate the ways in which anger shapes patterns of public opinion and voter behavior. In Chapter 3 I introduce a measure of trait-based anger, derived from clinical psychology, to show how an individual's predisposition to be angry shapes her evaluations of the national government across two different metrics. Moreover, I show how the relationship between one's personality governed level of anger and evaluations of the national government is moderated by partisan affiliation.

Chapter 4 moves beyond studying anger as a personality trait and examines the relationship between anger, conceptualized as an emotion, and trust in government. To do so, I utilize an experimental design that allows me to determine the causal effect of heightened levels of anger on trust in government. The experimental design randomizes individuals into one of three different treatment conditions: a condition that primes apolitical anger, a condition that elicits anger specifically about politics, or a condition that increases the salience of politics or political issues. This design feature is important both because it facilitates an experiment with clearly defined interventions and because it allows for a straightforward examination of possible heterogeneous treatment effects. The results suggest that both apolitical anger and targeted political anger lower citizens' trust in the national government. In fact, the effect of apolitical anger on lowering trust in government is just as strong as the effect of political anger. This suggests that the magnitude, and not necessarily the source, is the most important element in anger's ability to weaken the bonds of trust between Americans and their governing institutions.

In Chapter 5 I examine the role of anger in weakening citizens' commitment to democratic norms and values. Utilizing a similar experimental design to the one employed in Chapter 4, this chapter examines the causal effect of anger on Americans' support for political tolerance, respect for minority opinions, and a commitment to maintaining "the spirit of the law" in addition to "the letter of the law." The results suggest that higher levels of anger serve to reduce Americans' commitment to these essential norms and values -- particularly with respect to political tolerance -- that have long been the lynchpin of a well functioning democratic society.

The results I present in this book yield a puzzling question: if anger has a harmful effect on American government and politics, then why do political elites persist in seeking to provoke anger among their followers? Chapter 6 argues that political elites seek to elicit anger among their followers because voter anger leads to voter loyalty. In this chapter I show that more frequently feeling angry toward the opposing party's presidential candidate is predictive of higher levels of voter loyalty. This relationship is most pronounced for those individuals who do not particularly like their own party's presidential candidate. Among this subgroup of the electorate, higher degrees of anger leads to behavior more characteristic of committed partisans. Additionally, the evidence presented in this chapter suggests that, in the current era of nationalized politics, anger toward the opposing party's presidential candidate leads to voter loyalty in subpresidential elections.

Finally, I conclude with a chapter discussing anger and the future of American government and politics. Is it possible to reverse the rise of anger within the electorate, or is this contentious style of politics here to stay? The answer has lasting implications for public opinion, political behavior, and the nature of political competition in the United States.