Enraged Over Politics: Where the Anger Comes From

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Question: It seems there is so much anger over politics in the United States these days.  Is there more than there used to be and, if so, why?

It’s hard to say if there is more anger than there used to be without any formal means of assessing such a thing.  However, there probably is not more anger than there used to be, as much as the anger is more visible to people now.  People can easily capture video examples of anger and aggression at campaign rallies and post those videos on the Internet for all to see.  Likewise, weblogs, chain emails, and other sorts of discussion forums offer yet another venue for people to express their frustration.  Consequently, exposure to this might make people feel as though there is more anger over politics than in the past.

As for why politics elicits so much anger from people, it happens for the same reason that people get angry about anything (see Anger Basics for a description of why and when people get angry).  People may feel their personal or professional goals are being blocked, that their positions or opinions are being ignored or devalued, or that they can’t cope with the outcome.  There are a couple of factors, though, that make anger over politics especially prevalent.

Exaggerated Claims
It’s well known that politicians tend to make exaggerated claims about their accomplishments or their opponent’s positions.  Those claims are often designed with the explicit purpose of making people angry (e.g., “my opponent voted for the largest tax increase in history”, “my opponent wants to dismantle social security”).  Thus, it isn’t surprising that those who believe the claims respond with frustration.  Meanwhile, it’s likely that those who don’t believe them respond with anger over what they perceive as dishonesty.

Selective Attention
Related to these exaggerated claims, voters seem to have a habit of only paying attention to the information that supports their perspective.  They tend to believe the claims of the candidate they endorse and to perceive the claims of the other as being dishonest.  They then look only for evidence that confirms their positions and ignore the data that refutes them.  The Internet has made it all the easier to only pay attention to confirming evidence.  If people believe a certain thing, they can usually find a website to validate their position.  It’s also made the spread of these exaggerated claims even easier because anyone can post just about anything on the Internet or send it out via email without regard for truth or accuracy.

Ultimately, what this means is that people will dichotomize by lumping the candidates and their supporters into groups (e.g., completely right vs. completely wrong) and fail to understand how the other side of an issue may have some validity. 

Feelings of Isolation
Another interesting aspect of politics is that people find out, in a way they don’t normally, how many other people in the city, state, or country agree or disagree with them.  When one is on the losing side of an election, it’s easy to feel isolated (e.g., “I can’t believe there are so many people out there who don’t get it”).  That feeling of isolation can spawn feelings of resentment and frustration.  

Anger as Appropriate
Sometimes, what we perceive as an anger problem might be more of an impulse control/aggression problem.  There is actually a place for healthy and productive anger in the political process.  If we think of anger as a valuable tool in alerting us to problems and motivating us to confront those problems, it’s perfectly reasonable to get angry when elected officials and candidates act irresponsibly, endorse positions that may harm us, etc.  The decisions that are made by elected officials affect many people in very real ways.  Consequently, some are affected quite negatively and, potentially, unfairly by those decisions (e.g., decreased funding to certain programs, increased taxes) and an angry response might be both reasonable and healthy.

It is how one chooses to express that anger that matters most.  At times, people can voice their anger in a positive way and use it to solve problems.  There were many people this election cycle who were angry but didn’t throw things, push people, or become verbally abusive.  Instead, their anger motivated them to register voters, hold rallies, or just to get out to vote.  It’s when people lost control that we saw the more aggressive examples emerge and that is a far bigger problem than the anger.

By Ryan C. Martin
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