Aren't the stripes soothing?

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Are You an Angry Voter? Take a Deep Breath

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

Everybody seems to think voters are furious this year. The angry voter has been blamed (if that’s the word) for everything from the insurgent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to the possible emergence of a third-party presidential candidate in 2016.  And although some thoughtful dissenters wonder whether Americans are quite as enraged as the news media insist, the tale of the angry voter seems unlikely to fade any time soon.

In the midst of this maelstrom, political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster  of Emory University last week posted an intriguing analysis of the role of anger in the 2012 presidential election. They conclude that voters are indeed angry -- angry mainly at the opposing party -- and that this anger is increasingly correlated with ideology. In other words, the most liberal and most conservative voters are also the most likely to be angry.  Looking forward to 2016 they conclude: “It promises to be a long and nasty campaign.”

Why do we worry so about the mood of the voters? Probably because anger implies a loss of control. We see anger as an impediment to rational thought. This view has an impressive pedigree. For instance, Galen, the second- and third-century Greek physician and philosopher, associated anger with barbarians, the young and the uneducated. Anger, he conceded, is natural to us, but the truly mature are able to tame it with reason.

Anger has long fascinated neuroscientists, because it so often gets the angry individual into trouble. Why has so dangerous an emotion survived? It might be related to brain structures that involve compliance with social norms. On this theory, we use anger to punish those who break the rules. Or anger might serve the evolutionary purpose of causing the object of the anger “to recalibrate upwards the weight he or she puts on the welfare of the angry individual.” In other words, anger helps us get what we want.

But is anger good for democracy? I’ll go with no. For one thing, laboratory experiments have long borne out the wisdom that people who are angry at each other have trouble undertaking common activities, even when both would benefit -- a problem that has been labeled “negotiation myopia.” If democracy is to be a common project, then, anger will always be a distorting force.

For another, that commonality has itself been shredded -- perhaps beyond repair. Earlier this year, Abramowitz and Webster released an important paper cataloging the sharp increase in party-line voting in recent decades. Once upon a time, it was not uncommon for Republicans to vote Democratic and vice versa. In 2012, the authors tell us, the U.S. saw “the highest levels of party loyalty and straight-ticket voting since the American National Election Studies first began measuring party identification in 1952.”

What’s the reason for the change? Abramowitz and Webster offer as a partial explanation what they call “negative partisanship” -- the growing tendency of voters to think of their ballots not as a way to help their party but as a way to hurt the opposition. In other words, it’s not that our side is so great; it’s that the other side is so awful.

How do we know the other side is awful?

For one thing, we tend to know about our opponents only what other angry people say about them. I’ve written recently about experiments showing how we actively seek sources that support rather than challenge our views. The structure of the news media, in political scientist Gary Jacobson’s dry phrasing, “obviously does make it easy for rival partisans to maintain separate cognitive worlds.”

Moreover, as Abramowitz and Webster observe, crucial to negative partisanship is the assignment of negative characteristics to the other party. From 1972 to 2012, the proportion of voters who believe there are significant differences between the parties rose from 55 percent to well over 80 percent. We can argue over cause and effect. Nevertheless, as the authors point out, these changes in perception are entirely rational as the parties themselves become more ideologically rigid.

Consider: In which party might the voter who is for abortion rights but against same-sex marriage find a comfortable welcome? How about the voter who supports the Affordable Care Act but is a skeptic on climate change? And if you don’t believe such complex voters exist, you’re providing evidence for the authors’ thesis of party rigidity.

The idea that the other party and its supporters are always and everywhere wrong runs against both the ideal of pluralism and the concept of “intrinsic equality” that Robert Dahl famously placed at the heart of democracy. All of us have met committed partisans who believe that those on the other side are irredeemably stupid or evil. Dahl warns that such a claim of superiority is ultimately enforceable only at the point of a gun -- just the opposite of democracy.

Still, there’s hope for us. In his book “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” the economist Bryan Caplan relates the response of his students when he teaches the relationship between higher wages and unemployment. The students are furious: “How could you be so callous?” Yet when they themselves apply for jobs, the students are reasonable in their salary expectations. They know better than to price themselves out of the market. Says Caplan: “Their standby rationality kicks in, telling them ‘This is no time to get angry.’”

It would be comforting to think that when we actually arrive in the voting booth, our standby rationality will kick in too -- that the recognition of the solemn democratic function we are exercising will brush away the negative partisanship and help us calm down and use our heads rather than our hearts as our guide in pulling the lever. Abramowitz and Webster are skeptical. Let’s hope they’re wrong.

  1. A study of the last major third-party run, by H. Ross Perot in 1992, failed to find evidence that anger played a significant role in voter choice. But 1992 was a long time ago.

  2. Actually Webster is a doctoral student, but the description seems fair.

  3. In the authors’ data, strong liberals measure as slightly more angry than strong conservatives.

  4. This approach accords with the view of Aquinas, who, influenced by Aristotle, contended that anger is not always contrary to reason, but can be rational if the anger is provoked by an injustice and leads to a just effort to punish it.

  5. In last week’s post, Abramowitz and Webster refer to voter anger as “rational.” What they actually mean, I think, is that the anger is explicable -- that we can understand where it comes from. They’re not saying it’s a good thing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net