Angry Games of American Politics

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As the 2020 presidential election draws to a close, one thing is certain: America is an angry country. Anger is displayed across the country, from protests against persistent racial injustice to counter-protests linked to white nationalists. Inequality, the government’s response to the coronavirus, economic concerns, race and law enforcement are all sparking national outrage. It is also due, in large part, to the deliberate and strategic decisions taken by American politicians to incite voters into a rage for electoral gain.

While inciting voters to anger helps candidates win elections, research in my book “American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics” shows that the effects of anger survive elections. And this can have serious consequences for the long-term health of American democracy. Political anger reduces citizens’ trust in the national government, leading people to view it with hostility, skepticism and utter contempt. Due to the increasingly national orientation of politics, this anger is often directed directly against the federal government, and not against state or local authorities.

So numerous are Donald Trump’s attempts to enrage his base that progressive magazine The Nation has called him a “merchant of anger.” Meanwhile, his opponent, Joe Biden, arouses anger at the president, calling Trump a “toxic presence” who has “covered America in darkness.” Angry political rhetoric is not new. From Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon to Newt Gingrich, politicians have long known that angry voters are loyal voters. People will support their party’s candidates locally and nationally as long as they remain sufficiently outraged against the opposing party.

This creates a governance problem. As previous researchers have demonstrated, trust facilitates the development of bipartite laws and support for social protection programs that seek to make society more equitable, among other policies. Americans’ confidence in government has been declining for six decades.

My research shows that sustained anger is a more likely suspect for Americans’ diminished confidence in government. Although American political anger has many sources, it was Ronald Reagan’s assertion in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” that really started to fuel the anger. Republicans against the federal government. This statement, rooted in the conservative preference for individualism and free markets over government intervention, crystallized latent Republican anger against what many saw as a militant federal government. This anger is in full bloom today.

Researchers have argued that party affiliation determines trust in government. When a preferred party controls the government, this confidence is high; when the opposing side has power, it is weak. Although partisanship affects people’s trust in various political institutions, it cannot explain why overall trust in the U.S. government has been declining for decades. After all, party control over Washington changes frequently.

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