BOULDER, Colo. — American politics has never been a particularly “clean” place when it comes to angry rhetoric and mud-slinging. However, most would likely agree politics have become more divisive and provocative than at most other points in history. So, is this just a case of society moving in two different directions or political strategy? A new study finds injecting anger into a campaign actually motivates supporters to turn out to vote.
Researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder say, in the short term, angry rhetoric and political furor both spreads easily and leads to Election Day gains. Researchers Carey Stapleton from CU Boulder and Ryan Dawkins from the U.S. Air Force Academy add that everyday people start to mirror the anger they see in their preferred candidate when reading about those emotions in news reports. This “emotional contagion” can actually spark people who normally tune out the typical political chatter and drive them to vote.
“Politicians want to get reelected, and anger is a powerful tool that they can use to make that happen,” says Stapleton, a recent PhD graduate in political science, in a university release.
The team survey nearly 1,400 people, representing the entire political spectrum, during their study. Researchers showed each person a collection of mock new stories about a “recent political debate” where the candidates for office had a fiery exchange about immigration. Results reveal, when it comes to politics, reading about someone participants support being angry makes them angry too. These partisans reported being more likely to attend rallies or vote on Election Day.
“Anger is a very strong, short-term emotion that motivates people into action,” Stapleton adds. “But there can be these much more negative implications in the long term. There’s always the potential that anger can turn into rage and violence.”
Anger in politics is nothing new
Study authors note that angry rhetoric is not a phenomenon that just arrived in recent times. In fact, they cite that the country’s second president, John Adams, once called Alexander Hamilton a “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.”
Unfortunately, even after 250 years, things may be less civil now. The Pew Research Center reported before the 2020 presidential election that “around nine-in-ten Trump and Biden supporters said there would be ‘lasting harm’ to the nation if the other candidate won.”
“Most political science research to date has focused on what we do when we feel an emotion like anger, rather than how our emotions affect other people,” Stapleton explains.
Anger actually motivates the moderates
To see who angry words affects the most, Stapleton and Dawkins gave their volunteers a series of news articles about an immigration policy debate between candidates for Congress in Minnesota. What the group didn’t know is this is a fictional race for office.
The “candidates” used language that tried to push the readers into outrage, although the team notes even some of their examples may still be tame in 2021 politics. In other cases, the articles used more neutral language. The study finds that anger tends to do more when someone people support feels outrage. On the other hand, people tune out the complaints of an opposing candidate.
“We report being angrier after seeing our fellow partisans being angry,” Stapleton says. “When the other side is angry, it doesn’t seem to affect us much at all.”
One surprising result the researchers discovered is that moderates “feel the burn” more than people at the extreme ends of their parties.
“The really far left and right are already so amped up,” Stapleton explains. “But these weakly-aligned partisans who are notoriously less likely to participate in elections were more susceptible to changing their emotions.”
Study authors say the public should pay attention to how politicians try to lobby for their support. Although anger appears to be an effective tool, other studies find optimistic people are generally more likely to become politically active than pessimists.
“Anger is one way we can get people to vote and get engaged in politics, but it’s not the only way,” Stapleton concludes. “It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.”
The findings appear in the journal Political Research Quarterly.