GOP Anxiety: How Republicans work with worry

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Picture from Slate

We’ve all heard it. Immigrants will undermine the American way of life. Muslims will institute Sharia law and overtake our legal system. Gun control will lead to an imbalance of firearms between law-abiding citizens and criminals. Conservative talking points have long appealed to America’s anxieties. Our anxiety that the country we love will change into something we no longer recognize. Our anxiety that people who aren’t like us are out to hurt us. And our anxiety that those who aim to hurt us may end up with the upper hand.

Anxiety is worry without reason, but it feels all too real. And it motivates us to alleviate our unease, often by avoiding others we find threatening. Appealing to people’s anxieties, as baseless as they may be, is an extremely effective way to encourage social isolation. Anxiety about other groups feeds xenophobia and prejudice, but it also moves people into protection mode, leading to the social exclusion of outgroups.1 Consider conservatives’ protectionist response to the Ebola crisis. When anxiety about disease increased, calls to close our borders rose as well.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to use appeals involving moral outrage. Immigration enforcement is tearing families apart. A religion that is 99.9% peaceful is being grossly mischaracterized by zealots. We are playing fast and loose with our environment and the future of our children. While emotional appeals are cheap on all fronts, anger is the only approach-oriented negative emotion.2 Sadness, fear and anxiety all make you want to lay in your bed alone and cower; anger has you primed for a fight. In this way, anger appeals are motivating, but they aren’t isolating. This is in keeping with the globalist leanings of liberals. They are outraged about various problems, and they want to engage with others to solve them. It makes sense why liberals are known as progressive policy-makers, because anger creates forward momentum. But what happens when liberals are anxious, not outraged?

In their book Anxious Politics, Albertson and Gadarian conduct an experiment to investigate who the public trusts when anxieties are high.3 They found that people react differently to internal threats where the US government is at least somewhat accountable for outcomes than they do to external threats, where the government has no control over the threat.3 In order to test this concept, they conducted two experiments, one about swine flu, which was an external public health threat, and one about illegal immigration, which was an internal threat that the government could control.3 They found that anxiety over swine flu increased trust in experts like personal doctors, as well as in government agencies, like the CDC, relative to people who were not anxious about swine flu.3 Interestingly, though, it does not appear to influence trust in partisan actors like the Surgeon General as much as non-partisan actors, like the FDA.3 But for participants who were made to feel anxious about illegal immigrants, liberals and conservatives alike increased trust in republican partisans.3 It wasn’t that liberals endorsed republicans over their own partisan actors, but compared to controls, anxious liberals were more trusting of republican politicians to make decisions related to immigration.

Simply appealing to people’s anxieties can change the way they feel about a situation, their opinions about the policy that should be made in response to it and the manner in which they treat the people involved. Republicans have made a political killing playing on these anxieties. So much so that the party that offered amnesty to illegal immigrants in the ‘80s has become the same party that insists we need a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. If liberals aren’t careful, more and more democratic voters will warm up to republican talking points. And it’s awfully hard to be outraged about what’s happening when you are huddled under your covers. In fact, the GOP is counting on it.

 

  1. Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1990). Point-counterpoints: Anxiety and social exclusion. Journal of social and clinical Psychology9(2), 165-195.
  2. Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications. Psychological bulletin135(2), 183.
  3. Albertson, B., & Gadarian, S. K. (2015). Anxious politics: Democratic citizenship in a threatening world. Cambridge University Press.
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Anger: An emotional Trump card

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Image from The New Yorker

It’s safe to say that the outcome of the last night’s presidential election was unexpected. Most polls showed Hillary Clinton with a solid lead for months prior to the election, and many pundits on the right and left had basically handed the victory to Clinton. But, in the light of day, we are faced with President-Elect Trump, and it has come with a significant amount of anger, both leading up to the election, and in its aftermath. Many Americans are afraid; many are truly feeling the meaning of the words “underrepresented group.” As per usual, there are talks of secession, both from states like California who went overwhelmingly for Clinton, handing her the popular vote. And, of course, there are obviously many who rejoice at this outcome, though many psychologists would say that their anger about their relative positions in society is what fueled this victory in the first place.

Anger is its own special kind of thing when it comes to emotion. Most positive emotions, like happiness and delight are approach emotions, meaning that you move towards experiences, things and people that elicit these kinds of emotional states. You are definitely going to move towards that adorable puppy, or that day at the beach. On the other hand, most negative emotions, like fear or shame, are avoidant emotions. We tend to fold into ourselves when we feel negatively, we remove ourselves from situations and from others. There is actually only one negative emotion that is approach oriented: Anger.1 That’s why people fight each other, yell at each other and tear their shirts off when someone challenges them at a tense football game. And man, voters all over American are obviously pretty peeved, albeit for different reasons. I’m glad the Super Bowl isn’t for a few months or we’d be seeing a lot of white beer bellies.

Anger is a universal emotion.2 People in every culture all over the world are hard wired to recognize anger in others, since, you know, it might be directed at us and it is fairly useful to notice that, survival-wise. In many ways, emotions are evolutionarily useful, someone’s face of surprise will tip us off to impending danger before they can produce words to tell us. But they also affect the way we think. The more intense the emotion, the less logical we are.3 That’s why we make dumb decisions when we are infatuated with an unsuitable love interest, or why we say that we “see red” when we are really angry. Added to that, high emotions are likely to evoke system 1 thinking, in which people make decisions based on mental shortcuts, instead of system 2 thinking, in which people methodically compare all alternatives.4 Anger basically creates an emotional version of cognitive load. Anger occupies so much of our thought processes that we don’t have enough attention left over to make good choices. Really. This is a thing.

There are different factors governing the anger expression on the right and on the left. On the right, I believe we are experiencing something similar to the backlash against Bush in 2000. Researchers found that Americans are more likely to back the candidate they see as less “corrupt,” and in the Bush v. Gore matchup, Bush was the political insider whose own father had been president. Voters who viewed this as nepotism cast their ballots for Gore or Nadar.5 For people on the left, many are angry that we are still experiencing serious gender, racial, sexual preference and income inequality and it only seems to matter to a portion of the population. On both sides, people tend to react with anger when they feel that they have behaved the right way, but that others have taken success from them.6 For republicans, a lot of the anger appears to center around the idea that undocumented immigrants are taking American jobs and sowing seeds of terrorism. For democrats, much of it appears to center around the idea that a majority of white people are still able to dictate the state of our union.

Sadly, many of us will be angry for a bit. And that’s okay. But we can choose to wallow in a sense of helplessness, and to mourn the loss of our country to more powerful forces of isolationism and fear than we thought. Or we can choose to get pissed. We can choose to let that angry energy fuel our movement to make America a more tolerant place. To pose a serious, noisy challenge to legislators who seek to pass laws that do not represent us. To protest when the powers that be attempt to shove their opinions and their values down the throats of the American people. To get involved in elections on the local level. To know who our representatives are and what they stand for. To join in races ourselves, and bring our own views into the conversation. The fact is, the presidential election is over. Donald Trump will be our president. We can choose to flee to Canada and lick our wounds, hoping the electorate magically changes in four years. Or we can get pissed enough to stand together and choose to fight.

  1. Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications. Psychological bulletin135(2), 183.
  2. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology17(2), 124.
  3. Pham, M. T. (2007). Emotion and rationality: A critical review and interpretation of empirical evidence. Review of general psychology11(2), 155.
  4. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
  5. Redlawsk, D. P., & McCann, J. A. (2005). Popular interpretations of ‘corruption’and their partisan consequences. Political Behavior27(3), 261-283.
  6. Huddy, L., Sears, D. O., & Levy, J. S. (Eds.). (2013). The Oxford handbook of political psychology. Oxford University Press.