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UnDisciplined: Politics: All The Rage

Fred Murphy

The events of the past several months, and even years suggest that anger is a driving force in American politics. Are politicians stoking the flames and making their supporters angry? A new study looks at just that. We'll be talking to a politcal scientist whose research focuses on the role of emtion in politics. 

Carey Stapleton is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. His latest study was recently published in the journal Political Research Quarterly.


The following is an unedited transcript.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 0:03 - This is Undisciplined. I'm Shoshannah Buxbaum. This week we're talking about the role of emotion in politics. Specifically, we're talking about anger. American politics is rife with it. And researchers wanted to test if angry politician make voters angry or to, they found that people are more likely to get riled up by listening to an angry politician from their own party. So if you're a republican listening to an angry Democrat, you're less likely to catch that anger. And interestingly, the people who absorbed the most anger are loosely affiliated voters, that is people who identify with a specific party, but are not super engaged in politics, to unpack what all of this means for our current political climate. I'm joined by Carey Stapleton. He's the co author of a recent study in the Journal of Political research quarterly, and he is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame's Department of Political Science. Carey Stapleton. Thank you so much for being here.


Carey Stapleton 0:59 - It's a pleasure to be here. And thank you for having me.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 1:01 - Okay. So before we sort of dig into your really interesting research, I want to talk a little bit about how anger is used as a tool in politics. So what's the benefit of politicians turning to anger versus other types of emotion, hope, inspiration, etc. when addressing their supporters.


Carey Stapleton 1:21 - Certainly. Anger is a very fascinating emotion. And that's because one of the kind of the key outcomes of being angry is action, angry people are motivated to participate. So what that means in politics is when you have a lot of angry supporters, they're going to turn out to vote, they're going to go to rallies, they're going to show how much they care about you as a politician. So really, what it comes down to is angry people are engaged, and they participate at a much higher rate than non angry people.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 1:50 - Yeah, you want to get people out to the polls, you want them to donate to your campaign, you know.


Carey Stapleton 1:55 - Exactly, yeah. So that's exactly what we see in research, not just in by myself and my co author, but across political science, is the one of the common findings is that angry people vote? They give money that go to rallies, they're just generally more engaged in the political process.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 2:12 - So can you give me an example? There's probably a lot but can you think of a good example of a politician who's effectively used anger as a tool to motivate voters?


Carey Stapleton 2:23 - Certainly, I think former President Donald Trump was an amazing emotional communicator, I think that's one of the overlooked things that President Trump did was he connected with people on an emotional level, and one of his primary emotions was anger, anger at what the democrats were doing angry at what was happening in the world. And really, what you see, especially in the last two election is turnout rates have skyrocketed relative to where they were, say at the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st. The 2020 election was the highest turnout we've had in over a century. And a lot of that comes down to this, these angry people were motivated to participate. And Donald Trump did an amazing job at doing that, right. Kind of encouraging people to be angry. And it's not just Donald Trump, Joe Biden did a good job at pointing out why we should be or why Democrats should be angry at what Donald Trump was doing. And so that really motivated people to turn out on both sides of the aisle and 2020.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 3:18 - Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people when they think about politics, they think of sort of the horse race or the big, you know, how is this playing in this part of the country or like this specific political issue, but I think we forget about how powerful emotion is we're not super rational thinkers all the time. A lot of it is driven by emotion, and how we feel when we hear the candidates.


Carey Stapleton 3:44 - Exactly, you know, kind of how we feel about things are kind of direct motivators of what we're going to do. And anger is one of those emotions that really engages people.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 3:54 - Right. So let's dig into this really interesting study that you just publish. So you had participants in the study read about a fictional congressional debate, you read, they read these sort of fictional news articles using quotes that either describe the politicians as angry or they were described in a more neutral way. So tell me a little bit about how you set up the study why you decided to set it up that way. And a little bit about why you think it is that framing the debates in this way had this effect?


Carey Stapleton 4:26 - Certainly, so this was part of one of my part of my dissertation research. And I just kind of expanded on it for this specific publication with my co author Ryan Dawkins at the Air Force Academy. And one of the reasons why we kind of are we chose to do it in the way we did you know, we can easily go find clips of politicians being angry, or not being angry. But from an experimental perspective, what we really want to identify is the specific outcome of infusing anger into your speech. So we wanted to make sure That it wasn't something else that was happening, maybe it was the topic that they're discussing. Or maybe it's kind of the way they're talking to, you know, the interviewer or their opponent in this case, which was a fictional debate and congressional debate. And so we designed it in this manner, so that we could really isolate the exact effect of being angry and directing that anger at the out party. And so that's kind of the way or the reason why we designed it in that way is to really isolate angers, impact, and to ensure that it wasn't something else that was happening in that kind of speech. And so this gave us the power to say, Okay, if they, you know, talk about the same things, if they talk about him in a similar way, but only infuse their anger. What does that do? And so this really gave us the power to understand the exact effect of anger, kind of in this situation.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 5:49 - And so it was really interesting that the anger from people when they were reading it, if they aligned with that politician, they were more likely to feel aligned politically, I mean, more likely to feel angry than if the it was a politician from a party they didn't support. So why is that? I mean, I think we think a lot about a sort of reactionary, like, I'm upset, because I don't agree with what's going on there.


Carey Stapleton 6:15 - Yeah, in this case, it's gonna be a little bit different than I don't like what the other side's doing. So that makes me angry. And in these situations, we really look to our political leaders, our opinion leaders, to kind of tell us how to feel and we're actually infer from their emotional reaction, kind of whether or not something's important, whether or not something matters, or should matter to us whether or not we should feel various emotions. And this is not just an anger story, you know, emotions kind of, you know, infect us, which is kind of weird to say, and you know, the COVID-19 world, but emotions can, we can catch emotions in the same way we can catch, you know, other diseases, unfortunately. And it's not just an anger story. This is about generally most emotions. And there's a huge line of research in social psychology that focuses on these contagion effects. And that's really where we took kind of our theoretical basis for this research, took it a lot from social psychology, to really understand how other people's anger affects us as voters.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 7:17 - When I was reading your research, I was thinking a lot about how there's a lot of debate, especially during the Trump administration of was Trump igniting people to feel a certain way or get angry about certain topics, or did people harbor this sort of anger? Already? Like, is it that the politicians are tapping into things that people are already feeling? And then bringing that out?


Carey Stapleton 7:43 - Yeah, so I think it, it comes down, it's a little bit of both. So there is this kind of underlying feeling of anger, that kind of permeates our kind of political discourse today. And when we see our politicians kind of publicly expressing this anger, it kind of gives us kind of a sense that it's okay for us to be angry, too. It's okay for us to direct our anger at the other team at the other side. And so it is a little bit of both. So there is research that shows that kind of people who already have that underlying kind of feeling or emotion, respond more positively to emotions that match what they're already feeling. So part of what we think is going on is that there's our this kind of underlying level of anger in American politics. And then when we see our politicians giving public voice to anger, it allows us to feel it, feel it at a higher rate, and allows us to feel okay with expressing our anger.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 8:40 - So is it sort of a chain reaction going on where, you know, let's say I watch a Trump speech, and I get really angry, and then I go talk to my neighbor, who doesn't see the speech, but then I'm really angry about stuff that maybe they've thought about, and then they get really angry. And then it's sort of this, like, circuitous effect, does it have this sort of like contagion beyond the one to one, I mean, I know you studied sort of, you know, feelings from watching directly, or like reading about an angry politician, but can it like spread beyond that one to one.


Carey Stapleton 9:13 - It 100% can and kind of, we focus on how political elites use emotions or an anger in this situation, but it will definitely work in your interpersonal, your discussions with your neighbors, provided they have that same underlying kind of political belief or political focus, and it will certainly kind of spread from there. And that's one thing that people have found studying how social media posts will transmit across whatever social media platform it is, is people will share them especially when they are expressing anger or outrage, and then because people will are more apt to feel that same thing. They're going to share it as well. So that's one way that you can see anger just kind of transmit across the political environment is through social media and tracking social media posts, and there's nothing to say. And it definitely will work in the same way interpersonally when you're just having a face to face discussion, so this will certainly work from political elites on down, and then it'll just kind of spread across the electorate in a variety of ways. Because people will share that emotion, they will catch your anger because of kind of the things we talked about.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 10:23 - So the other interesting thing was that there was actually a bigger effect on people who were less partisan to begin with, can you sort of break that down for me?


Carey Stapleton 10:33 - Yes, and this is one of the more interesting findings we had. And part of it is, the people who are the most engaged in politics, in general are already always very amped up. They're already very, you know, emotional, they're already very engaged in politics. But it's the people who are more or kind of less closely aligned with parties, who are maybe not going to turn out to vote who aren't all that engaged in politics. These were the ones who are more likely to take these cues and really increase the amount of anger that they reported. And part of this is comes down to what scholars call social identity, just because they're not necessarily always engaged in politics, they still identify with these political parties. Once that identity is triggered, and it becomes a competition, my team versus your team, they're more likely to take on these emotions, because they want to feel like a kind of a key contributor to their team. And if they're seeing people be angry at the other side about a topic. And in this competitive situation, they're more likely to bring their emotions kind of into line with their fellow party members. Whereas say, someone who is already a strong Republican, someone's already a strong Democrat, they're already feeling these emotions at a very high level, there's not really any more room for them to feel angry. So there's going to keep their kind of love their emotionality level already high. But it's these people who are the more weakly aligned, they see these signals that the other team is doing something we don't like, and it's making us angry, they're inferring from that signal that they should be angry about it too. And that's when we see kind of them increase the amount of anger, they're reporting and politics.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 12:15 - We're experiencing a minor technical issue, we've restored our connection, and I'm back with political scientist Carey Stapleton. Okay, cool. So I'll just re ask my last question, and then we'll resume. Yeah. So as we were talking about before, so your findings suggest that we're sort of mimicking the angry emotions of the party that we support. So I think a lot of us are thinking about the 2018 midterm midterms where Democrats were sort of reacting to Trump's angry messaging and his emotional pleas. And then they ended up taking over the house, is it that Democrats were responding to Trump's anger and then harnessing the anger and their base, to then get the turnout up to turn the house blue? Like, what is going on there? And how does that relate to sort of what you found?


Carey Stapleton 13:07 - I think one thing that's happening in that situation is the democrats running for the House and Senate in 2018. Not only did they kind of pick up on Trump's anger, but they were angry about what Trump and the republicans were doing as well. And they were broadcasting that anger at the Republican Party, their anger at Donald Trump for their supporters to see. So they were sending out that message sending out that signal that, you know, Donald Trump's being angry, but it's more than that we're angry at him. We're angry at what that party is doing. And it's really that signal that the other side is doing something that's causing us to be angry. That is the motivational kind of emotion in that situation. It's less about Trump being angry, or other republicans being angry that motivated Democrats, and more about the response that democratic politicians democratic opinion leaders had to what the republican party and Donald Trump were doing that really sent that signal that yes, we should be angry as Democrats to the to what's happening, and we should be turning out at a higher rate. And that's exactly what the Democratic Party saw was. Democrats turned out at a much higher rate than the Republicans, which is also a fairly traditional finding is that the part of the out party, so the party that doesn't hold the presidency, typically as a higher turnout in the midterm elections. But why? Well, we saw in 2018, was that Democrats really turned out in a high rate, and that's because they were very angry. And part of that anger. Now, certainly it's not all of the anger is because politicians are political, the Democratic politicians, the Democratic Party, opinion leaders were angry. I'm not saying it's all of that there's definitely other ways that people in the electorate become angry. But this is one source, seeing our political elites, seeing the opinion leaders of our own party really can increase Have you seen out of anger that people feel? And so in this situation, you know, because democratic because people running for Congress, because democrats running for Congress were publicly displaying their anger towards Trump towards the republican party that did their research to suggest that what increased amount of anger in the democratic electorate and increased turnout, which we did see actually happened in 2018.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 15:29 - I mean, a lot of people are so disgusted by politics, because they view it as so nasty and so angry, and it's just like, one side is angry, and then the other side's angry at them, and they're angry, and it just sort of ratchets up. Does this sort of show that like, you know, this whole let's have civil discourse or civil campaigns? Is that going to work? Like if one party is spewing anger, and hatred or whatever, and then the other party is angry? And then also gets angry in their messaging? Can you combat anger with, you know, even keeled messaging? Because kind of what you're saying is like, anger gets people to the polls.


Carey Stapleton 16:06 - Exactly. And that is one of the problems we're confronting right now, as Americans, it's that anger works. And because anger works in the short term, politicians have a vested interest in keeping their supporters anchored. opinion leaders, so your cable news anchors, your talk radio people, they have a vested interest in keeping people angry. And so it's it's this constant kind of outrage machine that we see that really is driving, you know, a lot of the anger that we see. And, you know, one of the problems kind of long term is that because anger works in the short term, politicians, opinion leaders don't really consider the longer term consequences of constantly being angry of constantly saying the other side is evil. And there are longer term consequences that, you know, people really need to start considering as they're conducting their current campaigns.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 17:03 - What are some of those longer term consequences that we're seeing of this sort of ratcheting up of outrage and anger in politics?


Carey Stapleton 17:11 - Yeah, I think kind of the first thing we'll see is there's just not a desire for compromise. No one side is ever should ever get everything they want without compromise. And that's kind of the cornerstone of democracy is that I want something you want something, let's find a place to meet somewhere in the middle, where I don't get everything I want, you don't get everything you want. But at the end, what we produce is good for the people that's good for not just the people who vote for us, but for everyone that we represent. And I think one thing that we also see today is that politicians don't really realize or they don't factor in the fact that they are elected by the people who vote for him, but they represent the people who didn't vote for him or even the people that didn't vote at all. And another thing is, big people become very distrustful of anything that government does, especially when the other side is in office or in power. And so trust in government goes way down. And we've seen that over the, you know, the last, you know, 50-60 years, trust in government has steadily declined. And part of that is just the way that politicians talk about the other side, though anger that they espouse when they're talking about what the other party is doing. So we lose this ability to compromise, we become much more distrustful of anything that government saying. And then a bigger issue that we can see with this constant drumbeat of anger is it can get out of control. And then we see things like we saw on January 6, where Trump supporters actually went into the US Capitol building to stop the certification of the results. That is not our normal democratic process. And part of the reason we saw that is this anger boiled over out of control, and there was really no putting it back into the box, so to speak, because, you know, these people were so angry that they just felt like they weren't being heard that, you know, this election was being stolen from them. And the more anger goes unresolved, the more people will kind of feel comfortable resorting to these kind of violent means.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 19:13 - Yeah, I mean, it's a difficult situation. We're in politically that right now. Obviously, we're facing, you know, a huge public health crisis with the Coronavirus and you know, there are compromises that need to be made. You know, there was a little bit a little glimmer of compromise happening. Do you see that there's a way to de escalate what's going on right now, especially because of all of the really big problems we're facing.


Carey Stapleton 19:39 - It's going to come down to powerful political leadership. We're going to need to see people from say cable news and our talk radio, and even online, people need to realize there are some dangerous long term consequences of constantly stoking anger, constantly stoking outrage, and And until we kind of see someone take up this political leadership of saying, All right, look, we're all Americans. We are all in this together. Let's stop demonizing the other side. Let's stop saying that they're out to destroy America, let's stop saying that they are, you know, against everything we believe in. Until we see people step up and lead us, we're probably going to continually see this cycle of outrage and anger. You know, right now, it's unclear where that leadership will come from. But my hope is that we will find it, someone will take that up. But right now, it's unclear, kind of where that will happen. Mostly because of kind of what we talked about. There are a lot of these powerful short term benefits to keeping people angry, continually get people to constantly want to stoke this anger and stoke the outrage that it's unclear where kind of we will see people come out and actually break the cycle.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 20:53 - How much control do we have, as citizens as voters, of how politicians are affecting us with their anger?


Carey Stapleton 21:02 - The more we know that these processes are happening to us, the kind of the more power we have over controlling them. And so if we know that when, you know, Tucker Carlson is being angry, or Rachel Maddow is being angry, when we know that is designed to influence our system designed to get us to watch their show is designed to get us to buy their books. Once we know that, then we can say, Okay, let me take a step back and say, is this really kind of who I am? Or what I want to become? Do I want to be this angry person who's constantly yelling at the other side? Or do I want to take a step back and say, all right, what are their motives? What are their motivations, to constantly keeping me angry, saying that knowledge is power? I think that is a first step here to know that people are strategically using these emotions to get us to do things to get us to say things, then I think that will give people pause to say, all right, do I really need to feel this right now? Or are they just trying to kind of make to manipulate me in a certain in an emotional way?


Shoshannah Buxbaum 22:08 - Yeah. So I was also thinking about another emotion, sadness, and especially crying that I think also can have an effect on people watching politicians in a powerful way. Like I'm thinking about former President Obama when he cried, talking about like the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2016, or former House Speaker, john bainer, who was known to cry about like, everything kind of?


Carey Stapleton 22:35 - Right, it should actually have a similar underlying process to the anger that we've just been talking about. It should mostly or a lot of it should come down to do I share this kind of outlook on the world as the person who is expressing you know, sadness. And so with Obama crying for Democrats seeing that that probably would influence them a lot more than, say, a Republican. So sadness, actually, you know, is a little bit different. Anger is a motivational emotion, as we talked about, it kind of leads people to approach and confront situations, sadness, kind of worry, anxiety, fear, those things kind of make people take a step back and slow down and think things through a little bit more. Now, that is kind of key. One thing we haven't talked about yet, is that the emotion for us to catch the emotion, it has to be seen as an appropriate response to a situation. So if you're already going into belief that Sandy Hook didn't happen, or that it was, you know, a conspiracy, false flag operation, that emotion doesn't have any influence on you, because it's fake. And it's whether or not those add emotion is seen as appropriate for the situation is one of the kind of the key factors to whether or not we will take on that emotion that the person is expressing.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 23:55 - Yes, it's interesting that you said that, like sadness is sort of viewed as a moment to like, reflect on it. So should more politicians be crying versus yelling?


Carey Stapleton 24:04 - Well, that, that's appropriateness. So I mean, if we're crying about, you know, the breakdown in a infrastructure negotiation, well, not everybody's gonna see that as an appropriate response to that. And in that situation, yeah, you're probably not gonna start crying or feeling sad yourself, you're gonna be like, Well, why is this person crying, he should be angry, or she should be angry. And so in that situation, you know, it really comes down to if the moment is appropriate for crying or for expressing sadness.


Shoshannah Buxbaum - 24:38 I've just been talking to Carey Stapleton. He's a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science. At the University of Notre Dame. His latest study was recently published in the journal political research quarterly. Carey, thank you so much for being here. This has been really fascinating. I learned a lot and it combined two of my most passionate subjects, psychology and politics. So very happy to have you here today.


Carey Stapleton 25:07 - Well, it was great to be here. I really appreciate the opportunity. And I will say politics and psychology are two of my most favorite things as well. Nothing wrong with that.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 25:17 - There you go. Thank you so much. Undisciplined is a production of Utah Public Radio, with support from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. And if you happen to live in Utah, you can listen to us every Thursday at 10:30am on UPR. If you miss us then, you can listen to every episode of Undisciplined wherever you get your podcast. Our producer is Clayre Scott. And our theme music is little idea by Benjamin Tisso. And I'm Shoshannah Buxbaum. Thanks for listening, now go have big ideas.


Shoshannah Buxbaum is a multimedia journalist with a passion for telling narrative-driven stories about health, politics and culture. She's reported features, news spots and a half-hour special for Utah Public Radio. Before that she spent nearly six years at NJ PBS where she worked her way up from intern to producer. She’s a graduate from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.