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Candidates need antidotes to public anger, not anger

A combative, angry mood hangs over the presidential races, reflecting public sentiments. But below the anger are emotions that do need to be addressed, with a calm debate of policy.

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    Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney talk during a commercial break at the Jan. 26 Republican debate in Jacksonville, Florida.
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Will anger be the victor of the 2012 election?

So far in the presidential contest, there’s enough pique in the air and indignation in the campaigns to say it might.

Voter sentiment reflects a record low in trust of both Washington and Wall Street. A large majority of Americans say the country is on the wrong track.

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The anger is seen not only in opinion polls but in the grievance politics of the tea party and “Occupy” movement. And the candidates, with their mood meters ever on, are playing to this emotional alienation among Americans.

In his State of the Union message, for example, President Obama starkly shifted from his campaign style of 2008 that promised hope and an end to bitter partisanship to that of being a pugnacious populist. His newfound fighting spirit appeals to the hard-core left that sees him as too reconciling. The president even got into a personal spat this week with Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer.

In the GOP race, the candidates long ago resorted to personal barbs, eye-rolling, snide snorts, high umbrage, and tart retorts. So far, there have been 19 Republican debates and each new one seems closer to a Fox News or MSNBC talk show – the kind that looks at the world only in black and white. (Thankfully, the next debate isn’t until Feb. 22.)

Newt Gingrich is the champ of rage, and relishes it. “Newt’s Rocky Balboa – he doesn’t mind fighting,” says former Rep. Bob Livingston, a Gingrich adviser. Mitt Romney has tried to match Mr. Gingrich’s ire even as he accuses his rival of putting anger at the source of his campaign.

“When I’m shot at, I return fire,” Mr. Romney said. “I’m going to show the passion that I have when it comes naturally.” But then Gingrich warned him: “You have to be realistic in your indignation.”

The brutish brawls of the GOP primaries sometimes push one of the candidates to get fed up. “Let’s focus on the issues!” exclaimed Rick Santorum during Thursday night’s debate in Florida.

Some media outlets are now trying to measure the public mood by tracking emotions in the chatter on social media. The website Politico joined up with Facebook to conduct sentiment analysis of online users. The new computer analytics look for words of feelings about candidates in a Facebook user’s postings, sharings, and linking. The Washington Post website uses an app that looks on Twitter for words such as “angry” and “happy” about the candidates.

And in San Francisco, a website company call Kanjoya uses a search engine to follow the “emotional intelligence” of online users. While it caters to businesses, Kanjoya has also used its software to decipher the public sentiments in the campaign. It found “anger” and “joy” for Gingrich, while the emotion surrounding Mr. Santorum was “sadness.”

The populism of anger isn’t new in American politics. But in this election, the opportunity to exploit it – in the many TV debates, with new online tools, or in “super PAC” ads – has been magnified. The nation’s economic despair and its deep political divisions add to it.

Candidates make a mistake in seeing anger as a lone sentiment when it really is a result of deeper emotions. Many voters are simply afraid, sad, or feel a sense of loss about their prospects or the government’s role. It is those feelings that need to be addressed through a calm and compassionate discussion of the alternative solutions that each candidate or party offers.

The media that run the debates don’t help by baiting candidates about their personal lives.

When candidates exploit anger by feigning anger, a negative cycle begins that only erodes democracy.

Campaigns don’t need to be lovefests. But candidates can be more perceptive and bighearted in addressing voters’ primary emotions. Voters need a balm, not bitterness.

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