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The Monitor's View

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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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.

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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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