How false fears drive anger in US voters

As the presidential race officially kicks off with party conventions, the candidates must rise above voter misperceptions of each other.

Reuters
Senator John McCain is awarded the Liberty Medal by former Vice President Joe Biden at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in 2017.

In a new book, “American Rage,” political scientist Steven Webster of Indiana University contends that anger is now the primary emotion of politics in the United States. The elite in both major parties find it convenient to stoke anger, he says, “because an angry voter is a loyal voter.” Voter identification with a particular party is now driven more by negativity toward the other party than by a positive association with one’s own party, polls show.

Yet this mutual loathing between Democrats and Republicans also feeds on itself – to the point of absurd perceptions. A poll earlier this year by Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based nonprofit, found 79% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans overestimate the level at which the other side dehumanizes them. By a wide margin, voters on each side hold false beliefs about what the other side really thinks of them.

This needless aspect of the current polarization makes “it more difficult to find collaborative ways to address urgent challenges,” the Beyond Conflict study concluded. On national issues, too many politicians aim to represent their most partisan voters rather than a broad array of constituents. Leaders abandon the long tradition of knowing when to stop competing and to start cooperating. They add fuel to voters’ fear – the main emotion driving the anger.

This is why it is so important to watch for hints of bipartisanship and national unity during each party’s conventions in August, the official kickoff of the presidential campaigns. This year, the need for consensus is unusually high. If the ballot count in November is hotly contested, for example, Congress may need to decide who won (as has happened three times in U.S. history). If the recession deepens further, Washington must agree on a recovery plan. And if the pandemic worsens, partisan posturing could only prolong it.

On the Democratic side, Joe Biden is under pressure from the far-left to abandon his long record in the Senate of working with Republicans to find compromise on legislation. He has said that without bipartisanship, the country would be “dead.” During the convention, a video showed how Mr. Biden and John McCain, the late Republican senator, worked together to make deals. “This nation cannot function without generating consensus,” Mr. Biden said in May.

The Republican convention may try to make similar points about unifying the nation. President Donald Trump, who prides himself as a deal-maker, is under pressure from far-right groups to not compromise on certain issues.

Anger is a tiresome emotion to hold for long. It can be replaced by humility, or the willingness to listen and respect the other side, even to find interests and values that have no sides in order to establish trust. While differences on issues certainly exist, shedding the belief that the other side means harm is a good place to start.

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