I'm Mad as Hell? .?.?. and I'm Going to Vote!

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, October 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

I'm Mad as Hell? .?.?. and I'm Going to Vote!


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

The psychology of an angry electorate.

Given that the tea party movement was launched with a furious on-air outburst by CNBC's Rick Santelli in February 2009, when he called for a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest the White House mortgage-bailout plan, it's not surprising that this is the year of the "mad as hell" voter. What is surprising is that this is also the year of voters wanting angry candidates--really angry candidates. In New York, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino moved up in polls after vowing to take "a baseball bat to Albany." In Nevada, GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle cemented her anger credentials by warning, "If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, campaigning for California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, roused a crowd by saying he had told union leaders who pressure teachers, "You punch them, I punch you."

That the rise of the furious pol comes only two years after "No-Drama Obama" won the presidential election is apparently something most Democrats didn't expect; notice how their candidates tend to be the ones scrambling to catch up, angerwise. (Paladino's opponent, Andrew Cuomo, was goaded by reporters into an unconvincing "We're all angry!") But they should have seen it coming. In June, when BP's oil well was on its way to gushing more than 4 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, pundits railed at President Obama for, as NEWSWEEK put it, "not showing enough raw rage." Exactly why candidates now need to show fury in their belly goes a long way toward explaining not only the public mood and what will appeal to voters this fall, but also why decades-old campaign dogma ("Social Security is the third rail of American politics"; "Extremists can't carry the suburbs") is being overturned.

Americans have ample reason to be both angry and anxious. Seven in 10 have a close friend or relative who has lost a job; 28 percent have less than $500 in savings. Anxiety typically makes voters question or even abandon long-held convictions about, say, which party they identify with or which policies they support (deficit spending? tax cuts for the rich?), says political scientist George Marcus of Williams College. Anxiety also tends to nudge people to seek out information as a way of assuaging that unease (Social Security will be there when they retire; higher taxes on millionaires will not impede the recovery), which might suggest the Democrats have an opening to make their case.

Except for one thing: because the recession had identifiable culprits rather than being just another turn of the business cycle, anxiety has morphed into anger. "Gut-level feelings of tremendous anxiety quickly turn into rage," says psychology professor Drew Westen of Emory University and author of the 2007 book The Political Brain. "Men in particular don't like feeling anxious, so they very quickly convert anxiety to anger at what made them anxious." That anger is aimed at anyone perceived as failing to pull the country out of the recession--mostly Democrats, as the party in power. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 23 percent of voters say they're angry; 54 percent are frustrated. Angry voters say they'll support a Republican rather than a Democrat by a margin of 73 to 19. Similarly, a Quinnipiac University poll last week found that 33 percent of likely voters in Connecticut say they are "angry" with the federal government. They support GOP Senate candidate (and pro-wrestling tycoon) Linda McMahon 78 percent to 20 percent.

While anxious voters seek out many sources of information, angry ones "want to rally round their convictions," says Marcus. "They're not interested in objective information, but only in the kind that reinforces what they believe." Democrats can therefore bombard talk shows and op-ed pages and blogs with studies showing that TARP prevented a financial implosion or that the health-care-reform law will save billions of dollars, but many of the voters they need to reach aren't hearing it. …

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