Opinion | We can do something about political anger


If you are angry, frustrated and exhausted by politics, you’re in good company. A survey on political attitudes by the nonpartisan research group More in Common suggests we’re going about our politics all wrong.

The online poll of 1,200 people conducted after the midterms found that the five “most common emotions towards the country today” are frustration, disappointment, exhaustion, disgust and anger. Americans are slightly less angry than they were five years ago but also less hopeful and less willing to compromise on politics.

Those in the “exhausted majority,” as More in Common terms it, have much in common with one another, regardless of their political ideology. Nearly two-thirds of respondents think the extremes are a threat to America (including 44 percent who find their own side too extreme), almost 90 percent think our biggest threats are domestic, and nearly 60 percent think they have no voice in politics. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

And while the parties are divided, they aren’t split as much as voters think. (More about why this is in a moment.) “Democrats perceive the top Republican issue to be election fraud, but just 19% of Republicans cite it as a top priority,” More in Common found. “Republicans believe that Democrats are preoccupied with LGBTQ rights, but just 9% of Democrats listed it as a top priority.” Voters on both sides ranked the economy and health care as the most important issues.

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This survey arrives at a time when voters believe, incorrectly, that the United States is in a recession. And this tells us something about how voters form their dismal views about politics.

It’s easy to place at least some blame on social media platforms. Forums like Twitter amplify the loudest voices, use algorithms that radicalize users (and sort them into media silos) and spread disinformation. Almost all media outlets keep exaggerated and emotionally gripping stories going as long as possible. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

Too often, mainstream news outlets simply regurgitate inflammatory remarks from Tucker Carlson, just as they once repeated Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades. This is how conflict, insults and outrage flourish.

But the media also have their own innate bias for gloom and doom. This is as well-researched as it is understandable. A 2019 study suggested that “negativity in news is a product of a human tendency to be more attentive to negative news content.” In the competition for viewers and readers, it’s not surprising that news coverage gets more and more negative with time.

Let’s face it: U.S. economy is improving is not as click-worthy as Economic troubles remain. Rising gas prices can dominate headlines for weeks, but coverage of declining gas prices is sporadic.

And the more news we imbibe, especially during a crisis (e.g., covid, Jan. 6), the more dire things seem. In search of explanations or relief, we may compound our misery by soaking in more negative news. Moreover, if one party deliberately tries to arouse grievance, fear and resentment, a mainstream news outlet, in the name of balance, will pick up a disproportionate amount of negative rhetoric.

All this helps explain why most people think everything is worse today — more violent, more unequal, more dangerous — when it really isn’t. (The term for this is declinism.)

Yes, there are objective reasons for Americans to feel nervous, even alarmed, about the state of the country after multiple recessions, a pandemic and a insurrection. But there’s no need to marinate in catastrophic predictions or to discount good news as spin.

People might appreciate some optimism from politicians. More in Common says “Americans are eager for a departure from the ‘us versus them’ narratives.” And active citizenship — things like volunteering at a polling place, working on a campaign, registering people to vote — can help lift the sense of futility. More Americans becoming engaged in civic life could be good for the country — and for our collective mood.

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