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Political Scientist Steven W. Webster

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STEVE SANDERS: Welcome to WFIU's Profiles. I'm Steve Sanders. “It's quick, it's binary, it's delicious, and more and more we're gorging on it.” - that's what the Publication Times said in 2016 about political anger. In American politics, anger - perhaps the defining feature of the last presidential election in 2016 - seems to have only gotten more intense as we approach the 2020 election. What's driving this destructive force in our politics? Is it damaging our democracy? Is today's political anger really that different from the rough and tumble that has always characterized American politics? We explore those and other questions with Steven Webster, who joined Indiana University this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. Professor Webster is the author of the very timely new book "American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics," published this year by Cambridge University Press. Steven Webster, welcome to Bloomington and welcome to Profiles.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Thanks for having me. It's good to be here.

STEVE SANDERS: So, in the very opening pages of your book, you write the following. "One of the most notable characteristics of American politics in the 21st century is the degree to which both Democrats and Republicans are angry at the opposing party, its leaders and its supporters." In a 2016 opinion piece, you write - Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist, wrote, "anger has almost become a fad, a way of signaling that you know what's going on, that you're sophisticated enough to see you're being taken advantage of." Just as a high-level overview, because we'll get into more detail during the course of the interview, what has caused this rise in anger in our politics and what are some of its most noteworthy effects?

STEVEN WEBSTER: You know, there's lots of things that have caused our anger. So it's hard to pinpoint any one thing, but one reason Americans are angry today is because political elites - so our elected officials - are trying to make us angry. So I discuss in the book that political elites are strategic in their elicitation of our anger. And so a lot of times we're angry because that's how our politicians want us to be. This, of course, has lots of problems for our democracy, right? It makes us less trusting in the government. It makes us less tolerant of people who hold different views than ourselves. And so this anger can be quite corrosive for the health of American democracy.

STEVE SANDERS: So you were motivated in some ways to explore this phenomenon by a personal experience you had when you were working as a congressional page, I think. Tell that story.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah. This was, gosh, about 10 years ago now. I was living and working in Washington, D.C., and I was giving a tour of the U.S. Capitol. And so it was just a husband and wife this time, which was a little rare for me. It was usually large groups that I was speaking to. And so I was giving them, you know, a fairly intimate tour and said, here's the rotunda and all the paintings and it's gorgeous and here's all the history. And so at the end of the tour, we went into the chamber of the House of Representatives and we're looking down from the gallery. And so I'm pointing out, you know, the Republicans sit on the right and the Democrats sit on the left and this is how we get the terms, you know, right and left. And so the husband looked at his wife and said, see, honey, the Republicans are on the correct side. So obviously making a play on words here with correct and right. And his wife responded, no, actually, the Democrats are on the correct side. And so in that moment, I realized, oh, man, one’s a Democrat and one’s a Republican, and that's that's quite rare. Generally, we want to marry people who believe the same things that we believe. And so this discussion was civil for all of about five or six seconds, and these two people started arguing. And so we were asked to leave quite politely by the sergeant of arms of the House of Representatives. So after we were, you know, unceremoniously kicked out of the House, I just kind of stopped and paused and said, this is crazy. I need to learn why people do these sorts of things. And so I think that that really sort of sparked my interest in studying American politics.

STEVE SANDERS: So we're speaking just a few days before the 2020 presidential and other elections. What role do you see that anger has played this year? So just watching TV, watching social media, Donald Trump seems very angry. I have a sense that Joe Biden almost seems sort of placid. Is there an asymmetry to this or is it more about what their fellow partisans and their supporters are feeling rather than just the people at the top of the ticket?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So I think a lot of it is the nature of anger among the mass public - so among the electorate. I think part of the reason Joe Biden can run, you know, sort of a more straight-laced campaign and a more sort of laid back style is because his supporters are already angry at Donald Trump and, in fact, they've been angry at Donald Trump, you know, ever since he took office at the beginning of 2017. So Joe Biden doesn't really need to do much to get his supporters angry at the Republican Party or Donald Trump. Donald Trump has a little bit more work to do. You know, Joe Biden is not as divisive of a figure for Republicans as Hillary Clinton was. And so that's why I think you're seeing Donald Trump really be strategic in trying to get his base angry with Joe Biden.

STEVE SANDERS: What will you be watching for on election night? For political junkies, election night is like the Super Bowl is for normal people. So particular patterns? How might some of these forces that you've been studying play out? What are you looking for on election night? What's going to be significant to you?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So one thing I'll be watching is the turnout, especially in key states, right? We know that American elections, for many states, are quite predictable in how they're going to vote, and so it's really a case that elections are fought over a few key swing states. Every indication that we have so far is that turnout is going to be quite large. We've already seen lots of Americans request absentee ballots, and so turnout already is reaching really sort of encouraging levels from, you know, sort of just a participation standpoint. But it's not just a matter of turnout. It's a matter of turnout among specific groups of the electorate. So obviously, Joe Biden and Democrats are going to want as big of sort of youth turnout, turnout among racial minorities. So, you know, I think looking at these indicators is going to be quite important. And I think this turnout that we're seeing right now is motivated by the anger that exists in the mass public. Right, there's lots of frustration about the coronavirus pandemic, the state of the economy. Of course, this, you know, big thing that we're trying to tackle - this idea of racial injustice in the country. And so lots of people are voting early and they're quite motivated to participate this year.

STEVE SANDERS: You're a college professor and this fall you've been organizing a group or a program for students in the political science department called “Pizza and Politics.” You know, I think for a long time there was this stereotype of college students as energized, idealistic. Maybe more recently there's a stereotype that young people of college age are apathetic and they don't vote as much as other people do. What have you seen in undergraduates today - in college students? Are they angry? Do they understand what they see going on? Do they think it's deplorable? Are they rolling up their sleeves and engaging in it? What sense have you gotten from the undergraduates that you that you work with?

STEVEN WEBSTER: You know, I think there's a bit of a bifurcation in how students think about politics. I think those that are engaged with the process tend to be quite angry with what's going on. Part of that, of course, is we know that that younger voters tend to be liberal, especially the newest generation. Generation Z is the most liberal generation on just about every metric we have. The students that are really interested in politics tend to be quite frustrated with what they're seeing. On the other hand, there are certainly students at not only Indiana University, but the universities across the country that are really sort of tuned out from politics. They don't think it affects their lives. They don't care who wins. It's not going to make a difference either way. And so I think there's a little bit of a sort of polarization here in terms of interest in politics and being completely tuned out.


STEVE SANDERS: If you're just joining us, this is WFIU's PROFILES. I'm Steve Sanders. We're talking with political scientist Professor Steven Webster, an Indiana University Bloomington faculty member who's the author of the new book "American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics."

I want to talk a little bit about your background and then we'll get back to your work and the book. Where did you grow up? What made you decide to pursue an academic career?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So I split my life just about equally between Oklahoma and Iowa. So really just the sort of flyover country that people talk about is home base for me. I went to school at Oklahoma State University - so sort of north central Oklahoma is kind of the home base for me as well.

STEVE SANDERS: Is that where you grew up as well?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah. So I was born in a town called Ponca City, which was - it was a company town. It was really Konica Oil that sort of ran everything in town. And so it was, you know, sort of a story that I think a lot of people can relate to where, you know, Konica Oil starts to shift their production elsewhere and the town kind of fell off the map. That's kind of where I have my origins. Why I became a college professor is a great question, and I think there's probably a few reasons why I chose to pursue this career. One is that I really come from a family of teachers. I've kind of joked in the past that it's the family business. My grandmother was a teacher, my mother, my father, my cousin. I mean, it's just really kind of the thing that the Webster family does. And so I was always sort of, you know, around this idea of schooling and education, and it was really impressed on me at a very early age that that education was something you take seriously and it's important. This really was reinforced for me when I started my undergraduate work because I had lots of professors who, you know, really served as role models for me. And I kind of said, you know, I'd like to be like that someday. And so I think I was just very fortunate to have some very nice, caring people who really kind of pointed me in the right direction early on. Why I chose politics is largely due to the - sort of the influence of my family. My family's always been very political. Up until her very last days, my grandmother was calling her congressman, saying, vote this way, don't vote that way. And so I saw this sort of model of what a good, engaged democratic citizen should be. So, you know, I think I just had lots of good role models that really sort of not only told me that education was important, but it was important to take an interest in our democracy and be an active participant.

STEVE SANDERS: So you said you'd spent a lot of time in Iowa, Oklahoma. You got your Ph.D. at Emory in Atlanta and now you're in Indiana. Is midwestern nice a thing? I mean, are - do you find that Midwesterners are less angry about politics than people on the coasts? Or is that - have we just become too homogenized as a nation for that?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Oh, I don't - I mean, Midwest nice might be a thing, but Midwesterners can be angry about their politics for sure. Having spent some time in Iowa and seeing the caucuses, you know, up close and personal, I can attest to the fact that Midwesterners can get angry about politics.

STEVEN WEBSTER: In the realm of political scientist you do American politics, but then you specialize in something called political behavior and public opinion. I noticed a graduate seminar you're teaching this semester - you describe the topic matter and the reading as basically the study of American politics through a psychological lens. Tell me a little bit about that - the general field of political behavior and where it fits into the study of American politics.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah. So political behavior focuses on people like you and me. So individual voters - what do we think about politics? How do we vote? How do we connect with politicians and how do we interact with the political system? And so the way I approach this is through a psychological lens. And so I'm really interested in sort of how emotions shape behavior, how what we think affects our behavior. So in my course, we talk about things like anger and anxiety. We talk about how your personality and just your sort of disposition towards engaging with others affects politics. So this is a discipline that has sort of a long tradition, but also some really new developments that have kind of made this an interesting field to be a part of. And I think - you know, at least I hope that that people are engaged with the material in my class, but I guess I'll have to ask my students after I have them listen to this interview.

STEVE SANDERS: In the book, the first question is sort of, you know, what has caused to this? What has caused this sort of epidemic of anger and the prominence of anger in our politics? You sort of posit three broad causes, and I want to explore each of those in turn. The first one, I guess you could say, is sort of identity politics or the increasing alignment between political partisanship and one's racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual identity. You say the sorting of liberals into the Democratic Party and conservatives into the Republican Party has done much to produce a political environment in which supporters of one party see supporters of the opposing party as distinct from themselves. So how did identity become such a defining feature of our politics?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So, you know, I think this plays a large role in producing this culture of anger that we see, and this is something that, you know, many political scientists have worked on. So it used to be the case that both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were fairly heterogeneous in terms of their composition, but there's been lots of historical forces that have sort of changed the way that the two parties look. So one big thing - you know, a thing that's really impossible to ignore in the contemporary political scene is this idea of race. It used to be the case that the Democratic Party was the party of white southerners, they were very conservative. And I think if you told somebody today who didn't really know the historical trends of American politics that the solid South used to refer to the Democratic control of the South, they would kind of look at you like you're crazy. And that's just a testament to how much our politics has changed. The first thing is this idea of a racial realignment where, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party and moved into the Republican Party as what some scholars call their vehicle of racial conservatism. So this has precipitated a long realignment in terms of race and partisanship. And it's pretty clear that today the Republican Party is largely a party of white Americans and the Democratic Party is much more a coalition of racial minorities. So that's the first thing. The second is that there's been an ideological sorting. So it used to be the case that you would have conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. So, you know, this idea of - the Blue Dog Democrats, right? That doesn't really exist so much anymore. By and large, if you're an ideological liberal, you have a home in the Democratic Party. And if you're ideologically conservative, you're more likely to be a Republican. There's also been sort of developments in terms of moral and cultural views. So in political science, we have a scale that measures what we call moral traditionalism. So it asks things like should we accept new viewpoints about how society should work? Are new lifestyles harming the social fabric? And what we've seen is that Democrats are very open to new forms of morality, whereas Republicans tend to be very traditional on this measure. And so in terms of the way we look, the things we believe, the composition of the Democratic and Republican parties is quite distinct.

STEVE SANDERS: And does that become not just a sort of difference in beliefs or ideology, but does that itself become an identity? I'm a traditionalist. I'm old fashioned. Or I am much more comfortable with new things. Does that in itself become a kind of identity?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Well, it certainly can. And so this is one of the things that, you know, political scientists debate quite a bit is what's an identity and what's an actual position. So one may say I am a liberal and that's their identity in terms of ideology, but they might actually hold conservative positions. And so this is the sort of distinction between what we call symbolic ideology and operational ideology. The traditional way we think of this in American politics is that symbolically Americans say they're conservative, right? I'm going to pull myself up by bootstraps. I'm going to do it by myself. But operationally, they're a lot more liberal. They like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. So there's always been a little bit of a disconnect between what our identity is and what our actual beliefs are.

STEVE SANDERS: Does anger manifest itself differently among liberals than it does among conservatives? Or are there different demographic groups that manifest their anger in different ways?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So the first thing I would say is that both Democrats and Republicans are capable of becoming angry. So in my book, I actually asked people to fill out a personality battery that measures just one's disposition towards being angry. And so if you were to go to a clinical psychologist and they wanted to know how angry you were, this is the battery they would give you. And so what I found is that there's actually very little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of their likelihood of becoming angry. Where there might be some partisan differences is the actual source of anger. You know, Republicans tend to think that the country is getting too far away from its sort of moorings and what it has been and what it should be. Democrats are more likely to say we're not doing enough to adapt to new cultures and, you know, produce a more equitable society. So there's different sources of anger, but there's not really any partisan difference in terms of the likelihood of becoming angry.


STEVE SANDERS: If you're just joining us, this is WFIU's Profiles. I'm Steve Sanders. We're talking with Steven Webster, an Indiana University Bloomington political scientist who studies political behavior and public opinion. We're talking about his new book, "American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics."

The second sort of bucket of causes that you posit for our political anger today is the media environment, specifically what you refer to as the post-broadcast media environment. So how does - how do the media, I assume, cable television, Fox News, MSNBC, other sorts of even more niche outlets, how do those drive political anger?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Sure. So this idea of a post-broadcast democracy is really building upon the work of a man named Marcus Pryor. And he's argued that, you know, after the advent of cable, there's been a bifurcation in terms of what Americans know about politics. So some people can sort of tune out politics altogether and therefore know very little about the political process. Others can self-select and do political news shows that make them feel good. It tells them what they want to hear. And so I argue that that second part, the self-selection into cable news outlets, has helped to perpetuate this anger that we have in American politics. We know that the media traffics in anger. Again, I kind of joke that anger is all the rage these days. And part of the reason that's the case is because the media is perpetually seeking to make their viewers angry, right? So when you're angry, you're going to fix your attention on something. The media has lots of reasons to want to keep your eyeballs on their screens, right? And so this is certainly making us angry. This is, I think, pretty easily seen when we look at the nature of the guests that appear on these cable programs. So we know that the media has a preference for ideologically extreme politicians, right? So by and large, you're not getting politicians that show up on MSNBC saying, you know, we need to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, and you're not getting someone on FOX saying, you know, maybe we should raise taxes. You know, that could be good. That's just not happening. Instead, what you're getting is the most extreme voices in both party amplifying these anger-inducing soundbites and people are eating it up. And so this sort of media system that we have has created an echo chamber of anger, so to speak. And I'm not optimistic that we're going to be able to break out of that.

STEVE SANDERS: We'll talk a little bit later. You also discuss in the book how politicians actually like voter anger because it builds loyalty to them. Does it work the same way for media outlets, that having more - having guests that push people's hot buttons drives up ratings or keeps people watching those shows?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when you're angry about something, you're going to pay attention, right? If you're a Republican and you don't like Democrats, then you want to be told that your anger is valid and it's righteous and that you should be angry at Democrats. And the same, of course, is true for Democrats watching MSNBC. I mean, during the Trump impeachment proceedings, I mean, I think if you turned on MSNBC, this was sort of catharsis for Democrats, right? You should be angry at what Donald Trump has done, and you should be happy that he's being impeached. And so I think it's a very similar story on both sides of the partisan divide here.

STEVE SANDERS: The third sort of major cause that you posit for the role that anger is playing today is the Internet. And I assume that includes social media and its role. So how has that driven this force in our politics?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah, I mean, you know, if we're concerned about Americans self-selecting into news outlets, then the rise of this sort of new media on the Internet cannot be helpful. You know, it's easy to cultivate a Twitter feed or, you know, sort of a Facebook list that tells you only the things you want to know and none of the things you don't want to know. And so, you know, I think this is quite problematic, right? People are hard-wired to want to avoid things that sort of bump up against their preconceived beliefs. It creates cognitive dissonance and that makes us uncomfortable. So if I'm a liberal, I don't want to see any news story from Fox News. So I'm going to go read, you know, these liberal magazines, right? If I'm conservative, I'm going to go visit - what? - The Daily Caller or Breitbart or Fox News. And I'm going to avoid The New York Times or anything else, right? And so we're not really getting the same set of information. And on the off chance we are getting the same set of information, we're getting very different interpretations of that information. And so that's kind of preventing Americans from really coming together and agreeing on even basic facts about what's going on in the world.

STEVE SANDERS: What about the role of bots of purposeful disinformation? Much of it, you know, coming from countries like Iran and Russia and other places that I assume has also just exacerbated the situation, bots or troll farms that push out particularly sensationalistic stories about the other side. And what we hear, it seems, is that it's not even always clear that these foreign actors, to the extent they are foreign actors, have, you know, particular ideological interests. They just want to stir up American division.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah, I think that's right. As you mentioned, a lot of the things that get pushed out by these troll farms are, you know, I think sensational is sort of a mild way to describe this, you know. There's been stuff saying that Hillary Clinton was operating a prostitution ring out of a pizza restaurant. I can't believe I said that without laughing. I mean, it's just ludicrous. If it was true, then, you know, anger about that would be quite justified. Unfortunately, there are people who believe these sensational things. And so, yeah. I mean, this is very problematic in terms of our anger.

STEVE SANDERS: And the ease with which these things can be retweeted or liked on Facebook or shared on Facebook or whatever, presumably just drives this in an almost exponential way.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Absolutely. I mean, it's very easy to become angry, and it's very easy to make others angry.  

STEVE SANDERS: If you're just joining us, this is WFIU's Profiles. I'm Steve Sanders. We're talking with political scientist Steven Webster from Indiana University, Bloomington, and about his new book, "American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics."

American politics has always been tough. Alexander Hamilton, you know, one of the founding fathers, was killed in a duel with one of his political rivals, Aaron Burr. And Hamilton famously said men are governed by the impulse of passion. The press to the - you know, such as it was in the early days of the republic was vicious and partisan and would level accusations of sedition and treason against the other party. In a debate on slavery in the sort of lead up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was famously beaten with a cane by a congressman from South Carolina who was offended by something that Sumner was saying. So is what we're seeing today really all that different?

STEVEN WEBSTER: You know, I think anger has been sort of a constant in the story of American politics. And I get asked that question a lot because people think Trump is this unique character who has introduced anger, and how are we ever going to get out of this? And I think the reality is that anger is the norm in American politics. And to the extent there's been any sort of calmness or unity, that's been more of an aberration than anything else. I think one thing that is unique about the contemporary era is that it's easier to become angry, and it's easier to sustain that anger, right? So you mentioned the press in the early days of the republic. Most of these newspapers were openly partisan. You know, this was a Federalist newspaper and this was a Democratic Republican newspaper. Now, we may not have sort of this openly, you know, partisan press now. But the press can push things out every single minute, whereas printing a newspaper in the, you know, 1800's took some time.

STEVE SANDERS: It might be weekly and many people weren't literate, couldn't read whereas today we've got the constant hit of cable TV and Twitter and the things we were just talking about.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah, you sort of get your hit of dopamine, right? It makes you feel good. Oh, man, those Democrats did this today, and you should be angry. OK, good, good. I feel so much better now that I know I can be angry at the Democrats. And so it's just it's a sort of quick-fire culture of anger that didn't exist in previous eras.

STEVE SANDERS: We've heard the word polarization for a long time. And before that, you know, we heard a lot about negative politics. Are those the same thing as anger? Is anger a byproduct of polarization? Is anger a cause of polarization? Could you have political polarization with people being calm and not particularly angry? What's the relationship between those things?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So I certainly think that there's a relationship between anger and polarization. But I think they're conceptually distinct, and they're both worthy of study and of attention. In the abstract, you could imagine a society that is polarized but also agreeable, right? You can imagine, for instance, I talk about this in the book, that a society could be polarized along the issue of climate change. And one party might say we need to curb greenhouse gas emissions to protect the environment. And another party might say, no, that's harming business. We need to let business engage in normal activities. That could be a very civil discussion. It could also be a very sort of vitriolic discussion. Regardless of whether anger is present there, those are both polarized scenarios. So at least theoretically, it's possible to have anger and polarization be distinct from each other. That being said, I think anger certainly feeds into polarization, and I think polarization feeds into our anger. So there's...

STEVE SANDERS: It's a vicious cycle.

STEVEN WEBSTER: There's a little bit of a vicious cycle here. We become angry and we become polarized. We see that parties look distinct from each other. This distinction and these differences reinforce our anger. So I do think they tend to go hand in hand. Something that I think is quite problematic about American politics is the ways in which Americans identify with the two political parties. So in earlier eras, Americans used to identify with their political party, right? I am a Democrat because my parents were a Democrat or I'm a Republican because I like their policy positions. Increasingly what we see is that Americans are not so much identifying with a party but against a party. So it's not that I love the Democrats, I just can't stand the Republicans. And so it's the sort of politics of loyalty by negativity rather than one that's governed by bonds of affection.

STEVE SANDERS: There have been many studies over the years that show that, by and large, Americans often just don't know that much about politics or at least don't know that much about their government. In my day job, I teach constitutional law. And the sort of, you know, sort of dearth of knowledge that most Americans seem to have about the Constitution is troubling. Is there a relationship there? Is there any evidence that people who are more low-information voters as they've sometimes come to be called or who just don't really understand much about how politics and government work are more susceptible to appeals to anger?

STEVEN WEBSTER: You know, I don't think that that is the case. We know that the most engaged Americans, the ones who are the political junkies, as you say, tend to be the most biased, the most active, the angriest. They tend to be the most polarized. And so I think those people are really noteworthy in terms of the anger that they express at supporters of the other party. I think people who are low-information voters, which is unfortunately a large portion of the American public, are probably more angry at just the system in general, right? They see politicians bickering, and they think that nothing is getting done. And so to the extent that there's anger among both of these types of people, I think the differences is where that anger is directed.

STEVE SANDERS: You use the term “political junkies.” And so you may have seen as well there was a New York Times op ed piece just in the last few days by two political scientists who, I think the headline was something like the real political divide in this country is between the political junkies and the rest of us. That most Americans, 80 to 85 percent, only follow politics casually or not at all, the 15 to 20 percent who follow it closely, and they speculated that what they called hard partisans spend more time on social media. They're the ones who were more likely to be upset if their child married a member of the opposing political party. So are these - I guess I never would have thought it was a bad thing to be a political junkie. It shows you're an engaged citizen. But maybe that's part of the problem as well, this divide between intense partisans and sort of the rest of America?

STEVEN WEBSTER: I mean, it certainly could be. We do know that there is a slice of Americans who know a lot about politics, and there's an even larger slice that know nothing about politics. And so the work you're referencing here is John Ryan and Yanna Krupnikov. And they do, you know, wonderful work on what Americans know and why it matters. And I think that they're right that there is this sort of informational divide that has really important consequences for not only the emotions that Americans express but how they vote and the policies that they support.


STEVE SANDERS: If you're just joining us, this is WFIU's Profiles. I'm Steve Sanders. Our guest is Indiana University Bloomington political scientist Steven Webster. We're talking about his new book, "American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics."

So far, we've been talking about the downsides, why anger is a negative. Can't anger also be a positive? It's said that there's going to be record voter turnout in a few days and, you know, when we vote. Isn't a lot of that driven by anger? Is anger driving things like police reform? Did anger drive sort of greater attention to working class issues that elites had overlooked, something that Donald Trump exploited? You know, anger drove things like the Stonewall riots and the Black civil rights movement. So anger can also be a positive, I assume, when it's channeled in good directions?

STEVEN WEBSTER: I think that's absolutely right. I think anger by itself is a bit of a neutral emotion, and it can be negative or positive depending on sort of the form it takes and your interpretation of the emotion itself. So one of the things we know about anger is that it is an action oriented emotion. So when you're experiencing anger, you tend to want to do something to assuage that anger. And so anger gets people involved in the political process. It gets them off the sidelines. Now generally, people argue, and I am one of them, that things are great when participation is high. We would like to get more Americans involved in the political process. You know, our rates of participation are just woefully low compared to the rest of the Western world. So in that sense, I think anger is great. You've mentioned some, you know, important issues in American politics. And I think public anger about these things is drawing attention to things that have long needed reform. So I think that is also useful. I think the problem is that a lot of times we get angry about some silly things, some things that don't matter. And it sort of distracts us from the issues that do matter. So a lot of times Americans will get angry about something somebody said that they didn't like or, you know, Nancy Pelosi going to a salon and getting a haircut during COVID. Like, you might laugh at that and you might get angry, but that's silly. That's not doing anything. A more productive form of anger is, you know, being angry about the racial injustices and what happened to George Floyd, right? That's something where you can channel your anger into hopefully a sort of productive outcome that betters society.

STEVE SANDERS: You say in the book that anger is both an emotion and a personal trait. What's the difference?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah. So one's sort of personality-governed levels of anger just really measures your general disposition towards being angry or pacific, right? And we all have this. Some of us just by nature tend to be, you know, more irritable than others. An emotion, by contrast, is something that's more ephemeral. So it comes and goes throughout the day or the week as events happen to us. And so, you know, emotion might sort of make us temporarily more angry than we usually are, but eventually we're going to revert back to this sort of mean state that's governed by our personality.

STEVE SANDERS: I want to talk a little bit more about the social science in your book. So this - your book isn't just a sort of armchair theorizing as a political scientist. You actually conduct experiments and you do surveys. And you talk to people and you compile data. So talk a little bit about the work that informed the book that you did with survey research, with asking people questions, with questionnaires. How did you gather the data, and then how did you analyze that data to draw some of your conclusions in the book?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Sure. So the book is based largely on a series of experiments on about 10,000 Americans. And so the way that I make people angry is I have a conversation with them like we're doing right now. And I say, hey, you know, tell me about a time you were angry about politics. And what happens is somebody will tell a story about something that upset them. Now, when somebody is doing this, they're going to get a little riled up, right? They're going to sort of speak faster. Their heart rate might increase. They might start to sweat a little bit. And this is happening because they're remembering something that made them angry. So they're sort of recalling that emotional state. When people are in this heightened level of anger, I ask them a series of questions about politics, right? And so this is the general approach that I take. What's interesting is the things that people say to you when you ask them to recall a time they were angry about politics, some people will talk about a specific politician they don't like. Some people will talk about an act of Congress or some, you know, policy that was not good for them. But a lot of people mentioned other people, right? It's well, I don't like my neighbor who's a Democrat, and he has the craziest beliefs. And you'd never believe what he said to me yesterday. So it's always interesting to see what people say. And some of them volunteer a lot more information than you would expect.

STEVE SANDERS: You also say in the book that anger for some people, one effect it can have is that it makes people mentally retreat. What did you mean by that? Was that something else that showed up in the surveys, in the experimental work that you did?

STEVEN WEBSTER: So this is best understood by sort of contrasting the effects of anger with those of anxiety. So we know that when people are anxious, they tend to seek out information. They want to figure out how they can, you know, sort of assuage their fears and anxieties and what they can do to sort of reinstate a sense of calmness or control in their life. Anger, on the other hand, makes people sort of shut down. They're not looking for new information. They're trying to protect what they have and defend what they already know and believe to be true. And so that's what I meant by anger causing people to mentally retreat. Now, that's problematic for American politics because in the context of politics, what people know is their partisan identity. And so anger has this ability to entrench our partisan divisions.

STEVE SANDERS: You also said that anger causes people to rely more on more simplistic cues about things or to rely more on stereotypes. How did you come to that conclusion? What drove that insight?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah. So this is just a lot of work in social psychology. And I imagine your listeners can sort of relate to this, that when you're angry, you're not really thinking rationally, right? You just want something to get fixed. You want satisfaction. And you're not thinking sort of nuanced thoughts, right? And so it's this idea that we're just looking for something quick and easy to understand that can help our anger. And so that's really what I meant by this idea that anger can sort of close down rational thinking.

STEVE SANDERS: So one of the key themes in the book, one of the topics you explore at some length is how political candidates mobilize and benefit from anger. That is negative and destructive as anger is, actually candidates want to cultivate it because it builds political loyalty. How does that work?

STEVEN WEBSTER: It's one of the, I think, paradoxes of some of my work. You know, I spend a lot of time arguing that anger has these negative consequences. It lowers our trust in government. It makes us less tolerant of people who believe different things than we do. At the same time, we see that politicians seek to make us angry. And that's puzzling because why would people do that if there's these negative consequences? Do politicians not care about these things? Well, I think that they probably do care about these things, but there's something they care about even more and that's getting re-elected. So this is one of the classic things in political science dating back to the '70s, that politicians are single-minded seekers of reelection. And all political behavior can be explained with that motivation. And it turns out that anger helps politicians win elected office. So regardless of these negative consequences, politicians want us to be angry because an angry voter is a loyal voter. So regardless of how I think about my own political party or my own political party's candidates, if I'm angry at the opposing party, I'm more likely to vote loyally for my own party. So anger can sort of paper over these things I don't like about my own side. And so that's why politicians are strategically seeking to make American voters angry.

STEVE SANDERS: So how do they do it? What are some examples that you have seen either in the presidential election, in local elections and congressional elections? Any sort of examples stand out to you?

STEVEN WEBSTER: You know, I think there's plenty of examples that one could draw on here. So there's the classic Jesse Helms ad, right? This is a very much a sort of race-baiting ad about, you know, things that can go wrong if we're soft on crime.

STEVE SANDERS: Famously, there was a Jesse Helms ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a job notice. And it said, you know, you didn't get that job because it went to a racial minority. And he was clearly trying to incite sort of racial division and feeling against affirmative action.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Absolutely. You know, you have some more contemporary examples where Democrats will sort of demagogue on the issue of Medicare saying, you know, if somebody's going to push your grandmother off of a cliff, they're going to take away her health care, right? That's obviously not a high-minded piece of political information. That's designed to make us angry. There's plenty of cases of anger. I think one of my favorite examples of anger from more recent times was in 2012, Barack Obama released this ad. And he was, you know, attacking Mitt Romney for outsourcing jobs when he was leaving Bain Capital. And he had Mitt Romney singing "America The Beautiful" in the most off-pitch key imaginable. I mean, the folks here at the Jacobs School probably had a heart attack when they heard that. And just this idea of somebody singing "America The Beautiful" in the most unbeautiful way, this is designed to elicit anger. And I think those things are quite successful.

STEVE SANDERS: So this gets to also in some sense, we're talking about candidates and political elites using anger, deploying anger, manipulating people. Are political elites, journalists, highly-educated people, people who work in politics, are they really as angry as everybody else? Or are they just really sort of pulling the levers and using it to manipulate the rest of us?

STEVEN WEBSTER: It's a great question. You know, I would love to sit down and chat with politicians and, you know, maybe give them some truth serum and say, are you really as upset as you pretend to be? You know, I think there's probably a middle ground here. I think they probably are angry. We know that, you know, people who are motivated enough to run for political office have very strong beliefs. And so I do think that there's a sense that there's anger among our politicians. But I do think that there's a bit of an act that's going on. I don't think anyone can sustain this level of anger or rage as long as, you know, we might think politicians do. So I think there is a little bit of showmanship that goes on here.

STEVE SANDERS: And I'm wondering if it takes different flavors, again, with different sort of political leanings. My sense is that, you know, maybe broadly speaking on places like Fox and conservative media outlets, you're more likely to see a sort of direct, blunt, populist anger. I watch MSNBC and someone like Rachel Maddow and all of that, and she and some of the other people in her network don't seem especially angry. But there's this kind of snark. There's this sort of sophisticated learned, sort of almost more in sorrow than in anger but let me tell you how bad the other side is. So are there different styles of this, depending on your ideology? Or maybe it's your education level?

STEVEN WEBSTER: I think that's probably true. I think the elicitation of anger for Democrats might be a bit more surreptitious, whereas you suggest Republicans are just sort of beating you over the head with it. There's a really interesting piece of work that came out recently called "Irony and Outrage," and it looks at the use of humor in American politics. And it says that outrage is really the purview or the domain of the political right, whereas people like Jon Stewart, these sort of leftist comedians, are more sort of ironic in their approach. And so I do think that there's some aspect of truth to this.


STEVE SANDERS: If you're just joining us, this is Steve Sanders. You're listening to WFIU's Profiles. We're talking to Steven Webster, a faculty member in Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington, who studies political psychology, political behavior, public opinion. We're talking specifically about his new book, "American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics."

Another chapter in your book, another topic you explore in the book, is the corrosive effect that anger has on our democracy. Sort of broadly speaking, the opening epigram in that chapter that you offer a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt who said, anger is one letter short of danger. Say more about that. What does it mean to say that anger is actually eroding our democracy?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Anger has the unfortunate consequence of taking the political and turning it into the personal, right? So it used to be the case that Democrats and Republicans, whether, you know, we're talking about people who are actually in Congress or just people who are, you know, everyday voters could disagree but do so civilly. And politics wasn't this all-encompassing thing. What we see is that people really are unable to separate one's political views from who they are as a person. And this is more problematic when people are angry. So when people are angry, they tend to believe that those who disagree with them are less intelligent than they are. They're more likely to believe that those Americans who support the other political party are a threat to the country's well-being. And they're more likely to say that concern for minority opinions is slowing political progress in this country. And so it really, I think sort of at the broadest level shows that anger can reduce our commitment to political tolerance. I have some related work that I think puts a bit of a finer point on this. I work with some of my colleagues about how political anger can cause us to polarize in social settings. And what was problematic is that anger can affect social polarization at very low levels and what you might call sort of higher levels. And what I mean by that is that anger can cause people to say that they wouldn't do simple things like watch a neighbor's house plants or their pets if they support the other party. OK, that's relatively costless. I don't think any of us would, you know, be too upset about that. But anger also causes us to take more cost reactions in social settings. So we're less likely to say we'd get coffee with or go on a date with somebody who supports the other party. We're more likely to say that, you know, if my parents support the other party, I may not talk to them as much. If I found out my sibling's spouse supported the other party, I might tell my brother that, you know, you should think about this. And so what we find is that across both easy and hard issues, anger can make people socially polarize. And that's problematic when our political beliefs are not easily disentangled from our worth as people.

STEVE SANDERS: And they're the sort of basic political norms that a democracy is committed to - a broad access to the franchise, to voting, as you said, concern for minority rights, a sort of recognition that the news media played an important role. So those sorts of pillars or aspects of democracy you say are also suffering, are also eroding, because of this anger.

STEVEN WEBSTER: A little bit. I think maybe the only encouraging thing in my book is that anger does not appear to cause Americans to want to overthrow democracy itself. I asked people once I made them angry, you know, what do you think about democracy? Is it efficient? Is it fair? Should we be governed by the military or this, you know, elite group of people who know what's best for us? And by and large, Americans of both the Democratic persuasion and the Republican persuasion say, no. We should keep our democracy. So I think that's encouraging. The sort of pessimistic take on that is that means we're sort of stuck in a subpar democratic setting, right? This anger can only last so long, I think. It's clear that very little is getting done legislatively. And I think that's because voters' anger is sort of holding politicians' fire to the feet and keeping them from compromising. So I think this anger has produced a sort of a system of stalemate and gridlock and essentially just paralysis.

STEVE SANDERS: You mentioned people who want to overthrow democracy. Not very long ago, we learned of a plot against the governor of Michigan by some right-wing domestic terrorists to kidnap her and put her on trial. Do you expect to see more political violence or threats of political violence going hand in hand with this phenomenon of anger? Is anger the same as extremism? You know, again, could you have sort of extremist elements in politics without anger? Could you have anger without necessarily driving people to the edges of political civility into extremism?

STEVEN WEBSTER: I think the threat of violence in this country, especially after the election, is something that keeps a lot of people like me who study American politics day in, day out, up at night. You know, this is quite worrisome. You know, you mentioned that these right-wing terrorists wanted to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the government of Michigan. That's something that reads like a plot line from the very B-level movie and not something that we should actually see in American life. I think that there is a greater chance for violence now than there has been. Whether this is real or not, I'm trying to be optimistic that this won't happen in the aftermath of the election. But I think that is going to be largely determined by the nature of the election itself, whether it's close, whether it's contested, if it has to go to the Supreme Court. And so I think we're going to, unfortunately, just have to wait and see on that.

STEVE SANDERS: So much of what we've been talking about is electoral politics, what candidates we support, how politicians build loyalty to get re-elected. How has anger shaped government and governing? How does it manifest itself in the effectiveness of Congress, in the ability of the courts to do their job? I mean, we've seen a lot of polarization, a lot of anger around the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and Democrats saying, you know, they're entitled to payback for what the Republicans did with Merrick Garland. Is anger seeping into the functioning of our government institutions?

STEVEN WEBSTER: I definitely think that anger is affecting the nature of Congress. You know, in earlier eras, you would hear these almost hackneyed stories about, you know, people disagreeing, but then they would go get a beer after the session was over.

STEVE SANDERS: Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan famously friends after 6:00.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Right. I think that's kind of anachronistic at this point. You know, people are not behaving that way. So I think this anger has made it less likely that politicians are willing to reach across the aisle and work with members of the other party, and that's because of our voter anger. When voters are angry, they say, hey, Democratic member of Congress or hello Republican member of Congress, I don't want you to work with the other side because I'm angry at that side, and they represent things that I don't like. So what happens is that elected officials begin to bicker with each other. They become intransigent and dig their heels in. Well, again, this is another vicious cycle because when people in the electorate observe that, they become angrier and angrier by the lack of progress. And so I think this anger really has sort of hollowed out the legislative effectiveness of our government.

STEVE SANDERS: Everything we've been talking about so far has been in the context of American politics. What about other countries? Do we see the same phenomenon? Other countries also experience the changes in media, changes in social media, some of the same sorts of tensions around race and ethnicity. We've seen, you know, revolutionary violence in some countries, the rise of sort of far-right parties and others. So how does this map onto other democracies, other parts of the world?

STEVEN WEBSTER: Yeah. It's certainly the case that anger is not a distinctly American emotion, right? People all over the world feel anger, and they feel anger about politics. We see this all across Western Europe, even. You can look at France with the National Front. There's a lot of anger about immigration and the Muslim immigration to France. You can look at the alternative for Germany, the right-wing party in Germany. And so it's certainly the case that anger exists outside of the United States. What's important, though, is that there are some real differences between the political systems in Europe with the political system we have here in the United States. In Europe, there are a lot more viable parties than just two. And so a lot of times this anger can get channeled into these sort of third or fourth parties, you know. UKIP in the United Kingdom is not a massive party, nor is the alternative for Germany. And so I think that leaves the sort of, you know, mainstream parties a little bit protected from some of this anger. Not entirely, but I do think it kind of keeps some of this corrosive anger a little bit more on the fringes. Now in the United States, we really only have two viable parties. And so there's nowhere else for right-wing or left-wing anger to go other than the Republican or the Democratic Party. And so I think it's easier for anger to become more mainstream in politics in the United States as opposed to politics elsewhere.

STEVE SANDERS: I know from reading the sort of concluding chapter of your book, and in other interviews you've done, that you really don't have any sort of rosy prognosis for the future about this getting better in any way. But again, we are speaking just a few days before the presidential election. Is there some argument to be made that Americans are actually tired of the drama - frankly, the drama of the Trump presidency, which, no matter what you think of him, has been a sort of emotional roller coaster for a lot of people. If Joe Biden were to be elected, do you think there's any possibility that he, because of his age, his personality, his political style, might actually have any sort of calming effect on our politics? Or is that just too much to expect for one person?

STEVEN WEBSTER: I hope so. I think sometimes watching the news is like getting a drink from a fire hose. It's just it's a bit overwhelming. This anger that we see is more structural. And so I'm skeptical that any one person can sort of turn the dial down. I think should he win the election, Joe Biden will learn that Republicans are not going to want to work with him as much as he thinks they would. You'll have to remember that this is something that Barack Obama said almost verbatim. He said, I think the fever will break after I get re-elected. Well, if anyone can remember the period from 2012 to 2016, the fever did not break. In fact, it got worse.

STEVE SANDERS: Spiked, yeah.

STEVEN WEBSTER: So, you know, I am not entirely optimistic that a Joe Biden presidency would usher in sort of bipartisanship or civility. But this is one area of my life where I would be very happy to be proven wrong. So this is, again, something we'll have to wait and see, but I'm not optimistic.


STEVE SANDERS: Whatever happens on this upcoming election night, you are probably going to continue to be in demand talking about this and other topics. So Steven Webster from Indiana University's Department of Political Science, thanks so much for being our guest on Profiles.

STEVEN WEBSTER: Thank you for having me.

AARON CAIN: For more information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, go to Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Jillian Burley. The studio engineer is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.



Steven Webster

Steven Webster (Jillian Burley, WFIU)

Steven W. Webster is an author and political scientist. His research focuses on the effects of political behavior and public opinion, drawing from ideas in both political science and psychology.

He has recently published a book through Cambridge University Press. American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics discusses the many ways in which our angrier emotions influence our decision making when it comes to political practices.

Webster holds a BA in history and political science from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Emory University. From 2018-2020, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, and currently is an assistant professor in political science at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Steven W. Webster spoke with Steve Sanders, professor of law at Indiana University, in the WFIU studios.

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