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How Anger Shapes American Politics

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Today, we’re pleased to feature Steven Webster, one of the rising stars in political science. Steven is an expert on a very important albeit sobering topic: the anger that is an increasingly salient force in American politics.

— The Editors



— Politicians increasingly, and deliberately, seek to make voters angry.

— Eliciting voters’ anger comes at a cost. When voters are angry, they are more likely to express distrust in the national government. This distrust is problematic because trust in government can facilitate bipartisan cooperation and maintain support for social welfare programs.

— Nevertheless, incentives to elicit anger remain strong for political elites because voter anger helps politicians win elections. Absent a shift in the incentive structure that politicians face, expect voter anger to continue to rise.

American Rage

Contemporary American politics is, above all else, rage-inducing. This is due in large part to our politicians, those architects of anger who benefit from the public’s ire.

Donald Trump, in particular, is quite adept at stoking anger among his base. From his claims that immigrants from Mexico are “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” to his references of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” to his disparaging comments about Democratic-run cities, the president seeks to keep his base perpetually outraged. These messages are amplified by other Republican politicians and affiliated groups, some of whom have claimed that Democrats “don’t love” America and seek to silence those with whom they disagree.

Joe Biden, too, traffics in anger. Despite his claims about wanting to “restore the soul of the nation,” Biden has sought to arouse anger among his base by claiming that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis was all about “making sure … his rich friends didn’t lose money,” and that the president “didn’t do a damn thing” to keep Americans safe. And, much like Republicans have buttressed Trump’s anger-inducing claims, prominent Democrats have echoed Biden’s remarks about Trump by calling the president “a threat to our democracy” and a would-be autocrat.

Why do politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — seek to make their voters angry? Research from my book, American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics, suggests that politicians seek to make their supporters angry because angry voters are loyal voters. Put simply, when a voter is angry, she is most likely to vote for her own party’s candidates at all levels of the federal electoral system. Crucially, anger can bind a voter to her party’s presidential candidate even when that candidate is not well liked. Anger, and not bonds of affection, is what drives political behavior in the United States.

This anger takes many forms. Americans are angry at the opposing party’s politicians and supporters. They are also angry with the opposing party’s policy ideas. Yet, while the specific nature of a voter’s anger may vary, anger often leads to a predictable outcome.

When voters are angry, they seek to take an action — or set of actions — that alleviates their anger. This action is usually aimed at the source of one’s anger. Because Americans’ political anger is often due to the opposing political party, they most typically channel their frustration into pursuing outcomes that benefit their own party — or, perhaps more accurately, harm the opposing party. Most commonly, this action is casting a vote for one’s party’s candidates up and down the ballot.

And, unlike many things in today’s political climate, anger is a bipartisan emotion. Both Democrats and Republicans are capable of experiencing anger, and both are increasingly outraged. According to data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), there has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans who reported feeling angry with the opposing party’s presidential candidate.

In 2008, 43% of Democrats and 46% of Republicans reported that they experienced anger with the other party’s standard bearer. By 2012, 56% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans indicated that they felt angry with the opposing party’s presidential candidate. In 2016, these numbers soared. Among Democrats, 90% of respondents to the ANES reported feeling angry with Donald Trump; 89% of Republicans reported feeling angry with Hillary Clinton. Not coincidentally, the 2016 election saw high rates of partisan loyalty at the ballot box.

Using data from the 2016 ANES, I calculated whether a voter felt positively or negatively toward their own party’s presidential candidate by examining their ratings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on a measure known as a “feeling thermometer” scale. This measure, which ranges from 0-100, asks respondents to give their affective evaluations of candidates and parties on this 101-point scale, where higher values indicate a more positive feeling. Individuals who rated their own party’s candidate at 50 or below were classified as having a negative evaluation.

Among those with negative views of their own party’s candidate, more frequently being angry with the other party’s candidate was strongly associated with partisan loyalty. In fact, among those who did not like their own party’s candidate and reported “never” feeling angry at the opposing party’s candidate, only 22% remained loyal to their own party in the 2016 presidential election. Among those individuals who did not like their own party’s nominee but reported feeling angry at the other party’s candidate “some of the time,” nearly 48% voted loyally for their own party. Most drastically, 95.8% of Americans who did not like their own party’s candidate in 2016 but reported “always” feeling angry with the other party’s presidential candidate voted loyally. Anger, then, can lead to behavior that is more characteristic of dedicated partisans.

Though politicians have incentives to stoke voters’ anger, these actions are not without cost. In fact, voter anger has a host of negative consequences. In particular, anger serves to reduce Americans’ trust in the national government. In an era of heightened nationalization, the national government serves as the focal point for Americans’ views about politics. Because anger causes us to evaluate people, places, and institutions in a negative fashion, politicians’ stoking of voter anger specifically about politics has the unfortunate consequence of lowering Americans’ trust in their governing institutions.

This decline in trust is marked. In 1958, 73% of Americans said they trusted the federal government “always” or “most of the time.” By 2019, this figure had dropped to 17%. This diminished level of trust is problematic for effective governance. Trust in government has been shown to be essential for facilitating bipartisan cooperation and maintaining support for social welfare programs. Thus, should trust in government continue to decline, we are likely to see less bipartisanship and a further erosion of Americans’ support for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Because politicians have an overarching concern with being reelected, and because anger aids in this pursuit, the outlook for the health of American democracy looks bleak.

The challenge is great if we are to make progress and hold together as a nation. Anger management is a good start.

Steven Webster is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Indiana University-Bloomington. His research interests are in political psychology, voting behavior, and public opinion. His book, American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics, was released earlier this year by Cambridge University Press. Follow him on Twitter @stevenwwebster.