A few years ago, Steven Webster was working in Washington and frequently giving tours of the U.S. Capitol when one particular tour went rather south, to put it mildly – and also sparked his decision to study political science.
“This group happened to be just a husband and wife,” Webster recalled on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air in conversation with host Don Marsh. “I was showing them through the rotunda and everything, and we went into the chamber of the House of Representatives … and they got into a political argument in the House gallery.”
The spat between the two – one of whom was a Democrat and the other a Republican – became so heated and noisy that the House sergeant at arms asked Webster and the couple to leave the space.
“[It] made me think, ‘This is crazy. I need to figure out why people think like this,’” said Webster, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University’s Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy.
His latest research focuses on the nature of political behavior and public opinion in the United States. Currently at work on a book tentatively titled “American Rage: How Anger Lowers Political Trust, Weakens Democratic Values, and Forges Partisan Loyalty,” Webster said his manuscript draws on studies he’s conducted with thousands of Americans – experiments in which the aim is to make individuals angry and observe anger’s effects.
Some of the biggest impacts he’s seen have to do with civic disagreement shifting into sharper partisan hatred across the U.S.
“Anger affects trust in government – when we’re angry we tend to not trust the national government,” he explained. “When we’re angry we [also] tend to exhibit less commitment to democratic norms and values – so things like political tolerance [and] respect for minority opinions, and when we’re angry we tend to vote loyally for our own party.”
Listen to the full discussion, which delves into some of the forces behind these trends:
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