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Americans’ anger over politics threatens democracy, Wash U professor finds

People climb walls of the U.S. Capitol grounds in an attempt to prevent Congress from ratifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021.
Blink O'fanaye
/
via Flickr
Trump supporters climb walls on the U.S. Capitol grounds in an attempt to prevent Congress from ratifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021.

Many people were glued to their screens on Jan. 6, 2021 — obsessively refreshing social media feeds and toggling between live news coverage on radio and TV to watch the insurrection unfold in real time.

Congress was able to certify Joe Biden as president, but the ripples of anger are still palpable one year later. And a new academic paper argues that political anger threatens democracy itself.

Betsy Sinclair, a political science professor at Washington University who co-authored the paper, found politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — are using political anger to their advantage.

“An angry voter is a loyal voter,” Sinclair said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And so engaging people's emotion of anger, it gets them to turn out to vote. It gets them to donate to campaigns, and it's a strategy political candidates are using to drive people to participate in politics.”

Anger as a political strategy is not exclusive to presidential or other high-profile elections. Small municipal and school board elections are employing this tactic too.

After surveying 3,400 Americans, Sinclair found the level of political anger put on display during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is driving Americans to discriminate against people of the opposite political party.

The antidote to political anger is local civic action

Sinclair said nearly 90% of Americans were angry with an opposing political party in the most recent election cycle.

“It’ll make you not water your neighbor’s plant,” she said, and even has some parents forbidding their children to date people from opposing parties.

Partisan discrimination now exceeds racial discrimination, Sinclair said.

“We live in a world where, fortunately, people are not actively encouraged to discriminate based upon race or gender. And that's not true for partisan identities,” she said.

“There's an incredible body of research to document that participating in conversation moderates people's political viewpoints,” she added. “And if we've gotten to the point where it's acceptable to engage in this disgust, in this anger, then we're no longer at that point where we can have these moments of radical empathy and meaningfully engage with others. So it leaves us in this really dark moment for American futures.”

Sinclair said her research does not justify political violence but is a way for ordinary Americans to understand the effects of their exposure to politics and how campaigns use tools, such as attack ads, to manipulate their emotions.

On the one-year anniversary of the Capitol riot, Sinclair proposes what she calls the “antidote” to political anger: flexing civic engagement muscles.

“What if we each made a commitment to some kind of civic action?” Sinclair said. “You could register to vote, you can report a pothole to your city, you can stock a local food bank, there are a lot of things that we can do to take simple actions to actually repair the social fabric that has been caused by so much anger.”

She also created Magnify Your Voice, an app to make civic engagement easier. It allows people to take partisan-neutral civic action in their communities.

“Close your computer, close your phone, and go see if there's something you can do to take care of one of your neighbors this week,” she said.

Sinclair’s paper will be published online in the Journal of Politics this month.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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