Just weeks from the Iowa presidential caucuses, and less than a month until the New Hampshire primaries, it’s getting hard to avoid the question, “Whom will you be voting for?”
I’ve got another question for you:
“What will you be voting for?”
Will you be more motivated in 2016 by anger — or by optimism?
This polarizing psychological divide is by no means uncommon in politics. Presidential candidates know they win votes by tapping into the winter of our discontent — but also by sensing our sunnier side where, together, we can move mountains and all that jazz.
So, which approach is better at solving our country’s problems? And, more selfishly, which is better at keeping us from shutting down over the next 10 months and bingeing on Netflix instead?
First, if it feels like you’re getting hit particularly hard with the anger-and-its-cousin-fear strategy during debates (or at the grocery store or a family gathering), you’re right.
“Political polarization is not a new thing, but it has been intensifying,” said Prof. Joe Peschek, chairman of Hamline University’s Political Science Department.
“Some survey data shows growing numbers of voters looking at the other side as ‘enemies’ and a danger to the country, and not just people on the other side of an issue,” he said. “With the current campaign, it seems like there is a lot of anger by both the candidates and their followers.”
In fact, a national poll conducted in September found that the majority of respondents, Republican and Democrat alike, are upset enough about something to carry a protest sign for an entire day if they could. Not surprisingly, that something differed by party.
Top responses from Republicans: “Stop Abortion,” “Enforce Immigration Laws,” “Defund Planned Parenthood” and “Impeach Obama.”
For Democrats? “Fund Planned Parenthood,” “Preserve Equality/Human Rights,” “Get Big Money Out of Politics” and “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s important to note here that anger can be a good thing.
“If it’s constructive and directed, anger can correct real problems,” said Phil Chen, a visiting assistant professor at Macalester College who studies political science.
“If we look at something like the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the real concern with how [the federal government] handled disaster relief on that scale, we saw a much different federal response to Hurricane Sandy. That anger was directed, focused and helpful in moving us toward change.”
But, alas, anger cannot and should not be sustained, he and others believe.
“It seems to me that anger has a short shelf life,” said Prof. Matt Lindstrom, who teaches public policy and civic engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University.
“It’s a rhetorical device that can rally voters. But when you’re talking about campaign volunteers making the 200th call and knocking on the 500th door, anger doesn’t drive that. A sense of something better seems to drive campaigns, and drive the volunteers and staff who are doing the heavy lifting.”
Just look at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“His famous speech was ‘I Have a Dream,’ not a nightmare, and he had plenty of things to be angry about,” Lindstrom said. “We’re still talking about that speech.”
Peschek agreed. “I don’t think most voters want an angry president. That’s a little scary.”
But guess what? We actually don’t want a president who is too sunny, either.
“Optimism, too, has its limits,” said Macalester’s Chen. “By only focusing on the positive, we may ignore real sources of anger, frustration and disappointment. There is a chance that we may miss important societal grievances.”
So let Democrat Bernie Sanders remain angry as hell about Wall Street greed, and Republican Marco Rubio hope that his immigrant story emits heart and hope, and Republican Donald Trump drill into the anger felt by the privileged white male and Democrat Hillary Clinton optimistically opine that we must “roll up our sleeves … and start solving problems.”
We, the voting people, will do best to watch the debates, talk respectfully to people with whom we don’t normally agree, push toward middle ground and, on occasion when it all seems a bit too noisy, shut out the real world briefly — with a moderate dose of Netflix.