Lilliana Mason advises her students to do something that is darn near impossible when they get angry.
“I teach my students to be very aware of people who are trying to manipulate you,” said Mason, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins’ SNF Agora Institute. “So, people who are trying to make you angry, people who use ‘us’ and ‘them’ language.”
That use of language is important, Mason said, because it has intensified in recent years and has become more common in political discourse. Her investigation of that phenomenon has produced several books examining why Americans are so angry at each other all the time, the most recent of which was a collaboration with Louisiana State University’s Nathan Kalmoe titled, “Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy.”
The main cause, Mason said, is that political divisions have melded with other, more basic differences that define who we are. What religion we believe in, the area of the country where we live and our cultural norms have become more intertwined with our politics over the past 50 or 60 years, driven by political rhetoric and partisan media outlets.
“When we’re talking to somebody in our own group, we’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Mason said.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said the opposite belief breeds mistrust.
“It’s not just that somebody has a different policy position, I think of them as having a different lifestyle and a different set of values from me,” Clayton said. “You add on to that the vilification of the ‘other,’ and they become un-American, and existential threats to your identity.”
That problem is compounded because most Americans do not have an accurate view of the beliefs held by members of the opposing political party, Mason said. Research has shown, for example, that Republicans far overestimate the portion of the Democratic Party that is Black. Meanwhile, Democrats far overestimate the portion of the Republican Party that earns more than $250,000 a year.
“We’re also overestimating the degree to which we think they disagree with us on policy,” Mason said, pointing to polling data that suggest the American public could compromise on many issues. “That makes us hate each other more.”
It’s also increasing our stress levels, according to ongoing research by the American Psychological Association. In January 2017, the organization found in its Stress in America survey that 66% of Americans said the future of the country was a significant source of stress after the presidential election of 2016. That number has reached as high as 81% in a 2021 study, and was 76% when the association asked the question in October of last year.
Eliminating that stress will be difficult, because Mason points out that any effort now to collaborate, or acknowledge the correctness of a political belief different than our own, feels like an attack on our identity. That’s painful, and something Americans – particularly those in positions of power – don’t want, Mason said.
“The closer we come to being a fully egalitarian, pluralistic, multiethnic democracy, the worse all of this gets,” Mason said. “Yet, that’s what we need to do. That’s what, literally, the Constitution – the 14th Amendment – we haven’t lived up to it yet. Our Constitution requires that we become a pluralistic, multiethnic democracy.”
It’s not a coincidence, Mason said, that this movement toward anger can be traced to efforts to extend civil rights in the 1960s. It can also be traced to the example set by politicians and members of the partisan media, she said, the same sources she tells her students to think about after a pause in their own angry thinking.
“It makes people participate,” she said of anger. “It’s like the perfect political emotion. Everybody stops thinking and just starts doing stuff based on their assumptions.”