Monday, May 28, 2012

The Angry Right Wing Voter: Have We Gone Too Far? 1/2

by Nomad

Just look around. It’s easy to see that America is seething. From the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, voters are infuriated with the direction of the country. In itself, that’s not news. With the economy the way it is, that's hardly a surprise. 

And Americans tend to take a personal interest in politics- despite the fact that only 54% of the population voted in the last presidential election. (And that's a high figure from previous elections too!) 
Of course, politics in the US has never been known for its calm reflection and careful thoughtful approach. However, what seems to happening with each election cycle is becoming a matter of concern. No matter what the outcome, growing numbers of Americans are automatically rejecting the results. This in turn pushes the anger to the next level. 

But who exactly is the angry voter?
According to a 2010 newsweek poll before the mid-term elections:

Self-described "angry" voters fit a rather predictable political and demographic profile. The survey found that only 14 percent are Democrats. The rest are either Republicans (52 percent) or independents (29 percent), with 42 percent of the angry voters declaring themselves Tea Party supporters. For the midterms, angry voters favor Republican candidates over their Democratic rivals, 73 percent to 19 percent. Three quarters want the GOP to win control of Congress.
Compared with voters in general, angry voters are 21 percent more likely to say they're worried about their economic future. They are 10 percent whiter than voters in general and 7 percent less likely to be under 30.

The Newsweek poll analyst came to the conclusion that while the numbers of angry voters were sizable, they would probably not be a determining factor in the mid-term election.
It was a bad call.

The Response that Failed
In a wave of voter resentment, the GOP/Tea party candidates were swept into power in the mid-term elections. In spite of what seemed to be a victory for the Tea Party, the conservatives and the Republican party, the result of that vote did very little to resolve the growing resentment. 
The 112th Congress has failed to achieve any of its promises to the voters and if anything, has made the political problem worse. The elected candidates did everything in their power to prevent the president from putting his proposals into effect and offered nothing reasonable in their place. Strangely enough, this political barricading was not based so much on idealogical differences but simply out of a desire to validate its meme of Obama being "the worst president since Jimmy Carter." (Where George W. Bush fits on their list is anybody's guess.)

In the process of discrediting the president the Congress wasted much of their time with bills like SOPA and bills to defund Planned Parenthood, EPA and NPR and bills to prevent the FCC Fairness Doctrine from ever returning. None of these bills addressed the most pressing problems facing the country. Solutions to the staggering levels of unemployment, to the re-establishing some kind of oversight to the financial industry, to tackling the home mortgage crisis all took a backseat to absurd obstructionist politics. 

Early in Obama's administration, the tone was set when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters:
“Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.”
That’s a top priority? Given the state of things in the nation, it is a sadly revealing remark. It implies that nothing else was more important to the Republican party than to seize control of the White House. 
And, as if to prove they felt no shame in McConnell's statement, other conservatives later echoed similar remarks. In the end, the failure to deal with the problems, to make tough decisions amounted to a negligence of duty on the part of Congress.

Of course, for angry voters there’s plenty of blame to go around.  

Apart from the culpability of the Republican party, we have seen a president too willing to find middle ground with a party as far to the right as anything we have seen in American history, and a Democratic party unwilling to act a unified opposition in Congress. A Department of Justice. armed with long-established laws, that seemed less than eager to pursue and prosecute the sources of corruption. A Supreme Court, after deciding through the Citizens United case that corporation's free speech came in the form of money, now openly flaunts its own conflicts of interest and conspires with corporations. The Koch brothers has the nerve to invite sitting members of the highest court in the land to its private parties. 

On a state level, American Legislative Exchange CouncilALEC- essentially a power-lobbying organization for big business- was able to write favorable legislation for state governments, throw campaign dollars to key politicians and proudly parade their achievements before the people.

It’s no wonder people are angry with these levels of corruption and dissolution.. The system has clearly broken down and nothing is being done to repair it. 
So the anger that provoked the knee-jerk reaction in the 2010 mid-term elections has only intensified. For those on the far right, it was directed at the President. For those on the far left the failure was pinned on the poor quality of Tea Party candidates. 
As one source tells us:
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 42% of the public sees this Congress as “one of the worst ever” — the highest percentage on this particular question the poll has found since it started asking it 22 years ago. Indeed, there’s ample polling evidence to suggest that while Congress, as an institution, has never been popular, we’re currently suffering through the least popular Congress ever.
What was the result of this failure of political will? More anger and too little thoughtful reflection, a greater tendency toward hyper-partisanship and violent rhetoric. Most of the Tea Party leaders haven't even recognized- much less taken responsibility for- the colossal political blunder of 2010.

What is really needed, some analysts tell us, is unity but what've we got has been more hostility and disharmony. The Tea Party- whatever its higher motives might once have been- has been pretty thoroughly discredited by its embrace of the lunatic element. Something that has always lurked just below the surface in that movement. The anger dissolved into calling the president a Muslim, a liar and Marxist and whatever else they could think of. Their anger allowed them to latch onto whatever nonsense Fox News or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh was peddling at that moment. 
Suddenly it wasn’t enough for them merely to say that the president might just be wrong. He had to be a fiend. He had to be Hitler. He had to be Stalin but most importantly, Obama had to be evil.

Incivility and the False Equivalency
But it isn’t merely so-called fringe element that appears to have gone off the deep end. The lack of civility seems to have infected every discussion of any issue.  

In an ideal world, when the electorate is seething with anger, it is the job of those we have entrusted with authority to set a more productive or positive tone. But this has clearly not happened. Many in the media attempt to draw some kind of equivalency between the largely imaginary insults of the Left to the very real disrespect of the Right. Both sides, they say, are guilty of this kind of thing. But is that actually true?

Kathleen Jamieson, co-founder of the group, wrote:
…the media landscape has made it seem that incivility is pervasive by showcasing even the smallest examples nonstop on 24-hour news channels and the Internet.
However not everybody is convinced that the examples are just the product of exaggeration by the media. As one blogger declares:
We've heard the raucous applause by GOP audiences when hundreds of executions in Texas were mentioned. We've witnessed conservative audiences loudly booing a gay-soldier for asking a question. We've listened as the bigoted Newt Gingrich defends his bigotry, refusing to admit that his claim that black school kids didn't know how to work unless crime was involved might be taken by many as insulting. We heard the conservative crowd roar their standing-ovation approval.
That's what "incivility" looks and sounds like. And that type of incivility has been found almost exclusively on the conservative side over the last 20 years.
In the presidency of Clinton, a Republican congressman stood on the floor and was heard to proclaim, “He is not MY president.” At the time, it was a shocking thing to hear. (I recall thinking, he was elected by the people in a uncontested election, sworn in as the Commander in Chief and head of the executive branch. How could he NOT be your president?) Today it seems to perfectly acceptable to call the president a homosexual, Muslim, a Kenyan, a socialist or communist, even a terrorist.

Notable examples of the lack of civility towards the president by elected representatives of the far right are numerous. When Texas Republican Joe Wilson shouting “Liar” in the middle of the President’s State of the Union speech in 2009, he was forced to offer a half-hearted apology. From Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagging her finger in the president’s face to. This kind of behavior from our politicians- especially when you add the failure to act- can only exacerbate the already volatile situation.

Yet, even if you reject the argument that both sides are equally to blame, and point out how the conservatives have been far more disrespectful, it admittedly doesn’t do much in resolving the main problem. In fact, pointing fingers- as tempting as it is- simply requires the opposition to give its own list of examples of Obama’s disrespect. 

Author Sasha Abramsky in an NPR interview noted this undeniable rise of anger.
(W)e live in a political moment that defines itself by nastiness to a large extent. The politics in this country has become something more than a parlor game. It's become something that people get very impassioned about and very infuriated about.
And ..there's an amplification chamber, an echo chamber that's being created by certain technological changes around the media in particular that allow for anger to become all-pervasive.
When George Bush was in charge, you had people like Al Franken or Michael Moore, who on a daily basis were drumbeating anger about the state of the country, and they got their anger amplified by the blogosphere.
And when Obama comes in, you see that anger in a sense inverted, and the right gets very, very angry, and you have the talk radio heads up in arms. You have the television rant speakers like Glenn Beck up in arms.
Abramsky paints a pretty ugly picture:
I think that what's happening is that each cycle, people are getting angrier, and so you're seeing an overlap now of economic anger and this sense that our best days are behind us, which I guess you could call cultural rage.
Abramsky also warns that the unprecedented anger may be spiraling out of
control to the point where it undermines all leadership, either from the left or the right.

We could enter a period where whoever's in charge can't solve our problems, and no matter what kind of policies are put forward, millions of people still feel that their basic economic needs aren't getting met. And it's in that sense of failure, it's in that sense of expectations shattered that the risk of a very uncivil, brutal politics exists.
Who’s Getting Angrier
While there is undeniably enough anger and insanity to go around in American politics, the extremism seen in the far right is beginning to alarm some people. In March 2009, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich gave this warning:
Make no mistake: Angry right-wing populism lurks just below the surface of the terrible American economy, ready to be launched not only at Obama but also at liberals, intellectuals, gays, blacks, Jews, the mainstream media, coastal elites, crypto-socialists, and any other potential target of paranoid opportunity.
For the most part, the anger from the Right appears directed at the President (and often his wife) and Democratic politicians, or the so-called liberal media. However, much of the anger is also unfocused and generalized at anybody categorized liberal, which has come to mean anyone less conservative or less radical.

Many have pointed to the overtones of racism. For instance, Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates writes of how one community organizer, Eric Ward, detected that racism in the inflammatory rhetoric. Ward works for the Center for New Community (CNC), a national nonprofit that helps build local alliances among congregations from different faith traditions and other institutions seeking to resist bigotry and build “a democratic future based on human rights, justice, and equality.”
“[When people who] oppose the Obama reform of health care claim we are losing our country they are using racialized, coded rhetoric,” says Ward, whether they are aware of it or not. Some pundits who backed the Tea Bag protestors and Town Hall criers were well aware of the racialized content of their rhetoric. Ward complains that “we see Pat Buchanan on television claiming that our country was built by white people… Really?” He wonders, “Why is this acceptable commentary on any television station?”
Ward believes “folks need to be held accountable for their racism. Too many people are hearing this coded rhetoric and deciding that the real problem with the economy must be folks of color, immigrants, and the Jews.”
Ward claims that what was once on the fringe has become a feature of the mainstream.
During the last period of Patriot and militia growth in the mid-1990s, Ward witnessed this coded racist rhetoric being tested in the margins of the right-wing media, though it has since moved into the mainstream. In the past year I’ve interviewed dozens of activists and scholars who see the same dynamics. All of us are worried.
So what does Ward suggest we do? The article continues:
“What I find surprising is the lack of an appropriate or effective response. Decent people need to stand up,” says Ward. “The Democratic Party pundits seem to think this is some sort of game; they act as if there are no legitimate grievances at all out here. They have to realize that the other side is not playing a game—they are playing with the lives and livelihoods of real people,” Ward points out. “Meanwhile, across the country, people are being pulled into right-wing populist movements, and from there, some of them are being recruited into white supremacist movements.”
As the demographics of the country change, the former power holders- the white and male middle class- are now finding themselves less and less able to control the discussion. Mark Potok writing for Alternet reported that:
In May 2011, a scholarly study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that white Americans believe that progress in race relations since the 1950s has come at their expense, with bias against whites more of a social problem in the last decade than bias against blacks. (This comes against the backdrop of the Census Bureau's prediction that non-Hispanic whites will lose their majority, falling to under 50% of the population, by 2050.)
Fear and a sense of lost power are two components in anger as well as violence. A cornered animal, naturalists will tell you, is much more likely to attack. Humans when they feel under attack are hardly any different. 
As one writer for the Christian Science Monitor takes a more compassionate look. He pointed out:
Candidates make a mistake in seeing anger as a lone sentiment when it really is a result of deeper emotions. Many voters are simply afraid, sad, or feel a sense of loss about their prospects or the government’s role. It is those feelings that need to be addressed through a calm and compassionate discussion of the alternative solutions that each candidate or party offers
Perhaps but angry people seem to think differently than less emotional types.

How Angry People Think
According to a 1994 study, people who are angry tend to make judgments based on shortcuts- as opposed to evidence.
Anger, in particular, can short-circuit our ability to think through things, and increases our reliance on "heuristics" or mental shortcuts.
Psychologists concluded that:
(A)nger is an emotion that tells us there is a need for quick action, and thus increases heuristic information processing. Thus, when we are angry, we tend to use mental shortcuts to decide whether an argument is right.
One more interesting finding in the same study was that angry people tended to fall back on stereotypes- a kind of short-cut thinking which doesn’t rely on actual evidence.
Yet another type of mental shortcut that people use when they are angry is stereotypes. In the same study by Bodenhausen and colleagues, angry participants were more likely than sad participants to find the same set of evidence as indicative of guilt when a criminal defendant was named as "Juan Garcia" as opposed to "John Garner." Again, the angry participants went with the heuristic-- in this case, the stereotype of Latinos as criminal - rather than focusing on the evidence per se.
So, as the study suggests, people who are angry tend to be more reactive and tend to think less analytically. Experience seems to reinforce that view. All of us understand the idea behind the phrase, “And then he saw red.” The study confirms most of us already knew: anger is a blinding thing.
*   *   *   *
Gregory Rodriguez, writing for the LA Times back in 2010 notes that  anger has always played an factor in American politics and anger need not be a danger to the stability of the state. 
In fact, whether we admit it or not, we citizen strivers need anger -- maybe especially political anger -- to keep all this momentum going. Satisfaction might lull us into passivity; dissatisfaction can move us to act. A quick check of most comment boards supports this: You hear mostly from the ticked off.
This is one reason why so much of political activity on all sides is about leveraging, even stoking, our displeasure. Appealing to fury isn't a bad way to get large numbers of people to move in your direction. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Anger can move you to fix whatever's wrong with the state of things. Combined with a redemptive message, it has the possibility of achieving remarkable, positive change. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the process of turning anger into a "transforming force." Even momentary outrage can move legislators to pass necessary laws and change less-than-ideal conditions.
A certain degree of anger, (or dissatisfaction) therefore may be necessary to motivate people to demand a mandate for change. King was not speaking about rioting and vandalism. He was not speaking about incitements to revolution, or advocating armed conflict. He was talking about peaceful change and a evolution of values.

Despite the remarks by Dr. King, most of the anger we have seen in our day is fairly non-productive. 
(A)nger also tends to encourage us to place blame and responsibility for our troubles on others. It can bolster an unhealthy sense of entitlement. What is true for individuals can be true for the collective: Anger uncontrolled can overwhelm us and ultimately make our lives a whole lot worse.
We have seen this effect since 2010. The Tea Party movement made an attempt to put its anger into action, but voting out of anger has its risks. The movement was quickly hijacked and absorbed by organizations like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity which converted their genuine concerns to legislation designed to benefit powerful special interests. A cynic might say that the Tea Party movement would never have been able to install the disastrous 112th Congress had it not been for corporate financing. 

The Occupy movement too had its share of anger, as well as it share of wingnuts. Unfortunately the movement offered very little in the way of solutions. With such a diffusion of views under one umbrella, it was impossible to build a consensus or to translate the anger into a voting bloc. The Occupy movement was merely a bitter rejection of the established order. (The possibility that the Occupy and the Tea Party movements could ever unite, or at least, find any sort of common ground and put that into a joint political action unfortunately seems very unlikely.) 

It is very discouraging that even peaceful protests-legally sanctioned by the constitution- are now being treated as threats to authority and are being brutally repressed by police. The same types of crowd control equipment used in occupied lands is now being used against our own citizens. When protesters with legitimate grievances are handled, investigated, monitored and prosecuted as terrorists, it is clear that the nation is in serious trouble. Can oppression and police brutality actually be a suitable solution to an angry nation?
Ultimately all of this tends to underline the fact that anger is a dangerous thing in any political process.  But If anger- which is a close cousin of hate- is such a danger, who'd dare stoke the fires? And what is- at least- in the political advantage in doing so?
I will try to answer those questions in the next post.