Why the Politics of Outrage Has Such a Grip on American Life
Moral outrage can be a healthy part of the American democratic process, motivating people to stand up for their beliefs and hold leaders accountable. The founding of the country, after all, is rooted in rebellion and a list of grievances spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.
But senior leaders are expressing concerns about the dark side of the politics of outrage and how it is encouraged by structural factors in the media and in the political system.
In a Independence Day in The Atlantic, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) lamented that “carefully constructed arguments confirming the biases of the usual gang of sophists, crooks and Holocaust deniers” have led America to “deny” threats serious.
“The phenomenon is basically the same on both sides. There is always a wing that will never be happy, where you can never be liberal enough for them, or progressive enough for them. And right, never be right enough for them,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said in an interview.
“They engage in grievance politics more than anything. They victimize themselves in very mysterious ways. And they use that self-victimization as a weapon to wield,” Crenshaw said.
For some, recent confrontations fueled by political outrage have gone too far.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of two Republicans on the House Select Committee on Jan. 6, shared threatening letters and voicemails he received. Demonstrators gathered outside the homes of Supreme Court justices to protest the overturning of Roe v. Wade, then outside a DC steakhouse as conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh dined, prompting condemnation of the restaurant.
Humans can be wired to be drawn to outrage.
Mark Lenkner, librarian and assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who has writing on political outrage, noted philosopher Robert Solomon describing anger as an energizing experience.
“In the case of politics and moral issues, it is colored and intensified by moral expectations. So not only am I going from being a victim to being an accuser, but it’s more like going from being a victim to being a judge of your actions, and there’s more power in that,” said Lenker said.
Other systems then rely on the capitalization of moral indignation.
Jeff Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University and co-author of “The outrage industry: political opinion media and the new incivilitysaid technological and market changes have increased political outrage in the media.
Americans listened to the radio to listen to music, but the advent of CDs and digital music led to a shift to talk radio and the creation of conservative talk radio giants like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.
Before the advent of cable and satellite television, networks had to partner with hundreds of local affiliates across the country to gain a national audience, urging them to attract the widest possible audience. A cable network, on the other hand, does not have this structural obstacle and can be profitable by attracting a smaller audience.
“Outrage is a business and it fuels a product. It’s about providing a product for people who want to be angry and want to be even angrier about politics,” Berry said.
The advancement of social media since the publication of his book in 2014 has further heightened political outrage, Berry said.
Major tech platforms have taken steps in recent years to try to combat the spread of misinformation on their platforms. But according According to a Yale University study published last year, incentives such as “likes” and “shares” on social media amplified expressions of outrage over time.
“The mere existence of social media — it makes very fringe ideas seem a lot more mainstream than they actually are,” Crenshaw said.
Crenshaw noted that political fundraising also incites arms outrage, which targets the most passionate people likely to donate.
Republicans regularly describe their opponents as “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — during campaigns and fundraisers.
Missouri GOP Senate candidate Eric Greitens came under fire after posting a video last month encouraging supporters to order a ‘RINO hunting permit’ and showed him breaking into a house with a gun .
Democrats are also capitalizing on the outrage for fundraising purposes.
Marcus Flowers, the Democratic nominee in the race against Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), is not expected to win Georgia’s only Republican 14th congressional district. But by targeting those outraged by Greene’s comments and promising to counter her, he garners small donations.
Flowers has raised $8.2 million as of March 31 — the most of any non-incumbent candidate and the eleventh-highest amount of any House candidate, according to Federal Election Commission data. More than $2.6 million of that went to consulting firm Blue Chip Strategies.
Beyond fundraising, the dominance of America’s two-party system and primary system, with gerrymandering creating more polarized districts, is also inciting outrage.
“Rogue” candidates, Crenshaw said, “will do anything their 24-year-old consultant tells them to do if they think it will get them those 10,000 key votes out of the district of 750,000 that can offer them a primary, because normal people no longer go out and vote.
“There’s an obvious problem with the fact that the redder a district becomes, the bluer the district becomes, when the only people the reps have to talk to are the primary voters — now you’re obviously going to get this kind of populist flattery,” Crenshaw said.
Berry cautioned against outrage being equivocal with ideology, but acknowledged the impact of primary voters.
“Every politician is a bit of a marketing scientist. And they’re very aware of what their base wants,” Berry said. “So there’s a real structural element in terms of American partisan politics, which contributes to the success of outrage, and it’s the party’s primary.”
Those who can identify the factors that foster outrage in politics, however, have few suggestions for remedies.
“My message to voters is always to stop falling for the trap,” Crenshaw said. “These people are out to lie to you and make you lose more sides, whoever you are on, they want you to lose because that’s how they get their clicks. That’s how they get their commitment and that’s ultimately how they make money.
It can be difficult to find the right balance in the face of outrage, Berry said.
“We want to live in a society where there are protests, and we want to live in a society where people have the right to be outraged. What we would like to do, however, is live in a society where there are limits and norms of civility. So even if you’re spirited and passionate and angry, you still don’t do things that disrupt the whole system, in politics in general,” Berry said.