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Is Our Political Outrage Addictive?

Some of us can't get enough of the other side's red meat.

As the political parties held their conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, the presidential race took on a remarkably civil tone. For two weeks, nary an official word was said denigrating the race, creed, religion or imagined ethnic origin or history of tax evasion of either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. The candidates and their surrogates went out of their way to paint their opponents as decent human beings. Frankly, it was a bit boring.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my obsession — inexplicable, given my liberal political leanings — with Glenn Beck. His notoriety was at its peak as he prepared to rally his fans on the National Mall to shout about how people like me were destroying our country. I disagreed with everything he said but somehow couldn’t get enough of the red meat he was serving up to his fervent audience. I loved to hate it.

Beck has since moved his TV show to a subscription-only Web site, so I see less of him, but he wasn’t my first blowhard and he wouldn’t be my last. Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, author Steve Almond admitted to this same grim fascination:

Yes, I’m one of those enlightened masochists who tune in to conservative talk radio when driving alone. I recognize this as pathological behavior, and I always make sure to switch the station back to NPR before returning the car to my wife. But I can’t help myself. I take a perverse and complicated pleasure in listening to all the mean, manipulative things those people say.

In an interview last month, the futurist and novelist David Brin argued that what Almond and I are doing (along with lots of other liberals) is more than just a guilty pleasure. The outrage that we feel when we listen to these rants is a "bona fide drug high,” and we are addicted to it (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

We’ve all been in indignant snits, self-righteous furies. You go into the bathroom during one of these snits, and you look in the mirror and you have to admit, this feels great! “I am so much smarter and better than my enemies! And they are so wrong, and I am so right!”

Red Meat

Brin's idea, which he discussed at length in a talk in front of the National Institute for Drug and Addiction available here, certainly rings true to me. Take the current campaign: I already know who I'm voting for, so I spend my time trolling National Review for any outrageous comment that might provoke my anger. I refresh Media Matters for America, which says it monitors 150 hours of conservative media per week for misinformation (God bless those interns). I flip on Fox News to catch “The Five,” the panel of Little Limbaugh Achievers that has taken Beck's place in the primo afternoon time slot.

Is there anything wrong with letting this addiction to outrage guide our politics? In so far as it distracts us from engaging the issues, the candidates and each other at a more civil and meaningful level, then yes. A provocative comment can be revelatory, it can sharpen our focus, it can prod us to engage in debates we might otherwise leave to others. But if the sum total of our political activity is waiting for The Huffington Post or the The Drudge Report serves up another soundbite into our RSS reader, then we are shortchanging ourselves and our democratic system.

I'm not sure paying attention to these idiots is enabling our self-destruction as a society or even amplifying their voices in a meaningful way. Their success was built on animating the baser instincts of conservatives, not the curiosity of self-loathing liberals. Still, tuning in is a concession to our lowest natures. In other words, the problem with our addiction to outrage has less to do with how it distorts our polity than how it distorts our selves. As Almond writes, it has a way of activating our deepest resentments in a "closed system of scorn and self-congratulation."

It's naive to think that we might one day rise above this. A quick fix of political bile is the perfect drug for our multitasking times, gratifying in a way that an in-depth exploration of the issues isn't. But like any addiction, our devotion to it creates a vicious cycle, with each dastardly comment on talk radio or cable news raising our internal threshold until soon, only something truly insulting can produce that feeling again.

At the end of his piece, Almond says he's swearing off this stuff, and I applaud him. Our political discourse shouldn't be left to our lizard brains. Better to avoid those whose only effect is to enrage us.

About the Author
Andrew Park

Andrew Park is the author of Between a Church and a Hard Place, he is also a former correspondent for Business Week.