America the Angry

Politics has us livid. Can we calm that rage?

Posted Aug 03, 2020

The image has stuck with me, weeks after it happened. A husband and wife, nicely dressed, her in a long skirt and sandals, using a roller to paint over a Black Lives Matter mural newly painted on the street. What struck me was the planned nature of this act of anger. They thought about it long enough to get the paint and the roller, drive to the street, park, take out their supplies, walk to the mural, and begin painting, making decent progress before they were stopped.

At any point, they could have stopped to realize it would not end well. But their anger was too potent.

This image has remained in my mind because it shows how anger can turn us into frightening people who take self-destructive actions. And whose individual acts fester one by one to create a fractured society.

Anger has been a terrifyingly dominant feature of the American political landscape for decades, but it has been building with force most recently.

Anger that’s managed and focused can lead to positive change—you can paint a mural, for example, to celebrate the importance of racial justice. Untethered anger leads to destructive acts, like trying to obliterate the mural.

The type of political anger that intrigues and frightens me most is the kind that is allowed to marinate, to build and create its own reality full of logical justifications for unjustifiable acts, and a whole list of enemies. That kind of anger turns good citizens into people who are threats to society.

Except for a few saints among us, we’re all angry at some level. A friend of mine told me recently he spent an entire day livid at the lack of leadership on the coronavirus and the rising death toll. Eventually, his anger subsided, but, at some level, it remains.

Anger is a potent motivator, and some politicians know it’s a winner. Make people angry enough at one group—paint them as the enemy—and you can get them to support you no matter what, because you must be better than those dangerous clowns on the “other side.”

An angry society is not a productive one. A society split into warring factions is a broken society. And we have too many problems to solve to wallow in our own anger.

One in five Americans reported feeling anger “a lot” in 2018, an increase from 17 percent in the years before, according to the Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report.

Social media are a huge culprit in this—it’s easy to find an angry tribe if you have the entire world to choose from, and anger is the engine of much online activity. That activity can be anonymous and faceless, giving us the chance to avoid the rules of civility and decency. We say things online, even knowing friends and family will read them, that we would never say in person.

Outlets such as Facebook and Twitter cause an emotional contagion in which we “catch” one another’s online anger, frustration, and angst. All these other people share my rage. We can't all be wrong, can we?

How to manage political anger?

First, recognize it. This can be difficult—we see the reasons behind our anger, which means we don't really see our anger. It is, after all, just a logical reaction to an unreasonable society. The problem, we believe, is with the world, not us. The situation is wrong, and we have the right—responsibility—to correct it.

Second, some anger is justified. There’s a lot that’s wrong out there, and it’s human to be angry about at least some of it.

But, if you’re feeling angry much of the time, and it’s affecting your worldview, relationships, or productivity, it’s time to reassess. Your anger is owning you, and that’s not going to do you or anybody else any good. Time for some personal intervention:

  • Get off social media and see how your mood changes. Try it for a week—you'll survive, and you might find your blood pressure dipping a bit. At the very least, curate your page and unfollow the angriest posters. Cut out political memes.
  • Before you say something online, ask “Would I say this in person?” If not, don't say it.
  • Avoid people who have negative outlooks, online and in person, even if they’re relatives. You don't need to entirely cut your favorite cousin out of your life—just reduce your time with her.
  • Try to look at the situation from a different point of view, one less negative and unproductive, a technique called cognitive reappraisal. For example, you're setting yourself up for an angry exchange if you go into a conversation with your mother with the attitude, “If Mom says climate change is a hoax again, I will explode.” Try instead, “I enjoy hearing stories when Mom worked in an outdoors camp. I need to ask her about that. Give her a chance to talk about what she loves about nature.” Force yourself out of the negatives and you can change your mood. And, if you plan a less confrontational attitude with Mom, it might happen.
  • Look out for your friends and family. If somebody in your social circle appears to have political anger issues, try to spend some time with them—on the phone, by Zoom, or in-person through social distancing. Listen to them, try to get them to see some more positives. Acknowledge their emotions but help them move on.
  • Consider asking a professional for help. Check out Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory to find a mental health professional near you.