I'm Mad as Hell... and I'm Going to Vote!

The psychology of an angry electorate.

Given that the Tea Party movement was launched with a furious on-air outburst by CNBC’s Rick Santelli in February 2009, when he called for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest the White House mortgage-bailout plan, it’s not surprising that this is the year of the “mad as hell” voter. What is surprising is that this is also the year of voters wanting angry candidates—really angry candidates. In New York, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino moved up in polls after vowing to take “a baseball bat to Albany.” In Nevada, GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle cemented her anger credentials by warning, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, campaigning for California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, roused a crowd by saying he had told union leaders who pressure teachers, “You punch them, I punch you.”

That the rise of the furious pol comes only two years after “No-Drama Obama” won the presidential election is apparently something most Democrats didn’t expect; notice how their candidates tend to be the ones scrambling to catch up, angerwise. (Paladino’s opponent, Andrew Cuomo, was goaded by reporters into an unconvincing “We’re all angry!”) But they should have seen it coming. In June, when BP’s oil well was on its way to gushing more than 4 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, pundits railed at President Obama for, as NEWSWEEK put it, “not showing enough raw rage.” Exactly why candidates now need to show fury in their belly goes a long way toward explaining not only the public mood and what will appeal to voters this fall, but also why decades-old campaign dogma (“Social Security is the third rail of American politics”; “Extremists can’t carry the suburbs”) is being overturned.

Americans have ample reason to be both angry and anxious. Seven in 10 have a close friend or relative who has lost a job; 28 percent have less than $500 in savings. Anxiety typically makes voters question or even abandon long-held convictions about, say, which party they identify with or which policies they support (deficit spending? tax cuts for the rich?), says political scientist George Marcus of Williams College. Anxiety also tends to nudge people to seek out information as a way of assuaging that unease (Social Security will be there when they retire; higher taxes on millionaires will not impede the recovery), which might suggest the Democrats have an opening to make their case.

Except for one thing: because the recession had identifiable culprits rather than being just another turn of the business cycle, anxiety has morphed into anger. “Gut-level feelings of tremendous anxiety quickly turn into rage,” says psychology professor Drew Westen of Emory University and author of the 2007 book The Political Brain. “Men in particular don’t like feeling anxious, so they very quickly convert anxiety to anger at what made them anxious.” That anger is aimed at anyone perceived as failing to pull the country out of the recession—mostly Democrats, as the party in power. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 23 percent of voters say they’re angry; 54 percent are frustrated. Angry voters say they’ll support a Republican rather than a Democrat by a margin of 73 to 19. Similarly, a Quinnipiac University poll last week found that 33 percent of likely voters in Connecticut say they are “angry” with the federal government. They support GOP Senate candidate (and pro-wrestling tycoon) Linda McMahon 78 percent to 20 percent.

While anxious voters seek out many sources of information, angry ones “want to rally round their convictions,” says Marcus. “They’re not interested in objective information, but only in the kind that reinforces what they believe.” Democrats can therefore bombard talk shows and op-ed pages and blogs with studies showing that TARP prevented a financial implosion or that the health-care-reform law will save billions of dollars, but many of the voters they need to reach aren’t hearing it. “People have a great capacity to engage in what’s called motivated reasoning,” says political scientist Hank Jenkins-Smith of the University of Oklahoma. “If you have a strongly held belief with an emotional component, the brain defends information that reinforces those ‘priors’ and is skeptical of information that challenges them.” Voters who “know in their gut” that the country could save a bundle by cutting that holy trinity of waste, fraud, and abuse do not hear that the GOP’s “Pledge to America” wouldn’t come close to reducing what is projected to be a deficit of $1.9 trillion by 2035. Paradoxically, the more that issues are explained in neutral forums such as the news media, the more people’s beliefs are cemented. “People who hold these hard priors filter information to support their perceptions,” says Jenkins-Smith.

The Democrats are up against another psychological barrier as they try to persuade anxious voters that their policies prevented a depression. “It’s extremely hard to prove a counterfactual, let alone to get people to believe it,” says Jenkins-Smith. Arguing that if some action (the stimulus package) had not been taken then some consequence (a depression) would have occurred is thus a fool’s errand. It doesn’t even help that a consensus of experts endorses a particular view, such as that TARP prevented a complete financial meltdown. Americans’ historical resentment of “pointy-headed intellectuals” and other elites has been inflamed by the fact that the smartest minds on Wall Street caused this mess (and didn’t pay the consequences). For many angry voters, expert consensus on anything from climate change to economic policy is reason enough to reject it.

Incumbent Democrats are also unlikely to get much traction from trumpeting their accomplishments. “People tend to adapt their baseline expectations to what they already have,” says linguist George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the 2008 book The Political Mind. “That is why the president gets little appreciation for what he has already accomplished. If he’s done it, we take it for granted.”

When people are angry, they want to see their anger reflected in their leaders. Many voters believe “that getting angry is somehow a ‘good thing’ in a leader, and that the [apparent] absence of anger betokens someone who is out of touch or insensitive to the moral dimensions of the problem,” psychiatrist Ronald Pies of SUNY Upstate Medical Center wrote in Psychiatric Times. “There is a ‘magical’ dimension to intense anger: it transforms the world from one in which the person feels helpless and impotent into one in which the person has the illusion of power and control. It is as if to say, ‘If I get angry enough, the laws of physics won’t apply—I’ll be able to plug that damn oil leak through the power of my righteous indignation!’?” In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 74 percent of angry voters are more likely to support a candidate who expresses anger about the economy and jobs (vs. 56 percent of not-angry voters); 75 percent of angry voters prefer a candidate who shows anger over federal spending, taxes, and the deficit (vs. 51 percent of not-angry voters). Only Election Day will show whether threatening to “take out” a reporter, as Paladino did last week, is a little more fury than voters want.

If candidates don’t display sufficient wrath, voters’ own anger intensifies, as they unconsciously try to stoke anger in their would-be leaders. Much the same thing happens in personal relationships. If you’re angry about a neighbor who plays loud music at3 a.m. and your spouse isn’t, you tend to get angrier and angrier in an attempt to get him to share your emotion—which is viewed as a prerequisite for doing something about the problem. People believe anger motivates people to act, whether it’s telling the neighbor to be quiet or creating jobs. Since Obama is (in)famous for his cool, he has inadvertently goaded some voters into greater fury. “Obama hasn’t been able to show people he feels their anger, which only makes them angrier,” says Westen. His coolness also saps morale among Democrats: if their leader isn’t fighting mad at the opposition, how enthusiastic can they be about keeping Congress in Democratic hands?

Democrats are desperately hoping that as voters learn more about Tea Party candidates who won Republican primaries, they will reject them as bomb-throwing extremists out to gut Medicare, privatize Social Security, and outlaw abortion even for victims of rape and incest. Don’t count on it. Two years ago upper-middle-class moderate Republicans in the suburbs were so frightened by a financial meltdown that was eviscerating their 401(k)s that they were willing to give Democrats a chance in both the White House and Congress. Now a similar mindset has taken hold: voters are so fearful of never getting back on their feet, and angry about the state of the country, that they are willing to give Republican and Tea Party candidates a chance. Since even experts disagree about how to revive the economy (Obama’s former budget director broke ranks and endorsed temporarily continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich), voters have understandably adopted an almost-desperate attitude: throw policy darts blindly and hope one hits its target. “There is a strong element of nihilism in this,” says Westen—an attitude of “I don’t care if the experts say some policy will be a disaster or some candidate is a lunatic. Things are already so bad, can they really get much worse?”

That nihilism—blow up the system and see if a new one is better—has brought about something policy wonks never thought they’d see: candidates touching the third rail and surviving. Both Angle and Senate candidate Joe Miller in Alaska called for privatizing Social Security, doing themselves little apparent damage. One reason may be that voters don’t believe extremist positions will become policy, says political scientist Kathleen Searles of Washington State University; calling for a radical change in Social Security is thus just a marker for a candidate’s “overhaul Washington” bona fides. Another reason is that when a candidate resonates with voters’ anger about Washington, “when they agree with a candidate about limited government, they can overlook disagreement about specific issues,” suggests Jenkins-Smith. If any diehard rationalists still believe that voters are driven by logic more than emotion, Nov. 2 should set them straight.