Forget anti-racism and white fragility seminars. The nation needs anger management training.
A recent New York Times/Siena poll of likely voters asked how they felt about the state of America: the overwhelming majority of likely Biden voters said they were “angry,” with slightly less than half of likely Trump voters saying the same. The angriest group? Biden supporters ages 18-34, 81 percent of whom described themselves as angry.
It’s not just Democrats. A recent report on “America’s Divided Mind” by the organization Beyond Conflict concluded, “Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do. In short, we believe we’re more polarized than we really are—and that misperception can drive us even further apart.”
A survey this week from Pew Research Center offered an equally gloomy portrait of the nation: majorities of Republicans and Democrats are unhappy, and “the share of the public saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country has plummeted from 31 [percent] in April, during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, to just 12 [percent] today.”
Amid several serious national challenges—the pandemic, a struggling economy, and civil unrest in many parts of the country—when unity and some recognition of shared ideals are needed, the public mood resembles a Hieronymous Bosch painting.
The turn toward dehumanizing one’s political opponents is perhaps the most worrisome. As the Beyond Conflict report noted, “The most common feature of polarized psychology is strong feelings of dislike toward members of the other party. Current levels of dislike are strong and widespread” among people in both parties.
This can have pernicious real-world consequences with regard to the integrity of the social fabric: “Overestimating how much the other party dislikes your party is predictive of higher levels of social distance (e.g., feeling uncomfortable with members of the other party serving as your doctor, being your child’s teacher, or marrying one of your children).”
This tendency, combined with widespread anger and anxiety, is why even seemingly minor things, such as whether it makes sense to capitalize “black” (but not “white”); or the supposed threats posed to others by the presence of a statue; or even resurrected pop culture moments such as the stars of “Golden Girls” or “30 Rock” being recast as suddenly, offensively racist become major culture war flashpoints.
Polarized and paranoid about one another’s motives, we end up fighting (usually online) about superfluous things while serious challenges (like coming to some meaningful bipartisan agreement about criminal justice reform and policing) languish.
Instead, the views of a vocal minority are dominating the conversation (or what might more appropriately be called the national struggle session). As Thomas Edsall noted recently in the New York Times, this is especially notable with regard to justifications for violence in pursuit of one’s ideological goals.
Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who surveyed the recent protests in D.C., notes that the majority of protestors are white and college-educated; they also express a great deal more approval of violence than previous demonstrators have done. According to her research, 60 to 65 percent of the current demonstrators agreed with the statement “some level of violence is justified in the pursuit of political goals” (compared to just 40 percent who said so during a 2017 racial justice march, for example).
These views are thankfully not yet mainstream; on the contrary, as Edsall notes, “A Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 72 percent of those polled disagreed with the statement ‘more violent protests and unrest are an appropriate response to the killing of an unarmed man by police,’ including a solid majority of Democrats. An even larger percentage (79 percent), including 77 percent of Democrats, agreed with the statement: ‘The property damage caused by some protesters undermines the original protest’s case for justice.’”
And yet it is not these more moderate views that are dominating the national conversation. Angry, educated, idle, and approving of violence: these are the characteristics of the minority of people driving the more extreme expressions of protest in the streets as well as the acceleration of cancel culture illiberalism in the workplace. These denizens of anarchist occupied zones like CHOP as well as the proud members of woke online Twitter mobs have had a disturbing number of victories in the past few weeks, toppling statues and cultural gatekeepers (and, in the case of CHOP, costing some Americans their lives before finally being shut down by law enforcement).
Many Americans share their feelings of anger right now, but the majority don’t embrace their radical methods or their ideological goals. Whether that will still be true after a challenging summer and an election already notable for its partisans’ eagerness to dehumanize their political enemies remains to be seen. The current climate does not give much cause for the one thing we really could use right now: hope.