Anger in Politics: The Full Story

Benjamin Lamb-Books (PhD, University of Colorado)

Emotion itself and unpleasant displays of anger in particular are once again becoming causes of alarm in current U.S. politics with the 2016 presidential campaign. Civic questions about the propriety of anger in public and over ‘less-friendly’ forms of civil-society discourse have spread across media channels. The undeniable influence of angry sentiments in American politics has itself become object to those second-order feelings—feelings toward feelings—so well analyzed by sociologist of emotion Arlie Hochschild (who, e.g., in The Second Shift discusses how overburdened women develop coping strategies of affective suppression to deal with gender-bending strong emotions including anger at unfairness).

Prima facie, nothing seems to be more uncivil and unproductive than public outpourings of anger. Sociologists have observed that the acute expression of anger, usually toward subordinates, is a privilege reserved to social elites of higher status in some respect (see Collett and Lizardo’s 2010 article, “Occupational status and the experience of anger” in Social Forces). Anger among subordinates, in contrast, is mostly blocked and contained by more chronic frustrations and diffuse negative moods (with terrible health effects). Yet this is only half of the story. For charismatic leaders in the spotlight—whether politicians, activists, or celebrities—displaying and performing the strong affects of anger is always risky, like playing with fire. There are sociological reasons why Donald Trump can get away with anger-provoking rhetoric and thrive off it, but Hillary Clinton cannot. (Recent headlines indeed blast Clinton whenever she comes even within a mile away from ‘losing her cool.’)

In fact, almost nothing is more difficult than successfully pulling off an eloquent performance of anger in public without it backfiring upon one’s character. Even our wannabe-American-fascist Trump is unable to, he being instead high in anger but low in eloquence. Sensible, wise, and effective expressions of anger continue to be a civil-society rarity. Protestors try to capture this sensibility but more often than not their anger is dismissed as a mark against them. They are deemed too subjective, too emotional, and not rational enough about the more objective origins of their discontents. Anytime anger is expressed too bluntly, the character of the speaker gets impugned for being biased and intemperate. In rhetorical theory the importance of managing such character concerns in speech is known as ‘ethos.’ The need to protect one’s ethos from emotional contamination of the bad kind, given the binaries of civil-society discourse, always confronts the rhetor of the moment with special limitations based upon the social perceptions of others.

As James Jasper might put it, the rhetoric of anger in public poses a “strategic dilemma,” both for people protesting some injustice and for politicians seeking election via the arousal of populist sentiments. Indisputable here is just how eminently emotional all of politics in general is, just as are the protest struggles that sociologists analyze as ‘social movements’ or ‘contentious politics’ (on emotion in politics, see the special issue of the Journal of Political Power, edited by J. Heaney). Verbalized explicitly or not, anger is a “potency emotion” that can operate as a key motivational resource in conflicts over power (as social psychologists like Scott Schieman have shown). Anger is often veiled under more respectable status claims (of ethos) but still easily recognizable as what makes one’s political opponent so damn intractable.

In democracy, the anger of ‘the people’ is deeply threatening to the status quo. A coherent collective articulation of deep anger is unsettling to political incumbents no matter what their party affiliation. Irrespective of practical policy, such an articulation of anger will also inevitably frighten the upper classes who always prefer law and order to chaotic social changes. Meanwhile, the modern intelligentsia (me included) thinks ‘fascism’ when things get collectively too heated or dissects away the anger problem as the last desperate gasp of a dying status group. We are not necessarily wrong about this. All commenting parties though are usually content to ignore the social structure of the strategic dilemma, that is, the cultural and rhetorical dynamics that necessarily accompany anger when it rears its ugly head in public.

Even sociologists could benefit more from a deeper rhetorical and social-psychological understanding of the strategic dilemma of anger as a public political emotion. Without doing so, we are liable, like lay pundits, to dismiss the emotional energy therein without being able to explain the dual operation of collective emotions—as intermittently disruptive and/or “cementing of domination,” so Helena Flam has written. When are angry rhetorics productive and progressive in struggles against injustice, versus, when are they merely loud last gasps of a disintegrating status group? In principle, angry rhetorics can serve both purposes effectively as is plain from current political news. For the activists and politicians then, what makes the strategic dilemma of anger worth choosing? When are the potential costs to character too great and distracting? Beyond the political dichotomy between progressive versus conservative, what distinguishes the zealous prophetic rhetoric of MLK Jr. from the destructive angry rhetoric of DJT Sr.?

In my forthcoming book, Angry Abolitionists and the Rhetoric of Slavery: Moral Emotions in Social Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), I bring together for social analysis exemplars of the so-called ‘eloquence of abuse’ from the antislavery movement in the United States, the radical rhetoric of prophet-like abolitionists from Sojourner Truth to Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass. The rhetorical tradition categorizes collective anger as one of the most important species of ‘pathos,’ which Cicero defined as the production of strong or ‘violent’ emotion. What’s sociologically interesting about anger as a type of pathos is the careful ethos work inextricably involved. For the production of pathos to be persuasive and beneficial to one’s purposes, the speaker must manage a precarious balance between emotion and rationality in the right proportions. This is clearly a distinctively affective form of impression management in public. If a speaker comes off as too angry, if he or she ‘loses his or her cool,’ then the credibility and trustworthiness of that speaker also takes a hit.

There appears then to be an Aristotelian golden mean for the expression of anger in political rhetoric, a level of moderation that is necessary in order to avoid triggering distrust and cynicism toward the character of the speaker (ethos). To produce persuasive pathos, one’s ethos cannot be in question. At least this is the case if the aim is the identification and solidarity of the audience (as classical rhetorical theory would have it), less so if the intent is defiance or disruption (as more common in prophetic radical rhetorics). The strategic dilemma of anger in contentious politics is that stimulating pathos may backfire upon the ethos of the cause and hurt the progress of the movement. This is a tricky balance to negotiate. It is a near impossible bind for low-status participants of a protest struggle who instead are compelled to devote nearly all their time on performances of ethos and logos rather than pathos. If they slip-up and irrepressibly express too much strong emotion, as is more inevitable for the most oppressed, it often triggers status backlash by the audience—a different, less desired in-group/out-group kind of pathos—that is, if there even is a watching audience in the first place.

Benjamin Lamb-Books is the author of Angry Abolitionists and the Rhetoric of Slavery: Moral Emotions in Social Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

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