Politics of Outrage

Published April 11, 2018 in Warp & Woof


  Politics of Outrage

Debating Policy and Ideology Is Only Fun for a Few
William Sundwick
The first principle of politics: it’s about gaining and wielding power. Practitioners of politics are interested mostly in dominance. They’re motivated by biology and genes.
The second principle of politics: we all engage in political behavior. We spend our lifetime learning how to most effectively influence others, how to get what we don’t have, and how to protect it once we get it. It is the human condition.
In the United States, like most countries in the modern world, politics has become institutionalized as the profession of manipulating the feelings and thoughts of the population toward that singular goal of achieving and holding power. Professional politicians are experts in the use of the tools that make this possible.
Nothing gained by appeal to intellect

Manipulating emotion has been shown to be a far more effective motivator than appealing to intellectual faculties. Discussing policy planks does not equate to more votes. Emotional appeals tend to seek the lowest common denominator – gut instincts. Few voters can censor those gut feelings sufficiently to allow their intellect to govern their behavior at the polls. If they did, they might be likely to stay away from the voting booth altogether! (Granted, sometimes an effective strategy.) So, “Lock Her Up!” and #LockHimUp become popular rallying cries and social media memes.
And it’s not just voters who are susceptible to the appeals to outrage and baser emotions. Once elected, a public official will discourage independent thinking among staff, instead emphasize personal loyalty. Supporters are kept in the fold not only by producing a more entertaining show than the prospective opponents, but also through incentives and intimidation.
Successful politicians avoid revealing unpleasant aspects of the business of power – like throwing former allies under the bus, or any hint of corruption in their dealings. Unless, of course, the opponent shows even more unpleasantness!

Competition for attention

The 21st century media environment is far different from the one politicians of a previous generation learned to master. Advertising must be targeted to more platforms than before, and narrowcast to many audiences, rather than broadcast to one audience. It has become a science. And, in the end, it is emotion, especially outrage, that will grab audiences best. Emotional stimuli are what generate clicks. Clicks are what you pay for. Data analytics are also what a savvy politician pays for. The winner in an election will most likely be the one who best understands the demographics and emotional signaling of certain narrowcast messages.
Who pays for all this? No changes here, only three types of financial resources. There is personal wealth, there is corporate cash (PACs as well as individual contributions), and there is grassroots fund raising. The distribution formula for these methods of fund raising may vary – many in public office have mastered one or two methods, but not all three. Any of the three may succeed individually, but only if well guided by  data analytics from consultants.
Identity politics and intersectionality

Recently, a new term has emerged to explain the “politics of outrage.” It is “identity politics.” In addition to the well-accepted propensity for voters to respond best to emotional rather than rational appeals, it now appears that there is, in the U.S. as well as many other developed democracies, an accelerating drift toward tribalization in politics. The tribes are not necessarily defined by geography, but may be defined by common backgrounds and interests, level of education, urbanization, etc. In the best post-Marxist sense, they are based on class divisions! Race plays a role, for sure, and language, too (both in the U.S. and Europe), as do gender and religion. But, among “whites” voting patterns mostly depend on those more traditional class conflicts, the same ones we’ve known throughout the last century in America. Party loyalties between Democrats and Republicans have flipped for working class white Americans and professional class white Americans. True, non-white voting patterns have not changed much – and Dems always point out that there are more of them now, if you can just get them to the polls!
Identity politics would lead only to fragmented coalitions, and destructive rivalries in a two-party system, if it weren’t for another trend, most visibly promoted by feminists. That trend is something called “intersectionality.” It resembles the classic Marxian analysis of power dynamics in society – namely, oppressed groups (the “marginalized”) have more in common with each other than with the oppressors (the “privileged”). Hence, alliances between marginalized groups are natural. One group should fight for the improvement of the other groups. It seems to offer a solution to racism, sexism, homophobia, and even economic inequality! But, alas, there are many who think that commonality of aspirations between the marginalized (“temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) and the privileged within a certain community, are stronger than the bonds between marginalized in different communities. Thus, tribalism overcomes class struggle. Perhaps, if intersectionality had as high a profile in the popular imagination as identity politics has recently achieved, we would see the balance of power shift.
Is it only the campaigns?

What must be done to win an election might not matter so much, if the actual business of governing were a well-oiled professional machine. Unfortunately, it is not. Once in office, politicians cannot escape the forces that put them there. They attempt to mollify constituents with boiler plate letters and town halls. Their decision making in preparation for a vote doesn’t usually require input from their voters. Only after the fact do politicians have to explain the vote. But, the outrage factor for the tribes makes any attempt at cross-aisle conversation risky. No elected office holder wants to be seen by constituents as a “collaborator.” And, the outrage merchants in the media are omnipresent.
When it comes time to stand for re-election (nearly continuous for two-year terms), a politician must think of those donors – what to say to them? How to conceal those conversations from voters? Time, once again, for those data analytics.
Can we voters resist the politics of outrage? Social media clearly need some critical review – not just for “fake news,” but for click-baitas well.  Can Facebook and Twitter be held accountable? Is regulation necessary, or can they self-police? For new voters, should schools be more actively training kids to censor those emotional gut feelings?
Understanding the economics of politics surely helps, but “follow the money” often leads only to further outrage. Knowing your allies and your enemies is the correct pathto follow here.
As always, the inequality trap hampers effective political action by many marginalized groups – by definition they are poor, with limited resources. The powerful will be able to muster far more resources, unless strength in numbers can overcome their advantage. It points to the vital importance of intersectionality for any decisive change in politics.
A sober look at the immediate future suggests things will get worse before they get better. But, if we survive, they will get better …

One thought on “Politics of Outrage

  1. Very interesting ! I would say that the last two federal elections in both our countries are good examples of the politics of outrage. Trump spent most of his time at his rallies egging on those who were upset by the presence of presence of people of colour, who they saw as interlopers. Trump egged on his supporters to get them to feel he was like them, in spite of their great wealth difference. Had he not done this, I suspect he wouldn't have been elected.In Canada, the outrage was over Stephen Harper's blatant racism, and Justin used it again to make the people feel he was like them, in spite of his having been a child of great wealth and privilege.Just my two cents, H

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