1992 was the “Year of the Woman.” 1996 introduced “soccer moms” into the American lexicon. 2004 brought us “NASCAR dads.” 2016 will likely go down in history as “Year of the Angry Voter.”
In a March 2016 Pew Center poll, more than eight of ten registered voters said they were dissatisfied with the federal government—59% of respondents said they were frustrated, and another 22% described themselves as angry.
The results of the 2016 presidential primaries confirmed what polling data suggest—many voters are frustrated with Washington, angry with politics as usual, and demanding change. The primaries were incredibly contentious, and the general election looks like it will be more of the same. The temperature on the campaign trail is well past the boiling point. Insults are flying, and the tone is harsh. Pride and ego are center stage. Careful and meaningful dialogue has been pushed aside.
And it’s not just the candidates. The American people are playing along. We need only look at our Facebook or Twitter feeds to see legions of examples of hateful rhetoric and angry retorts.
The Goals of Political Communication
Why does politics seem to incite such anger? Why do political discussions so quickly degenerate to shouting matches or worse?
Part of the problem stems from the nature of political communication. Typically, it has two functions: (1) communicating ideas to help inform and educate, and (2) securing support for a candidate or issue. Both goals are important, but the concern for clear and forthright communication can easily get lost in the midst of political battles, especially if they grow heated.
“Distortion and lies may be commonplace, and politicians and pundits like to prey on people’s fears, but we don’t have to take the bait.”
More complicating yet, many political discussions are designed to upset people and prey on fears. Nothing gets people more excited about an election or draws money to political causes than manipulation, anger, and fear. Exaggerating and distorting the facts works well to make political points or entertain an audience. Boastful and arrogant tones capture attention. As a result, we rarely hear positive messages; most of the content is negative.
The Toxic Media Environment
Although many factors contribute to problems with political discourse, the media environment clearly plays a significant role. News is available all of the time, whenever you want it (or even if you don’t), on cable channels and the Internet.
Yet, it really wasn’t that long ago that broadcast news was relegated to a single evening newscast—first 15 minutes long and later expanded to 30 minutes. But in the modern media age, we have access to news and current events 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The lines between entertainment, news, and advertising often blur together, and people have seemingly limitless outlets in which to express their opinions on what is happening quickly and without need to base these opinions on truth.
Social media amplifies these tendencies. People routinely express outrage, call others to arms, and demand loyalties on a wide range of issues. Sometimes such rants are based in truth; but many times they are widely distorted.
A Different Path to Political Debates
Distortion and lies may be commonplace, and politicians and pundits like to prey on people’s fears, but we don’t have to take the bait. It is important to test what we hear and read, check the facts, and do so with an open mind. Instead of contributing to the problem by spreading rumors, we can seek and share the truth.
Many tools and websites can help check facts. The Pulitzer-prize winning website Politifact tests the claims in political speeches and ads and rates them on a scale from “true,” “mostly true,” all the way to “false” and “pants on fire” (for the most outrageous lies). Factcheck.org also tests political claims, encouraging readers to submit questions for them to research.
We can also think carefully about how we contribute to political debates. The epistle of James reminds us of the dangers of the tongue and the importance of speech, offering a powerful warning to heed as we read and talk about politics:
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)
As we communicate about politics, we should be much quicker to listen, much slower to speak, and much slower to anger—in person and on social media.
Dealing with Peer Pressure in Politics
Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs reflects on the odd and powerful peer pressure that draws many of us into the middle of ideological storms, reminds his readers that they don’t have to speak into the latest controversy on social media, defends decisions to leave formats entirely, and offers alternative ways of thinking about social media. Consider a few of his suggestions:
- “I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.”
- “If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.”
- “Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.”
Voter Anger, Humility, and Prayer
Given the current state of American politics, Christians have great opportunities to model a different style of political communication. When political debates grow intense and anger rises, we need not respond in kind. Instead, we can make every effort not to incite more anger. At times, this may require refusing to speak or respond at all, at least until tempers recede.
When we do choose to respond, we can critique issue positions, individual candidates, and even the system itself with a proper sense of humility. When debates are framed in terms of personal gains or losses, we can reorient the discussion toward broader questions of political justice, asking what biblical values are at stake and what paths are most likely to serve the common good.
We can offer a quieter, less emotionally-charged counterpoint, presenting our arguments with respect and care. We can also take time to learn about political controversies before commenting on them, checking details with multiple sources and considering a range of viewpoints. Most importantly, we should commit the election, our political system, and all those participating in it to prayer.
Voter dissatisfaction has been growing for decades, and the underlying problems that have led to such anger will not be easily solved. But we can chart a different path in how we respond, modeling humbler and more informed political communication.