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Moral outrage can be a healthy part of the American democratic process, motivating people to advocate for their beliefs and hold leaders accountable. The founding of the country, after all, is rooted in rebellion and a list of grievances outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
But top leaders are expressing worries about the dark side of outrage politics and how it is incentivized through structural factors in the media and in the political system.
In an Independence Day op-ed in The Atlantic, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) lamented that “carefully constructed, prejudice-confirming arguments from the usual gang of sophists, grifters, and truth-deniers” have led to America being in “denial” of serious threats.
“The phenomenon is basically the same on both sides. There’s always a wing that will never be happy, where you can never be liberal enough for them, or progressive enough for them. And on the right, never be right-wing enough for them,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said in an interview.
“They engage in grievance politics more than anything else. They self-victimize in very mysterious ways. And they use that self-victimization as a weapon to wield,” Crenshaw said.
To some, recent confrontations motivated by political outrage have gone too far.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), one of two Republicans on the House Jan. 6 select committee, has shared threatening letters and voicemails he’s received. Protesters gathered outside the homes of Supreme Court justices to protest the overturning of Roe v. Wade and then outside a D.C. steakhouse as conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh dined, prompting condemnation from the restaurant.
Humans may be wired to be attracted to outrage.
Mark Lenker, a librarian and assistant professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas who has written about political outrage, pointed to the philosopher Robert Solomon describing anger as being an energizing experience.
“In the case of politics, and moral issues, it gets tinged and heightened with moral expectations. So not only do I move from being a victim to being the accuser, but it’s more like I moved from being the victim to being the judge of your actions, and there’s more power in that,” Lenker said.
Other systems then build on capitalizing on moral outrage.
Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University and co-author of “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility,” said that technological and market changes have increased political outrage in the media.
Americans used to listen to the radio for music, but the advent of CDs and digital music prompted a shift toward talk radio and the creation of conservative talk radio giants such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.
Before the advent of cable and satellite television, networks would need to partner with hundreds of local affiliates across the country to get a national audience, incentivizing them to appeal to the widest audience possible. A cable network, on the other hand, does not have that structural hurdle and can be profitable by appealing to a smaller audience.
“Outrage is a business and it’s feeding a product. It’s supplying a product to people who want to be angry, and want to be even more angry about politics,” Berry said.
The advancement of social media since his book’s 2014 publication has further increased political outrage, Berry said.
Major technology platforms have taken steps in recent years to try to combat the spread of false information on their platforms. But according to a Yale University study released last year, incentives such as “likes” and “shares” on social media amplified expressions of outrage over time.
“The mere existence of social media — it makes very fringe ideas seem much more mainstream than they really are,” Crenshaw said.
Crenshaw noted that political fundraising also incentivizes weaponizing outrage, which targets the most passionate individuals who are likely to donate.
Republicans regularly paint opponents as “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — when campaigning and fundraising.
Missouri GOP Senate candidate Eric Greitens garnered criticism after he released a video last month encouraging supporters to order a “RINO hunting permit” and showed him breaking into a house with a firearm.
Democrats capitalize on outrage for fundraising purposes too.
Marcus Flowers, the Democratic nominee in the race against Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R) is not expected to win the 14th Congressional District in Georgia. But by targeting those outraged by Greene’s comments and promising to counter her, he is raking in small-dollar donations.
Flowers raised $8.2 million as of March 31 — the most of any non-incumbent candidate and the 11th-highest amount of all House candidates, Federal Election Commission data shows. More than $2.6 million of that has gone to the consulting firm Blue Chip Strategies.
Beyond fundraising, the dominance of America’s two-party system and the primary system, with gerrymandering creating more polarized districts, also can incentivize outrage.
“Grifting” candidates, Crenshaw said, “will do whatever their 24-year-old consultant tells them to do if they think it’ll get them that key 10,000 votes out of the district of 750,000 that can deliver them a primary, because normal people just don’t get out and vote anymore.”
“There’s an obvious problem with the redder a district gets, the bluer a district gets, when the only people that representatives have to talk to are primary voters — now you’re obviously going to get that kind of populist pandering,” Crenshaw said.
Berry cautioned against equivocating outrage with ideology but acknowledged the impact of primary voters.
“Every politician is a bit of a marketing scientist. And they’re very aware of what their base wants,” Berry said. “So there’s a real structural element in terms of American party politics, that contributes to the success of outrage, and that is the party primary.”
Those that can identify factors that foster outrage in politics, though, have few suggestions for remedies.
“My message to voters always is stop falling for it,” Crenshaw said. “These people are here to lie to you, and get more sides to lose whatever side you’re on, they want you to lose, because that’s how they get their clicks. That’s how they get their engagement and that’s ultimately how they make money.”
It can be difficult to strike the right balance on outrage, Berry said.
“We want to live in a society where there’s protest, and we want to live in a society where people have the right to use outrage. What we would like to do, though, is live in a society where there are some boundaries and some norms of civility. So even if you’re animated and passionate and angry, you still don’t do things that are disruptive to the whole system, in politics in general,” Berry said.