Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Angry and Economically Vulnerable

For two hours over the weekend, the top video on YouTube was “The McCain-Palin Mob,” a rough-cut sequence of interviews with voters outside a political rally. These voters were angry about what they had heard — stories about a suspicious candidate who had materialized seemingly out of nowhere within the past year to take over their country by winning a national election. They were so angry they couldn’t think straight. More than a million people have watched this video on YouTube, and I believe many are watching to laugh at the inane things people can think when they are angry enough.

The anger the voters show in the video is not a reaction to anything anyone did to harm or threaten them, and it is not a random accident either. It is the result of a political campaign. This is something that has happened before. From time to time, candidates think they can manipulate voters by telling them stories that make them frightened and angry. But there is a serious flaw with this as a political strategy.

First of all, as others have commented recently, there is little evidence that anger gets people to vote. On the contrary, anger is a technique used, mostly by incumbents, to keep people from voting. It is a vote suppression technique. When voters are angry, they show their anger mainly by staying home on election day. As a candidate, if you tell people things to make them angry, the people who are most likely to not vote are the people who are paying the most attention to you. You are suppressing the vote of your own supporters. That is hardly a way to win a popular election.

But that is not the flaw I am referring to. There is a worse problem with anger as a political tool, especially right now. Angry people are economically vulnerable. With their diminished ability to separate fact from fantasy, it is very hard for them to adjust to changing economic circumstances. They have trouble making the changes that get the economy going again in a recession. If many people in any particular area are angry, the recession could hit harder and last longer there. And so a politician who uses a strategy of anger risks impoverishing her own supporters.

This fits with the distinction between energy and direction that I wrote about yesterday. The purpose of anger is to raise your energy — specifically to give yourself a boost of energy for a few minutes of physical combat. As I wrote yesterday, extra energy can compound the problems of a recession, which is caused in the first place by too much energy and the lack of a strong enough direction.

When you put together lots of people who have lots of angry energy and no coherent direction, what you have is a mob. That is what the video shows. If you watch it, it will remind you how hard it is for a mob to solve even the simplest problem. This is a time when we need to be empowering people to solve economic problems. Anger is not the right emotion to make that happen.