Catching My Anger: How Political Elites Create Angrier Citizens

Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211026972
Anger is a powerful political emotion. It can motivate
action (Lerner and Tiedens 2006), encourage partisan
behavior (MacKuen et al. 2010), and make individuals less
systematic in how they process information (Huddy,
Feldman, and Cassese 2007) and more directional in how
they interpret new stimuli (Weeks 2015). Anger is an espe-
cially common feature in twenty-first-century American
Politics. Politicians routinely use anger in their public
speeches (De Castella and McGarty 2011). It disseminates
across social media platforms more quickly than other
types of emotional statements (Fan et al. 2014), and each
new election cycle is considered the most negative in
recent memory (Geer 2012). Anger is perhaps the most
commonly felt emotions in politics (Mattes et al. 2018).
Why are Americans so angry? There are several pos-
sible explanations for the current level of vitriol in our
politics, including the alignment of our various, mutu-
ally re-enforcing social identities into “mega-identities”
(Huddy, Mason, and Aaroe 2015; Mason 2016), policy
differences between political parties (MacKuen et al.
2010), the fracturing of the media environment and rise
of the internet as a news source (Webster 2020), and the
re-emergence of racial attitudes as powerful drivers of
mass attitudes (Abramowitz and Webster 2018).
However, another possible explanation is that the public
responds to angry appeals from politicians who use
anger as part of a strategic effort to rally support among
their base.
While political science has focused a great deal of
attention on the intra-personal influence of emotions,
another pathway for emotions to be influential in politics
is through how they are spread through inter-personal
influence from one person to another (Van Kleef 2016),
especially downward from political elites to the mass
electorate. The idea that the electorate takes cues from
political elites when forming their own political opinions
and attitudes is not new (Lenz 2012). However, less
understood is the degree to which political elites can
directly influence the emotional state of the electorate
through their own emotional expressions.
Strategically, politicians derive a great deal of benefit
from having angry partisans. Indeed, anger makes peo-
ple more engaged in politics (Valentino et al. 2011;
Valentino, Gregorowicz, and Groenendyk 2009), and
using public displays of anger to rally the partisans in the
mass electorate can ensure that lawmakers have a united
and energetic base come the next election cycle. Building
from the theoretical concepts of affect linkage (Elfenbein
2014) and the idea that emotions play an important
26972PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211026972Political Research QuarterlyStapleton and Dawkins
1University of Colorado Boulder, USA
2United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Carey E. Stapleton, University of Colorado Boulder, Ketchum Hall,
333 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0333, USA.
Catching My Anger: How Political Elites
Create Angrier Citizens
Carey E. Stapleton1 and Ryan Dawkins2
Anger is a common feature in contemporary American politics. Through the process of affect linkage, we argue that
one way the electorate becomes angrier about politics is by observing angry displays from political elites. Affect linkage
occurs when a person’s emotional state of mind changes to match the emotions displayed by someone else. Using an
online experiment in which subjects are randomly exposed to an angry or unemotional debate between a Democrat
and Republican running for Congress, we show that exposure to an angry in-party politician significantly increases
the amount of anger, disgust, and outrage expressed by co-rank-and-file partisans. This increase in aversive emotions,
moreover, increases the likelihood that citizens report the intention to vote, and this affect linkage effect is most
pronounced in those who are most likely to stay home on election day: the weakest partisans. Interestingly, angry
rhetoric by political elites does not have any effect on out-partisans, suggesting that anger via emotional contagion
does not cross party lines.
emotion, anger, American politics, rhetoric, communication
2022, Vol. 75(3) 754–765

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