Enraged and Engaged? Emotions as Motives for Discussing Politics

AuthorJennifer Wolak,Anand Edward Sokhey
Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211042288
Thomas Stossel and Kerry Maguire make up one of the 30%
of American couples who are married to a partner who does
not share the same partisanship (Hersh & Ghitza, 2018). In
2012, they expressed their partisan differences with compet-
ing front yard political signs for Barack Obama and Mitt
Romney. In 2016, their partisan differences deepened, and
Maguire issued an ultimatum to her husband: “If you vote for
Trump, I will divorce you and move to Canada” (Pappu,
2016). When informed that her husband was still thinking
about voting Republican, Maguire responded that she hopes
that he never tells her that. “I would just be disgusted on
every level. And also a little fearful” (Pappu, 2016).
Emotions ran high during the 2016 presidential race. The
contest featured two candidates who drew the most negative
evaluations of any presidential contenders since such poll
questions have been asked (Collins, 2016; Saad, 2016). This
acrimony and negativity entered people’s social lives, for the
battles of campaigns take place not just on television news
and debate stages, but also in backyards, at dinner tables, and
in office breakrooms. We are interested in how these height-
ened emotions inform people’s approach to political conver-
sations with their family, co-workers, friends, and
acquaintances. We explore the relationship between feelings
of enthusiasm, anger, anxiety, and embarrassment and peo-
ple’s discussions about politics within their core social net-
works. We first consider whether the emotions people
experience in politics are associated with an eagerness to
start political conversations, or instead a tendency to avoid
politics. We then consider how emotional reactions to
politics connect with who people choose to talk to about
politics and current events. When people are feeling angry or
anxious about politics, do they talk to sympathetic friends or
instead confront and challenge their partisan foes?
Drawing on items included in the 2016 Cooperative
Congressional Election Study, we find that the emotions peo-
ple experienced during the presidential campaign were more
likely to be associated with more political conversations rather
than fewer. Feelings of enthusiasm are associated with an
enjoyment of political discussion and a desire to share political
views on social media. We also find that anger is strongly
related to political talk. When people are feeling angry about
politics, they are more likely to say that they enjoy discussing
politics and they are more likely to engage in political expres-
sion both in-person and on social media. While those who feel
anxious are less likely to say that they enjoy conversations
about politics, feelings of anxiety do not seem associated with
lower participation in political discussion.
While the 2016 presidential race was seen as exception-
ally negative in tone by most observers, we find that this
negativity contributes to different patterns of political talk
depending on the kinds of negative emotions experienced.
APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211042288American Politics ResearchWolak and Sokhey
1Michigan State University, USA
2University of Colorado at Boulder, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer Wolak, Michigan State University, 303 South Kedzie Hall, 368
Farm Lane, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
Email: wolakjen@msu.edu
Enraged and Engaged? Emotions as
Motives for Discussing Politics
Jennifer Wolak1 and Anand Edward Sokhey2
The 2016 presidential campaign made some feel angry, while others felt anxious, embarrassed, or enthusiastic. We explore
how these emotions relate to patterns of political talk within informal conversation networks. Using items from the 2016
Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we link emotional reactions to rates of conversation, interest in political talk,
and exposure to disagreeable viewpoints. Rather than deterring people from contentious conversations, we find that the
heightened emotions are associated with greater engagement in political talk. Those who feel angry do not confront their
opponents. Instead, they avoid conversations with those who do not share their views, where anger is tied to partisan
patterns of political discussion. Feelings of embarrassment have the opposite relationship, as those who felt embarrassed
during the campaign were more likely to discuss politics with those with contrary views. These results inform when and how
people engage in political talk.
emotions, political discussion, political talk, anger, embarrassment
2022, Vol. 50(2) 186 –198

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