The Science Behind Political Rage

Design by Carson Leap

Lately, politics dominate every aspect of American life. People argue certain sides of politics are right and wrong or good and evil. By taking politics personally, people instigate their fight or flight response which raises blood pressure, anxiety levels and is generally unhealthy.

Political rage often stems from the “us vs. them” mentality. Laurie Johnson, director of the primary texts certificate at Kansas State, said humans are, by nature, tribal.

However, Johnson, author of Ideological Possession and the Rise of the New Right: The Political Thought of Carl Jung, Routledge 2019, blames the extremism of the “us vs. them” mindset on the economic conditions of the global economy. Since the latter is in a “bust,” and COVID-19 is preventing any positive action toward a booming economy, people feel insecure. Johnson said they worry their jobs will be taken by other groups, and they lose a sense of agency because they must rely on the government to keep them afloat.

Many people are fighting for and against more welfare programs now, particularly due to a lack of jobs and less business from COVID-19.  Johnson said many groups forget that in the 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, a historically conservative president, the marginal rate of taxes the wealthiest paid in America was 90 percent. Today, the top 1 percent pays around 23 percent of taxes.

Growing up, Johnson’s family had more available help from the government. She graduated with a Ph. D. in political science with no debt, and said there is no reason the United States cannot redistribute more wealth.

“If we don’t want chaos, if we don’t want to be a failed state, we need to do something,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s video available on YouTube, The Illiberal Right: What We’re Missing, discusses how urbanization and less focus on transcendence and spirituality causes people to lose their individuality and engage in herd mentality. With increased industrialization, citizens become more dependent on the captains and directors of businesses, and lose the ability to rely entirely on themselves.

Design by Carson Leap

Since the motivations of leaders in business are often related to the economy, individual lives begin to rely on the economy as well. Therefore, the state of the economy determines peoples’ sense of control and transforms into the “us vs. them” mentality during times of stress.

Donald Saucier, PhD of psychological sciences at K-State, said political rage stems from the fact that politics are naturally combative, and in order to win votes candidates inspire fear among voters. Often, candidates convince voters their opponent will be the wrong representative for the citizens. Doing so encourages polarization and partisan attitudes.

Saucier also believes social media plays a part in political rage.

“Social media allows people to attack others and allows them to express their rage safely,” he said. “Since social media interaction is not face to face, the indirect contact can remove humanity from interactions and allow political rage to reach extreme levels.”

Political rage and the “us vs. them” mentality present themselves in different ways. Saucier said there are different levels, with lower aggression coming out as trying to promote opinions or disparaging others. More insidious tactics are cyberbullying, stealing signs from yards and engaging in violent protests.

“Two things cause political rage,” he said. “One is the need to bond with others who have common experiences, who grew up the same way and believe the same things. The other part is the need for affiliation and to feel like we belong.” 

During election years, the need to bond with similar people and find affiliation is heightened. Election years also tend to increase the spread of misinformation. Maggie Billman, speaker pro-tempore for the K-State Student Government Association, said everyone relates to not knowing who or what to believe.

“Leaving home can be the first time for many to learn their beliefs and how they fit into society,” Billman said. Beliefs shape politics, which molds politics into a personal idea that people hold closely. Because of this, she said, arguments against peoples’ political beliefs can become harmful and feel like personal attacks.

“Having dialogue and constructive conversations can be difficult, so people do not engage because they do not want to offend others,” Billman said.

To avoid arguments about “us vs. them,” politics or other topics, Billman said student government members have a common understanding that they are there to help and represent the student body. Their main focus is action for students and not on personal beliefs. They are able to share information with one another. Doing so builds respect.

To overcome political rage, Billman suggests practicing respect, building relationships with diverse people, and having to ask for explanations and look for common understanding.

Johnson, however, said the key to diminishing political rage’s presence is to understand that economic insecurity is the cause of political rage, and fixing that insecurity is the key to reducing political rage’s impact.

In times of high stress due to political tension, Saucier said practicing self-care is vital. 

“Breathe. Settle down, make time for self-care. Do not check Twitter 24/7 or before bed,” he said. “Do what you can, like voting and sharing opinions with a healthy and respectful approach.”  

No matter your beliefs, Saucier hopes people can remain friends among political disagreements. 

Manhappenin' Magazine is Kansas State University's student-created lifestyle magazine.


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