Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anger politics

I usually try to stay out of partisan politics on Houston Strategies, but this Wall Street Journal op-ed (subscription required) really resonated with me recently. I think politics in Houston tends to be a bit more civil than average, but this disturbing trend of "extreme rage politics" is even starting to pop up here from time to time on issues like rail and freeways (among others). Consider this my personal plea that we not follow national trends and redouble our efforts to preserve a respectful and civil political climate in Houston (as well as Texas as a whole, but that may be too much to ask the way this governor's race is shaping up).

Extreme Makeover

February 14, 2006; Page A22

The Republican National Committee chairman publicly criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton after a series of intemperate remarks on her part, saying she "seems to have a lot of anger." While it made the news, this was hardly an earth-shattering observation. The criticism was also ironic, given that anger has become a standard tool for both parties. In fact, overheated political rhetoric has become so ordinary that most of us don't even take it seriously.

But we should. When one party's chairman calls the other party "criminal" (as one actually did recently, and the other might before this page goes to press), he is hoping to pull people to the fringe where they will be reliable voters. There is some evidence that this tactic is working: The percentage of people willing to say they are "extremely liberal" or "extremely conservative" is higher than it has been in over 30 years. And the data tell us that the people with these strong views often display a disturbing lack of compassion and ethics in their personal relations. As such, angry politics may be spilling over into our broader culture.To begin with, there is abundant evidence that extreme political opinions lead to the personal demonization of fellow citizens. Consider, for example, how those on the far left and far right respond when asked for a zero-to-100 score of their feelings toward people with whom they disagree politically. Political scientists find that scores below 20 on these so-called "feeling thermometers" are very unusual -- except on the political fringes. Indeed, according to the 2004 National Election Study, one in five "extremely liberal" people gave conservatives a score of zero, a temperature you or I might reserve for Osama bin Laden. The same percentage of "extremely conservative" people gave liberals a zero.

Ironically, these angry folks tend to feel that they are more compassionate than others -- while their personal actions tell a different story. Take people on the far left. According to the General Social Surveys in 2002 and 2004, those who say they're "extremely liberal" are 20 percentage points more likely than moderates to say they feel concern for less fortunate people. But this doesn't appear to translate well to a deep concern for any individual: This group is also 20 points less likely than moderates to say they'd "endure all things for the one I love." To some, this might support the stereotype that the far left loves humanity -- but only in large groups.

Like extreme liberals, extreme conservatives are more compassionate in theory than in practice: They are slightly more likely than centrists to say they "feel protective of people who are taken advantage of." Unless, it seems, they are the ones taking advantage: It turns out they are substantially less likely than moderates to act honestly in small ways, such as returning change mistakenly given them by a cashier.

It may or may not be that extreme politics is by itself what makes a person angry and uncompassionate; but it certainly cannot be improving the situation. After all, the partisan political machine today is geared toward the destruction of opponents -- to convince us that the other side is not just misguided, but evil. Mounting evidence that adherence to extreme political attitudes correlates with a fundamental lack of compassion is not encouraging for the future of our civic culture, as long as rage is used as a political device.

For our political leaders, a bit of anger management would be in the public interest.

Mr. Brooks is a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs.


At 8:34 AM, February 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't it seem to that the whole notion of "extreme" has been a style for over a decade now... extreme sports, extreme politics, even extreme beverages (hey, I'm old enough to remember when the only thing extreme about Mountain Dew was its bad taste)? Being extreme has become an average, mainstream trait... ironic, eh?

At 5:53 PM, February 26, 2006, Blogger Gary said...

The main comments that the WSJ and the GOP were reacting to are words the GOP had been constantly using. The WSJ editorial pages is the last place I would look for lessons in moderation considering their venom during the Clinton years.

I always find it interesting the ways they equate two positions. That said, there was some attempt at balance in this column which is a rarity on their editorial pages in contrast to their well-respected news pages.

At 6:44 PM, February 26, 2006, Blogger Gary said...

Yes, I ignored your plea after considering the source you were using. This can be seen as an example that in this case the WSJ editorial page is right.


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