Is It Anger or Malaise?
July 7, 2023
Kevin Schulman, Founder, DonorVoice and DVCanvass
The mostly or even lightly satisfied lot is not where one’s likely to find the fuel for any movement, much less a populist one.
Populism is on the rise with varying flavors of left- and right-wing promotion of the “people” against the “elite”. The very nature of populism blaming others for negative situations screams anger as the rallying emotion. But is it?
It may be convenient to label Trump or Sanders voters as angry or “rage voters” but is it accurate?
A working paper from National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed unique, voter survey data from 2008 to 2017 examining the relationship between anger and the populist vote share across U.S. counties during 2016 primaries and the general.
The surface data finds a clear link between more angry counties more strongly preferring the populist candidates during the primaries and general.
But, that correlation goes away when giving other negative emotions and life satisfaction a chance to compete in the model explaining candidate choice.
Their conclusion? Malaise and gloom, not anger, drives the rise in populism.
More generally, the correlation between anger and other negative emotions is not that high. Anger is unique. For example, many people who feel worried do not feel angry, and vice versa.
In contrast to fear, shame or sadness, anger tends to be directed at a particular individual or group, and hence acts as a call to action against that specific target.
Emotions matter. And remember, nobody is voting for the populist candidate because they feel gloomy or angry. They are voting for that candidate because they want to feel not angry or not gloomy. Emotion is the goal, not the cause.