There are enough media reports, charts, predictions and opinions about the upcoming election to fill the Grand Canyon if all were squashed together and put into one big pile. I promised myself that those reading my column would not have to endure yet another election piece. However, an article I read online caught my eye and I couldn’t resist, so here goes.
You’ve no doubt noticed or experienced hostility brewing between family and friends the moment anything is mentioned about the election. It’s dividing households, friendships and extended families. Posters on social media can’t resist getting in a lick or two. Fighting for the TV remote has become a daily battle as couples sit down hoping for a quiet evening of TV fare and wind up zeroing in on CNN or Fox News and getting into yet another spat.
I wondered why people were so angry today because of the election, since I don’t recall any other time in my 70-plus years on Earth that there was so much discord, except that, even though my Dad loved politics, he occasionally yelled at the TV when results came in on election night. I was young; I just shrugged.
It turns out, courtesy of an article in Good Housekeeping, there’s an actual psychological reason why politics make us so angry. I’ll try and simplify the medical aspects contained in the article as best as I can to hopefully restore civility in the home.
Rather than coming out from nowhere, election anger is the result of a complex series of events in our brain. According to psychologists, our body’s default setting is calm and even-tempered, with the prefrontal cortex doing a huge job. This part of the brain controls intense emotions and impulses, is the carrier of empathy, and where we can see multiple sides of a situation.
When our brain detects stress — like when we get upset reading a news story or watching a political debate — it diverts oxygen and glucose from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala gland. This little gland plays a strong role in why we display emotions and why we behave the way we do. It has several brain functions, but its best known for its role in helping our bodies process fear and threats by initiating a fight-or-flight response to dangerous or threatening situations.
The adrenal glands then pump stress hormones to prepare our bodies to fight or run. These hormones make our hearts race, blood pressure increase, skin feel hot and muscles tense. Even if it’s just fighting with words, in a fight-flight mode, often it feels good to name call or hit below the belt because our physiology is telling us we’re threatened.
That powerful amygdala ensures that we react quickly to danger, but it doesn’t have the capacity to figure out if it’s a real threat or an imaginary one, such as simply reading a tweet (myself, I’d love to clip that little bluebird). It can’t assess the situation fully, and when the gland senses stress, empathy and perspective become lost in the shuffle.
The article went on to say that if this response sounds familiar, in 2019, 56% of U.S. adults said they were already stressed about the 2020 presidential election — up from 52% in 2016 — according to an annual survey by the American Psychological Association. The report also found that more than half of U.S. adults said they want to stay informed, but the news stresses them out. Surprisingly, the study broke it down by party affiliation: 71% of Democrats, 53% of independents and 48% of Republicans said the 2020 election is a major source of stress. And that’s as close as I’ll get to mentioning any party.
Another important point in the article was that although anger is super-common, it often stems from other emotions, such as fear and frustration. People are often afraid that something they have will be taken away; in political psychology, it’s known as "perceived deprivation." Frustration also may result in anger.
Experts say our political views have become more tightly wound into our identities than ever before, joining other identifiers, such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, job and location. Because political affiliation has become part of who we are, not just what we think, more aspects of our lives may feel politicized, and therefore challenges to our views may feel more personal.
It’s human nature to align with a group and root for our team to win. But our dislike and distrust of the other team is growing, too, and that’s where we have to learn to curb our emotions and accept the opinions of people who disagree with us.
Anger is a powerful political motivator. If we’re enraged, we’re more likely to be engaged — to donate money, canvass for a candidate and, hopefully, visit the voting booth. Political parties know this, which is why campaign ads, rallies and debates “go negative” to continually stoke those fiery feelings.
Psychologists suggest that when we’re feeling negative emotions, the best way to deal with those is to channel them into positive political behavior. Emotions help shape public opinion of an issue — and politicians respond to public opinion. So, if anger or other emotions are helping move public opinion in productive directions to a more just and more equal and free society, we can use anger and any other combination of emotions in ways that ultimately lead to a greater collective good.
To me, it basically comes down to one thing: respect each other’s opinion and be grateful that we live in a country where we are free to voice it.
Peg DeMarco is a Morganton resident who writes a weekly features column for The News Herald. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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