Anger and Declining Trust in Government in the American Electorate

Abstract

Partisanship in the United States in the contemporary era is largely characterized by feelings of anger and negativity. While the behavioral consequences of this new style of partisanship have been explored at some length, less is known about how the anger that is at the root of this growing partisan antipathy affects Americans’ views of the national government. In this paper, I utilize data from the 2012 American National Election Studies to show that higher levels of anger are associated with a greater level of distrust in government across a variety of metrics. I then present evidence from a survey experiment on a national sample of registered voters to show that anger has a causal effect in reducing citizens’ trust in government. Importantly, I find that anger is able to affect an individual’s views of the national government even when it is aroused through apolitical means. I also find that merely prompting individuals to think about politics is sufficient to arouse angry emotions. In total, the results suggest that anger and politics are closely intertwined, and that anger plays a broad and powerful role in shaping how Americans view their governing institutions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Forgas and Moylan’s (1987) movies with a happy valence were Beverly Hills Cop, Police Academy 2, Back to the Future, and Brewster’s Millions. Their movies with a sad valence were Dance with a Stranger, Mask, Birdy, and Killing Fields. Their movies with an aggressive valence were First Blood, Rambo, Mad Max 2, and Mad Max 3.

  2. 2.

    In these calculations, respondents identifying as an independent who lean toward one of the two major parties were classified as a partisan.

  3. 3.

    See https://www.census.gov/2010census/data/ for more demographic information from the 2010 U.S. Census.

  4. 4.

    The full range of possible responses are “never,” “some of the time,” “about half the time,” “most of the time,” and “always.”

  5. 5.

    It is important to note that the questions used to create these measures are the second part of a branching item in the 2012 ANES. The first question in the two-item series asks individuals whether they ever reported feeling angry at the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate. Only those individuals who answered “yes” are branched into this second question that reports the frequency of anger. As a robustness check, I also analyzed the models with the first question of the branch as the key independent variable. This question simply asks whether the respondent ever reported feeling angry at the Democratic (or Republican) presidential candidate. The results are robust to this change.

  6. 6.

    The models with standardized coefficients are available upon request.

  7. 7.

    In column one, the standardized anger coefficient is 61% of the size of the standardized partisanship coefficient; in the second column, it is 93% of the size; in the third, it is 62%.

  8. 8.

    Individuals who identify as either a “strong Democrat” or a “strong Republican” are classified as strong partisans.

  9. 9.

    These models can be found in the Appendix.

  10. 10.

    Such an approach is not the only way to alter individuals’ emotional states. Lab experiments facilitate a wider range of experimental manipulations—such as games or human interactions—but are impractical within the context of a survey experiment. For an excellent overview of “how to push someone’s buttons,” see Lobbestael et al. (2008).

  11. 11.

    Adding a series of control variables to a model that is estimated on experimental data accomplishes two things: first, given that the coefficients change very little between the unconditional and the conditional models, we can have a high degree of confidence that the randomization process worked as intended; and, second, it helps alleviate any infelicities that might have occurred during randomization.

  12. 12.

    While different treatment wordings were both able to successfully induce anger in survey participants, there is no statistically significant difference between the “anger” coefficient and the “anger about politics” coefficient.

  13. 13.

    For more information on how words are indicative of personality and emotional states, see Allport and Odbert’s (1936) discussion of the “lexical hypothesis.”

  14. 14.

    A density plot of angry words and negative emotional words by treatment status can be found in the Appendix.

  15. 15.

    Indeed, it is possible to imagine that individuals could either become inspired by thinking about politics (and so write from a positive emotional standpoint) or become upset or outraged by thinking about politics (and so write from a negative emotional standpoint).

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Acknowledgements

I thank Adam Glynn, Alan Abramowitz, Gregory Martin, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. Any errors are my own. Replication materials are available at http://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/3DPSFR.

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Correspondence to Steven W. Webster.

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Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Appendices

Appendix 1

See Fig. 1 and Tables 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.

Fig. 1
figure1

These figures show the distribution of angry words and negative emotional words that individuals used in their emotional recall responses, by treatment status. Note that, in order to facilitate a cleaner graphical presentation, the top 5% of responses in the right-hand tail of the distribution have been removed from each subfigure. a Percent angry words in text, b percent negative emotional words in text

Table 6 Summary statistics of 2012 ANES data
Table 7 Summary statistics of experimental data
Table 8 Regression estimates of trust in government (ordered logit)
Table 9 Regression estimates of trust in government, additional dependent variables
Table 10 Regression estimates of trust in government, accounting for strength of partisanship (standardized)
Table 11 Regression estimates of trust in government among democrats
Table 12 Regression estimates of trust in government, with generalized measures of anger and alternative dependent variables

Appendix 2: Survey Questions

  1. 1.

    In what year were you born?

  2. 2.

    Are you male or female?

  3. 3.

    Which of the following race or ethnic groups do you most identify with?

    • White, non-Hispanic

    • Black, non-Hispanic

    • Asian, native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander

    • Native American

    • Hispanic

    • Other

  4. 4.

    What is your highest level of educational attainment?

    • High school graduate or G.E.D.

    • Some college but no degree

    • Associates degree

    • Bachelor’s degree

    • Post-graduate degree

    • Professional degree

  5. 5.

    Where would you place yourself on the following party identification scale?

    1. (a)

      Strong Democrat

    2. (b)

      Weak Democrat

    3. (c)

      Independent but lean Democrat

    4. (d)

      Completely Independent

    5. (e)

      Independent but lean Republican

    6. (f)

      Weak Republican

    7. (g)

      Strong Republican

  6. 6.

    Where would you rate yourself on the following political ideology scale?

    1. (a)

      Very liberal

    2. (b)

      Liberal

    3. (c)

      Slightly liberal

    4. (d)

      Moderate; middle of the road

    5. (e)

      Slightly conservative

    6. (f)

      Conservative

    7. (g)

      Very conservative

  7. 7.

    Thinking back over the last year, what was your family’s annual income?

    • Less than $10,000

    • $10,000–$19,999

    • $20,000–$29,999

    • $30,000–$39,999

    • $40,000–$49,999

    • $50,000–$59,999

    • $60,000–$69,999

    • $70,000–$79,999

    • $80,000–$89,999

    • $90,000–$99,999

    • $100,000–$124,999

    • $125,000–$149,999

    • $150,000–$174,999

    • $175,000–$199,999

    • $200,000–$249,999

    • $250,000+

    • Prefer not to say

  8. 8.

    How important is religion in your life?

    • Very important

    • Somewhat important

    • Not too important

    • Not at all

  9. 9.

    Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services?

    • More than once a week

    • Once a week

    • Once or twice a month

    • A few times a year

    • Seldom

    • Never

  10. 10.

    What is your present religion, if any?

    • Protestant

    • Roman Catholic

    • Mormon

    • Jewish

    • Muslim

    • Buddhist

    • Hindu

    • Atheist

    • Agnostic

    • Something else

  11. 11.

    Did you vote in the 2016 presidential primary?

  12. 12.

    Even if you did not vote in a primary or caucus, which candidate did you support?

  13. 13.

    How many days per week do you talk to your neighbors or friends about politics?

  14. 14.

    Have you canvassed on behalf of a candidate during this election cycle?

  15. 15.

    Have you displayed a yard sign for a candidate during this election cycle?

  16. 16.

    Have you attempted to influence another person’s vote choice during this election cycle?

  17. 17.

    Have you donated money to a candidate or political campaign during this election cycle?

  18. 18.

    If you have donated to a candidate or political campaign during this election cycle, approximately how much money did you donate?

  19. 19.

    Which of the following best represents your view on abortion?

    • By law, abortion should never be permitted.

    • The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger.

    • The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established.

    • By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.

  20. 20.

    At present, anyone born in the United States is a citizen. Should the United States government deny automatic citizenship to American-born children of illegal immigrants?

    • Yes

    • No

    • I have no opinion on this issue

  21. 21.

    Do you favor or oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally?

    • Favor

    • Oppose

    • Oppose same-sex marriage but support civil unions

  22. 22.

    Affirmative action programs give preference to racial minorities in employment and college admissions in order to correct for past discrimination. Do you support or oppose affirmative action?

    • Strongly support

    • Somewhat support

    • Undecided

    • Somewhat oppose

    • Strongly oppose

  23. 23.

    In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be…

    • More strict

    • Less strict

    • Kept as they are

  24. 24.

    From what you know about global climate change or global warming, which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion?

    • Global climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action is necessary.

    • There is enough evidence that climate change is taking place and some action should be taken.

    • We don’t know enough about global climate change, and more research is necessary before we take any actions.

    • Concern about global climate change is exaggerated. No action is necessary.

    • Global climate change is not occurring; this is not a real issue.

Please indicate, according to the following scale, how accurate each of these statements are as a description of yourself.

1 = very inaccurate; 2 = moderately inaccurate; 3 = neither inaccurate nor accurate; 4 = moderately accurate; 5 = very accurate.

I …

  1. 1.

    Worry about things.

  2. 2.

    Fear for the worst.

  3. 3.

    Am afraid of many things.

  4. 4.

    Get stressed out easily.

  5. 5.

    Get caught up in my problems.

  6. 6.

    Am not easily bothered by things.

  7. 7.

    Am relaxed most of the time.

  8. 8.

    Am not easily disturbed by events.

  9. 9.

    Don’t worry about things that have already happened.

  10. 10.

    Adapt easily to new situations.

  11. 11.

    Get angry easily.

  12. 12.

    Get irritated easily.

  13. 13.

    Get upset easily.

  14. 14.

    Am often in a bad mood.

  15. 15.

    Lose my temper.

  16. 16.

    Rarely get irritated.

  17. 17.

    Seldom get mad.

  18. 18.

    Am not easily annoyed.

  19. 19.

    Keep my cool.

  20. 20.

    Rarely complain.

Please indicate how well the following statements describe yourself on the following scale:

0 = disagree strongly; 1 = disagree moderately; 2 = disagree a little; 3 = neither agree nor disagree; 4 = agree a little; 5 = agree moderately; 6 = agree strongly.

I see myself as:

  1. 1.

    Extraverted, enthusiastic.

  2. 2.

    Critical, quarrelsome.

  3. 3.

    Dependable, self-disciplined.

  4. 4.

    Anxious, easily upset.

  5. 5.

    Open to new experiences, complex.

  6. 6.

    Reserved, quiet.

  7. 7.

    Sympathetic, warm.

  8. 8.

    Disorganized, careless.

  9. 9.

    Calm, emotionally stable.

  10. 10.

    Conventional, uncreative.

Appendix 3: Experimental Manipulation

Anger Treatment Please write a short paragraph about a time you felt very angry. Be sure to describe precisely how this experience made you feel.

Anger + Salience Treatment Please write a short paragraph about a time you felt very angry about politics. Be sure to describe precisely how this experience made you feel.

Salience Treatment Please write a short paragraph about a time you thought about politics. Be sure to describe precisely how this experience made you feel.

Control Please write a short paragraph about what you ate for breakfast this morning. Be sure to describe precisely how this experience made you feel.

Appendix 4: Post-experiment Survey

  1. 1.

    How important is it that your party’s nominee be willing to compromise versus maintain their convictions when dealing with members of the other party?

    • Not at all important

    • Not very important

    • Somewhat important

    • Important

    • Very important

  2. 2.

    How much do you think the political problems facing our country today can be blamed on the opposing political party?

    • Not at all

    • Not very much

    • A little bit

    • A lot

    • Completely

  3. 3.

    On a 0–10 scale, where zero indicates “not at all” and ten represents “completely agree,” how much do you agree with the following statement: The national government is relatively corrupt and uncommitted to serving the public interest.

  4. 4.

    On a 0–10 scale, where zero indicates “not at all” and ten represents “completely agree,” how much do you agree with the following statement: The national government is unresponsive to the concerns and interests of the public.

  5. 5.

    On a 0–10 scale, where zero indicates “not at all satisfied” and ten represents “completely satisfied,” how much do you agree with the following statement: I am satisfied with the policies and actions of the national government.

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Webster, S.W. Anger and Declining Trust in Government in the American Electorate. Polit Behav 40, 933–964 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-017-9431-7

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Keywords

  • Anger
  • Trust in government
  • Partisanship