Politics and Righteous Fury

Any person attempting to mobilize a group to achieve a collective goal soon finds a simple logic at work: People can be hard to motivate, especially where the individual costs are certain and the benefits are remote and speculative. How can a politician help to overcome this logic? A healthy dose of righteous zeal goes a long way. This, of course, is easier to cultivate where the problem is dire but simple, and the cause is clearly traceable to a recognizable enemy.

Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle gets this. In a recent article she responds to Warren Buffet’s claim that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s anger makes her less effective. McArdle disagrees:

Warren has a pretty clear agenda for American society, and she thinks that the best way to get that agenda enacted is to stir anger in the hearts of voters who see a lot of things gone wrong and figure that, well, someone must have done it to them, probably those folks over there who don’t seem to be suffering as much as the rest of us. I think her agenda is oversimplified paternalism combined with a touching naivete about the effects of regulation, but on tactics, I think she’s probably mostly right….

We want simple narratives, ones with clear villains and heroes and an obvious moral. We want clear solutions that can be described in no more than one minute, just right for a sound bite on the evening news. We want someone to hate, along with the reassurance that once those people are removed or controlled, all will be right with the world. And we happily pull the lever in the ballot box for the people who will deliver these things….

Which is not to say that Warren’s anger is strategic; I think she sincerely believes that she’s fighting some fearsome dragons. I think politics selects for people who see the world in black and white, then rage at all the darkness. I wish that weren’t the case, of course. But if you want to change it, don’t look to the politicians — look to the voters who elect them.

The article is short and worth reading in its entirety here. See also my discussion of one scholar’s seminal work on the nature and origins of mass opinion.

 

A.K.

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