Angry voters are stupid voters

That’s the thesis for today. I have a story to tell you—one of my very few polished performances as a teacher. [1] And there is some throat clearing to be done, 2016 being a presidential year and one of the angriest in my long political memory. And then, if everything works out, a rousing conclusion. We’ll see.

Throat Clearing

I don’t mean by the title to imply that anger is not perfectly appropriate in politics. Of course it is. It is a terrific motivator. Anger can get you up up our of your chair and off to a political meeting when all the rest of you would like to stay home and watch TV. Anger can get you to put your body on the line to protect some valued public right, aware that you are very likely going to get hurt today.

angry 1On the other hand, anger is like the first stage of a space shot. The booster rocket has no idea what the mission is; has no ability to guide the space craft; can not even orient the craft in the proper direction. That is not what it is for and it is no criticism of a booster rocket to say that it is dumb. It is strong; that is its job.

So anger, even in politics, is not a bad thing. On the other hand, anger is undiscriminating. If you have a policy outcome in mind, say reducing the rate of growth of the national debt or ensuring that every citizen is automatically registered to vote, you need to know which parties and which candidates and which policies will help you. Anger won’t do any of that for you so if angry is all you are as a voter, then stupid is all you are as a voter. [2]


Angry voters are looking for appropriate targets for their anger. That’s the good scenario. The guy who hears a political speech that makes him angry and then goes home to kick the dog is not after an “appropriate” target. Anger motivates punishment. I understand that. The question is always who is to be punished and how. From a policy standpoint, kicking the dog fails both of those tests notably.

angry 2I

I was teaching American government at Portland State University during and after the political era of the September 11 attacks. Quite a few of the students in my classes were angry and they favored “angry responses” to this assault on America. When we got to the chapter on foreign policy, these students were looking for policies that would express their anger.

That isn’t what I wanted them to want. I wanted them to survey the policy tools available to us and to choose the ones that would take our country in the direction they thought it should go. I think that is the job of citizenship and to the extent that political science is involved in citizenship training, asking those questions was my job.

I am not above helping students who think that military action is all that works choose what wars to use, when, and against whom. My idea as a teacher is that once you get students on the if/then train, [3] you can get them to pay attention to the outcomes of the policies they have chosen and the methods they have chosen and then they can really learn something. I do the same for students who think that military approaches are usually counterproductive and who prefer diplomatic approaches instead. If you can get them looking at “if I do this, then that will happen,” you have set them up to learn a great deal on their own.

So this particular year, probably 2002, I tried an experiment. I set up a target. Who, exactly, are the bad guys? I chose terrorist recruiters as my bad guys. They prey on young and poor people and get them to sacrifice their lives in order to kill others. They distort the truth; they deceive these impressionable young people about the true meaning of their sacrifice.  They prey on ignorance and poverty and despair.

Then I said that we should come up with a response that “will make their lives a living Hell.” They liked that. It promised a vehicle for their anger. Then I proposed a series of pretty standard liberal interventions around the world.

I proposed a series of agreements with heads of state where terrorist recruiters were known to be active. That one could have come straight out of George Kennan’s theories about “containing” Soviet aggression in the 1950s.

I proposed active anti-poverty measures in areas where there were many poor Muslim young people. If it was the poverty that made the promises of the terrorist recruiters attractive, we could get there first and when the recruiters showed up, the doors would be slammed in their faces. And it would serve them right!

I proposed the direct and indirect support for education for these young people. The more they can learn on their own, the less dependent they will be on what they are told. That included the education of women because recruitment could be shown to be less successful where women were included in the educational system.

I proposed active support for the regional economies where joblessness, not the same as poverty, made young people easy victims of the recruiters. The recruiters would, in effect, have to offer these young people “a better job than the one they had,” which they could not do. The standard counsel of despair and heroism, which comes so easily to the recruiters, would fall on deaf ears.

angry 4Conclusion: If the terrorist recruiters ever found out who hatched this plan, this series of programs that made their lives so awful, they would hate us (“us” would be me and the American government class, I guess) but we are willing to be judged by the punishment we inflicted on them and which they so richly deserved.

They loved it. For each program, I made a plausible argument that it would have a certain effect. Ordinarily, those programs come with liberal rationales, which would cause them to reject those programs. Here, they are seen as fit vehicles for their anger against terrorism—the recruiters, in this case—so they are all good ideas.


OK, that’s the story. That actually happened in several of my classes. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Is it really possible that these students will accept pretty much anything that they see as a way to express their anger? That’s what it looks like to me.

And it is on the basis of experiences like that that I say that voting angry is voting stupid. Anger is a terrific motivator. That’s what it is best at. But when you go to vote, the right questions to ask are consequential questions. What will happen if this person gets to be President? How are the policies that are being proposed being accepted by the crucial audiences? Congress, say? Or our most important allies? Are the policies that best express my anger clearly unconstitutional? Maybe that’s not a good idea.

So my idea is that it is fine for citizens to be as angry as they want to be, but I think we would all be better off if we thought before we voted and the thought I recommend most highly is this: What do I want to see happen to my country?

[1] I don’t like “polished performances” as a rule. It’s not that I can’t manage them; it’s more that the kind of teaching I like best doesn’t have much use for them. I like working with students to define the nature of the problem we have before us and assimilating the experiences that are right there in class within a coherent framework of thought. That’s what I like best.
[2] A lot of people confuse “stupid” with “uninformed.” That’s not what I mean at all. The ability of uninformed voters to vote “correctly,” i.e. for the people they would have voted for had they known a lot more than they do, is really amazing. See Samuel Popkin’s The Reasoning Voter for details.

[3]  If you have a goal, a positive goal, and not just an emotion, then at some point, you will have to say “if we choose this direction, then that will happen.”  When you get on that train, you learn a lot about what your preferences are, about who your allies are, and about how to proceed.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Angry voters are stupid voters

  1. hesskw says:

    Great post. What do you do about apathetic, dithering citizens? Karl >

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