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Political Anger and Division

October 10, 2022
Steven W. Webster, Elizabeth C. Connors, and Betsy Sinclair


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Steven Webster, an assistant professor at Indiana University, Elizabeth Connors, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, and Betsy Sinclair, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, analyze how anger affects the U.S. political divide and polarization. 

Americans are politically divided on numerous issues. From abortion access to attitudes on gun control to COVID-19 precautions, Democrats and Republicans stake out different positions. Yet, despite these differences, there is one thing that unites those on either side of the partisan divide: anger. Republicans fume over inflation and lies about stolen elections; Democrats focus their ire on the legitimacy of political institutions and the Republican Party’s adherence to former President Donald Trump.

Anger, of course, is neither universally harmful nor undesirable. Americans who are angry are more likely to participate in politics and donate to causes about which they are passionate. However, left unchecked, anger can lead to behavioral and attitudinal biases that harm our politics and poison our social fabric.

Recent evidence suggests that political divisions are ripping apart Americans’ social ties. Polling conducted by YouGov shortly before the 2020 presidential election found that the percentage of Americans who reported having no friends whose political beliefs differed from their own increased tremendously since 2016. Similarly, the YouGov poll found that “[n]one of the political parties have grown more likely to share camaraderie with those who do not hold similar opinions.”

What is driving this trend towards fewer cross-partisan relationships? Our research, recently published in The Journal of Politics, finds that political anger is partly to blame. When Democrats and Republicans are angry at each other, they socially polarize across a range of settings. This, in turn, produces an increasingly fragmented country and a weakened democracy.

To understand how political anger affects Americans’ social behavior, we ran a survey experiment on approximately 3,500 US citizens. We randomly assigned self-identifying Democrats and Republicans into either a treatment or a control group. Our treatment group asked respondents to “write about a time [they] were very angry with the opposing political party.” This technique, known as “emotional recall,” works by causing individuals to temporarily re-experience a given emotion—in this case, anger. Our control group was asked to write about what they ate for breakfast that morning.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.