Anger has been the drug of choice for our political system for too long

Current ugliness in politics didn’t start with Trump, and it could get more dangerous even with him out of office

A Trump supporter shouts at counterprotesters at the Million MAGA March in Washington in November. There is plenty of blame to go around for the inflammatory state of our politics today, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A Trump supporter shouts at counterprotesters at the Million MAGA March in Washington in November. There is plenty of blame to go around for the inflammatory state of our politics today, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 10, 2021 at 6:00am

As the Senate takes up another Trump impeachment, anger has become the drug of choice in today’s overheated political environment. It’s infecting the country, dividing people and driving some into increasingly dangerous reactions to what they see, hear and read everyday on Facebook, cable news and YouTube. People are fed a steady diet of angry partisans spouting grievances, and if you don’t have a grievance, never fear, politicos and the media will create one for you.

But words have consequences. 

I remember the day Steve Scalise was shot in 2017 on a baseball field where he and some of his Republican colleagues were practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, a tradition that started at a time when Republicans and Democrats on the Hill actually got along.

A clearly disturbed person stalked Scalise and other Republicans, intent on killing as many as possible on the hit list he had put together. He almost succeeded. Had Scalise’s security detail not been there to protect him, it likely would have been the deadliest political assassination in our history. Mercifully, it never came to that, but it was close, just as the outcome of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot could have been far more catastrophic than it was.

The Scalise shooting sent shockwaves across Washington. Divisiveness stopped suddenly. Both parties came together. For a few weeks after, some felt that this time, it could be different. This could be a turning point in the deteriorating partisanship driving the anger across the country. A moment for the purveyors of hatred to step back before it was too late.

But it didn’t happen. Things went back to normal. Three years later, a bitter presidential campaign driven by ugly attack ads and even uglier social media activity culminated on Jan. 6 in what once would have been unthinkable, the breach of the Capitol.

Longtime problem

This didn’t start with the 2020 election. It has been years in the making. Whether you voted for Donald Trump or Joe Biden, don’t think this goes away because Trump is no longer in office. This was already in motion long before Trump came on the scene; and unless the system changes, it will continue to deteriorate and become even more dangerous.  

I don’t know why anyone should be surprised. When anger is the drug of choice in politics, when it takes a bigger and bigger hit to grab eyeballs and get attention, where else would we end up?

Voters are constantly being fed a diet of unhealthy content from a variety of sources — politicians, pundits, social media, Hollywood, campaign ads — and the news media perpetuates it all. And they all blame someone else for the country’s angry political environment that is becoming a threat to democracy.

The political consulting community, which produces the negative strategies and ads that are driving this division, need to look in a mirror and take stock of what they’ve done to the country. For decades, political ads from both sides have been designed to stoke emotion and anger and make money for those who produce them, whether they are effective or not. Just look at the millions of dollars in negative ads lobbed by Democratic consultants at Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. This was followed by Republican consultants’ negative ads against Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the Georgia Senate runoffs resulting in Democrats gaining the majority in the chamber.  

Positive messages or ads are usually treated as a waste of time and money by many consultants on both sides. They believe three things: Negative ads are easier to get funded, much easier to create and produce than positive messages, and the media loves attacks. All true, but if the country is to heal, that has to change.

Over time, like any addiction, you need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. Once upon a time, political discourse focused why your opponent’s policy was wrong. That evolved into “the policy is going to hurt the country.” Next came “my opponent is a bad person for proposing it.” But today, it’s “my opponent is a sociopath.” And the media feeds this kind of destructive behavior with airtime. 

Money talks

Funders in both parties have a responsibility here as well to demand a better accounting of what they’re really getting for their dollars. When a product loses share, maybe it’s time to rethink not just the product but how it’s being sold. 

Innovation is hard. Creativity is harder than boiler plate ads. But the market for positive messaging is almost nonexistent because funders like consultants have been indoctrinated by the same “negative ads work” dogma. Could something promoting good ideas get even a fraction of what was raised for “Stop the Steal” or The Lincoln Project?

The media doesn’t get a pass on where political discourse has taken us, either. 

Ultimately, today’s news media and social media make their money on conflict and catastrophe, and on anger too. Not by informing. Not by educating. Not by inspiring or even just reporting. Debate on cable has devolved into 20-second attacks between two self-righteous opponents that accomplish little save for perhaps attracting eyeballs. 

Media outlets today, with a few exceptions, want their audiences angry — the angrier the better — and focused on grievances, even to the point of manufacturing a grievance if you don’t have one. They think it’s good for business, seemingly missing the role they’re playing in stoking division and distrust.

We live in a political system that constantly stokes anger, taking it up a notch year after year and discouraging a focus on ideas and legislating. The players on all sides need to step back and examine their own conduct in a system that rewards the worst in politics as it divides us by class, geography, race, religion and education.

The system is blinking red.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.