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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Political Crossfire: Understanding Democratic Anger in America

Updated: Apr 1

Anger from the left has been boiling over. But do Democrats really hate America?



  • Many Democrats are angry about what they see happening in America, but this doesn't mean they hate America.

  • Conservatives express a lot of angry about what they see happening in America as well.

  • Democrats and Republicans tend to hold some different values regarding what is "good" and "right" for America.

  • When each side views the other side with anger and contempt, these United States are in trouble. Collectively, we need to find a better way.

Our perception that politics in America have grown more polarized in recent decades, unfortunately, is fairly accurate. The anger and vitriol seems to be at toxic levels. In recent weeks, rage over decades (centuries?) of racism and discrimination has resulted into protests across America and worldwide.

The most recent catalyst for the outbreak of protests is George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Black Lives Matter might be the largest movement in U.S. history. All of this occurring under the gloom of a global pandemic.

Much of this anger, as of late, has been from the left. Some of this righteous anger, in the form of "wokism" and the "cancel culture," might be inadvertently contributing to a backlash from the right. In response to some of the anger and protests from the left, some conservatives, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have gone as far as saying that today's Democratic leaders "despise this country" and, consequently, are unfit to be in leadership roles. While I'm sure that there are some extremists in America who do indeed hate our country, let's keep this discussion focused on the more typical American Democrat (or person who is more liberal or on the "left"). Is it true that they really hate America?

Does Anger Mean Hate?

First, let's not conflate "anger" with "hate." One can be angry without hating, and our own experience tells us this is true. Think of the times that you've been really angry with your partner, parent, close friend, or child. Did your anger mean that you hated them? Of course not! Just as you can love someone and be angry at them, one can love one's country and be angry at aspects of it too.

Similarly, we can even dislike aspects of a person we love (e.g., the way he smacks his food when he eats). Granted, there is so much anger in many liberals right now that it might appear that many of them do indeed hate America. But just as those we love can hurt us most, consider that the level of anger that many liberals feel is a reflection of the pain and hurt underneath it.

People on the Right Become Critical and Angry Too

Clearly, it's not just people on the left who get angry at our political leaders, laws, and policies. People on the right can be very critical and protest too, often in anger. Some examples include protesting requirements to wear masks, for gun rights, and banning abortions. There are people on the extreme right who despise the IRS, CIA, FBI, and the federal government in general. Yet, we shouldn't claim that these people hate America ... right?

Let's imagine that Hillary Clinton had become president. Many (most?) conservatives would likely be extremely upset by this and criticizing her and almost every aspect of her administration. "A liberal Supreme Court justice nominated to replace a retiring conservative one? OMG, she's awful!" The hosts at Fox News would practically be frothing at the mouth, just as the CNN and MSNBC news anchors do now about Trump and his administration. Further, we can imagine if President Hillary Clinton were restricting access to firearms and fending off abortion restrictions, there would be many angry protests from the right, to say the least.

How Conservatives and Liberals Are Alike

People on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum get angry and protest. Each side thinks they are right and the other side is wrong. Both sides vilify the other and engage in a type of fear-mongering. "Don't let the other side win, or they will destroy America!" In an odd way, this makes conservatives and liberals the same, not different. The difference is what elicits fear and anger in each side. There is some truth to the idea that both the right and the left hate the version of America that the other side wants us to be.

Viewing Our Differences Through the Lens of Moral Foundations Theory

While we all like to think of ourselves as objective, we all are subject to many biases that shape our views and opinions. This comes into particular play in our moral values and judgments. According to social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt and colleagues' Moral Foundations Theory, conservatives and liberals' evaluations of good/bad and right/wrong are influenced by how these different foundations are weighted.

Liberals tend to evaluate morality based more on the foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression whereas conservatives also include the foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Most of this is subconscious, but it can result in liberals and conservatives almost speaking different languages when it comes to their moral reasoning. Each side looks at the other and thinks, "Why do you not see this? What is wrong with you that you don't get this?" (You can read more about this in Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion).

The killing of George Floyd by police officers activated all three of liberals' primary moral foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression quite strongly. From the left's perspective, their righteous anger in the forms of protests and demands for change are warranted to correct wrongs in society and our politics. Many on the left were already quite angry about the Trump presidency for denigrating the values that many liberals hold dear (e.g., treatment of refugees, immigrants, and the poor, minority/LBGTQ rights, the environment).

Similarly, conservatives become quite upset when liberals act in ways that subvert the three other moral foundations: disloyalty to America, disrespecting authority, and dishonoring the sanctity of America. In many countries, and historically, one would be imprisoned or executed for merely criticizing the government. As a recent example, protesters in Hong Kong experienced China's crackdown firsthand. What a great country we have that we can (peacefully) protest our own government!

Numerous conservatives look at people on the left and think, "What is their major malfunction? What a bunch of ungrateful complainers! How dare they be so critical of our great nation!" Agree with them or not, many conservatives find it almost heretical for liberals to be so critical of America, especially when it comes to the removal of statues, monuments, and renaming roads and buildings (there's that "sanctity" moral foundation coming into play).

Can We Find Some Common Ground?

People don't fit into discreet categories and, if we stop vilifying one another long enough, perhaps we can each see a little bit from one another's perspective. We get so polarized that we often don't listen to one another, which might be considered a form of switchtracking. We are too busy telling the other side how and why they are wrong instead of listening a bit to one another to try to find some common ground.

Conservatives are correct in that, taking a broad perspective, there are many wonderful things about America. We have done a lot "right." We are founded on lofty principles that all people have the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are a world leader in so many areas—the arts, sciences, medicine, and technology. American ingenuity, allowed to flourish in our fertile economic and political conditions, is responsible for inventions such as the electric light, the airplane, cellphones, and personal computers.

We helped win World Wars I and II. We put the first human beings on the moon. In many respects, we should all be thankful that we live here and not in some more oppressive country like North Korea or, even more broadly, medieval Europe, Stalin's Russia, or Hitler's Germany. Using both historical and global standards, America is a pretty awesome country.

Yet, liberals are also correct that America has many ills. We frequently don't live up to our lofty aspirations. Many inequalities still exist. We have some embarrassingly bad policies and laws in our history, such as slavery and Jim Crow. Most Native Americans would not, understandably, praise America as the land of opportunity given that we took the land from them. It's amazing to think that, even though America was founded on July 4, 1776, women were not even given the right to vote at the national level until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. To this day, many women and minorities still don't often experience the same level of opportunities and benefits as the advantaged white majority. Much progress has been made in the areas of social justice, yet there is more work to be done.

Liberals and conservatives each have valid perspectives. But the groups become more polarized when we don't acknowledge this. Liberals could do a better job at appreciating the many great qualities about America while still calling for change and reform. Conservatives could do a better job at acknowledging that, even though America is a great country in so many respects, we have made many egregious mistakes in our past and still have work to do in order to "form a more perfect union."

The Takeaway?

While there may be extremists on the left who hate America, it's important to note that most Democrats do not share this sentiment. However, many are angry. But saying Democrats hate America provides a rationale for Republicans to hate Democrats. This kind of polarizing rhetoric maybe the heart of the problem.

Once we become blinded by the view that people who hold different perspectives than we do are idiots, ignorant, or morally inferior to ourselves, it allows us to treat them with contempt and disdain. "My group is better than your group!" Strangely enough, Democrats and Republicans each point their collective fingers at one another making the same claim—that they have it right and the other group is wrong (or ignorant, stupid, uneducated, etc.). The reality is that most people are doing the best they can and trying to get it "right," whatever that means. Simply put, if we thought our views were idiotic, we would change them!

Although Democrats don't truly hate America, making this claim elicits the outrage that garners higher TV ratings, more social media shares and likes, and makes more money for networks. Media on both the right and the left foment this anger because their existence often depends upon it. We are all, to some degree, responsible, as well, as we collectively segregate ourselves into our tribes and convince ourselves that we are morally superior to those "others." Until both liberals and conservatives realize that our real enemy isn't each other, but our vilification of one another, we will continue down this path toward greater tribal animosity that is the real threat to our democracy.

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