What Does It Actually Mean?

Anger frightens us.  That’s what it’s designed to do.  Indispensable to our evolutionary struggle, it generated the extra energy and alertness we needed for defense and counterattack.  The mere signs of anger warn and intimidate potential enemies.  And anger still serves those adaptive functions.  But more recently we have seen it as a way of getting attention – and it has been getting a lot of attention.

Media coverage of the Tea Party rallies has suggested that voters are up in arms against incumbents, enraged by government policies.  Moreover, a number of prominent Wall Street players have been sputtering at the President.  The number of outbursts seems to be increasing.  We all know that childish tantrums turn up the volume when all else seems to fail.  Is that what’s happening?

The Republican candidate for governor of New York, Carl Paladino, for example, has been getting a lot of attention recently for his intemperate outbursts.  According to The New York Times, “He has often promised to take a baseball bat with him to the State Capitol and referred to Albany denizens as leeches, pigs and wimps, and — in the case of Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly and an Orthodox Jew — as the Antichrist.”  Most recently he physically threatened a reporter, and accused his opponent of marital infidelity without offering any evidence to support his charge.  (See, “Paladino and Anger:  How Much Is Too Much?”)

Fellow Republicans are embarrassed and alarmed, trying to distance themselves without actually criticizing him or saying much of substance. But in an interview earlier in the week, a Republican representative from Long Island, said that Mr. Paladino “may be reading the public mood better than anyone.”

That is what all the media attention being paid to anger suggests.  But a Newsweek poll suggests the opposite.  It found: “despite months of media coverage . . . anger is unlikely to decide this year’s elections. For starters, self-described angry voters constitute only 23 percent of the electorate, and there’s no reason to believe that they’re more likely to cast ballots in November than their calmer peers.”

Moreover, “Fifty-three percent of voters see Obama’s unemotional approach to politics—his ‘coolness’—as a positive, versus only 39 percent who don’t.” (See, “Anger Unlikely to Be Deciding Factor in Midterms.”)

Perhaps we are over-exposed and jaded.  The media are doing what they always do, competing with each other to get the story and tell us how important it is.  And as they amplify the message, voters are actually screening it out.  Perhaps, also, as voters dampen it down, the politicians and others amplify it all the more in their attempt to get through.  It becomes a bigger and noisier story but with less and less meaning.

Maybe, as the Newsweek poll suggests, it end up so much “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”