Politics has never been free of outrage and fearmongering, but only in recent decades have those base methods of drumming up support been shoved in our faces 24/7. Unfortunately, politicians know that fueling rage and fear gets them attention, which in turn gets them valuable media coverage, and some are shameless about capitalizing on it.
It’s how random members of Congress from tiny rural districts gain massive national name recognition while hundreds of non-inflammatory, non-extremist, non-outrage-baity lawmakers quietly go about the business of governance with few Americans able to pick them out of a lineup.
Outrage-fueled notoriety is what prompted Rep. Jeff Jackson, Democrat of North Carolina—most likely a legislator you’ve never heard of—to make a video on his 100th day in Congress, where he shared something he’s learned about his fellow elected leaders.
“I’m still brand new to Congress—I’ve only been there 100 days—and I don’t know if I’m not supposed to say this out loud, but it’s true and important. And if you don’t know this, you need to,” he said. “It’s really clear from working there for just a few months that most of the really angry voices in Congress are totally faking it. These people who have built their brands around being perpetually outraged? It’s an act.”
Perhaps this is not groundbreaking news for a lot of us, but it’s refreshing to hear from someone on the inside, especially since Jackson explains how he knows their outrage is an act—and why.
“I’ve been in committee meetings that are open to the press and committee meetings that are closed,” he said. “The same people who act like maniacs during the open meetings are suddenly calm and rational during the closed ones. Why? Because there aren’t any cameras in the closed meetings, so their incentives are different.”
Jackson goes on to explain how members of Congress are surrounded by negative incentives, with media outlets that feed off of negative emotion giving them air time because it keeps people angry.
“If they can keep you angry, they’ll hold your attention,” he said. “And they both want your attention.”
u201cIu2019ve been in Congress for 100 days. nnMost of the really angry voices here are faking it.u201d
— Rep. Jeff Jackson (@Rep. Jeff Jackson)
Jackson doesn’t name any particular members of Congress or even point to any particular political party in his video. In reality, politicians on both sides of the aisle are guilty of playing these kinds of games and always have been.
The problem, of course, is that the governance of a nation isn’t a game. But politics is, especially hyper-partisanized politics, and that game has only become more competitive and more winner-takes-all in the age of modern media.
When George Washington tried to warn the American people of the “rankness” of partisanship and where its “continual mischief” and “constant danger of excess” could lead us, he was spot on in his predictions. But what he couldn’t have predicted was the role that television and social media would play in elevating that mischief and excess.
As problematic as the political arena has been in the past, it’s nothing compared to how fear and outrage have been wielded as weapons in the technological age. We have 24-hour cable channels funneling hate and fear-based prejudice into our psyches, and social media algorithms that fuel negative attention grabs. Demonizing the “other side” of the political spectrum to the point of describing one’s fellow Americans as “the enemy” is outright bonkers—but it’ll practically guarantee you an interview on prime-time television, and therefore a seat at powerful tables.
We—all of us—need to not only recognize manufactured outrage and fearmongering, but we need to learn to truly ignore it. Ignoring it won’t necessarily make it go away, but for people who seek power above all else, all attention is good attention. When we give attention seekers what they want, we only feed the beast. Even when we give them attention to complain about them, we’re still giving them oxygen.
Instead, let’s try something different, like focusing our energies on the people who are actually doing the hard work of governance and genuinely serving their constituencies in a spirit of public service. As Jackson said, “If you don’t have to yell to be heard, the whole conversation changes.” Perhaps we can stop listening to the yellers and start engaging with the talkers who understand how to discuss and negotiate intelligently, in ways that make sense. These are, after all, the people who actually get things done behind closed doors.