As the 2020 election cycle heats up, a new book by UCI political scientist Davin Phoenix explains how anger animates political participation differently among African, Asian, Latinx and white Americans. Deemed a leading contender for best book in 2020 by the New Books Network, The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics details how dissatisfaction with political figures pushes white voters to the polls while motivating minority voters – who as a whole express less anger over politics - to engage through other forms of activism.

Drawing upon survey data spanning U.S. presidencies from Reagan to Trump, Phoenix discusses his findings below and how candidates in the race for the White House might use messages of understanding, empathy and engagement to steer minority voters from protests to the polls.

What is the anger gap and how does it affect political action differently among racial groups? 

The anger gap is the label I’ve given to a racial pattern that I’ve detected in Americans’ emotional responses to politics. African Americans—and indeed Latinx and Asian Americans—consistently express less anger over political figures, regimes and environments than their white counterparts. I find this gap generally spanning the past 40 or so years, from the Reagan era to the present. Additionally, when looking at the association between anger and political behavior, I find among white individuals a strong and positive relationship between expressions of anger over politics and participation in a wide variety of actions, ranging from volunteering for and donating to campaigns, to contacting elected officials, to protesting. In contrast, for people of color the association between anger and political participation is much weaker, and more often than not statistically null.

A wide body of research in social and political psychology paints anger as an emotion that effectively motivates political behavior, due to the immediate increases in impulsivity and confidence and lessened risk aversion produced by this emotion state. So the fact that people of color consistently exhibit less anger over politics and are less motivated by this emotion to take political actions by this emotion really challenges the conventional wisdom on the utility of getting people to see red in order to get them more active in the political arena. I argue that anger plays a relatively weaker role in the political engagement of people of color for two main reasons. One, a pervasive sense of what I call racial resignation—the perception of politics as generally unresponsive or even hostile to racial minorities’ demands inhibits the activation of an action-inducing anger within them. Two, expressions of anger from people of color—especially African Americans—may come at great cost. For instance, the label of being “angry while black” can carry risks of social stigmatization or greater surveillance. These are primary sources of the racial anger gap in American politics.

Has anger ever been a political motivator for people of color?

There is one domain of political action in which anger is most clearly and strongly mobilizing people of color. And not surprisingly, that is the domain of system-challenging and protest politics. When we think back on the tradition of minority-led activism that is a central feature of American politics—specifically black-led movements from abolition to civil rights campaigns to Black Power to Black Lives Matter, we detect a distinct emotional disposition of indignation. Importantly, this indignation is often not directed at any particular political actor, regime or policy platform. Rather, this anger is directed more broadly toward the political system itself. Accordingly, that anger directed at the system propels actions focused on challenging, disrupting and transforming that system.

This is an important distinction to draw out. It isn’t enough to interrogate why people of color may express or utilize anger more frequently or intensely in their navigation of politics. We must also understand how the political anger that is engendered within racial minority groups is likely to steer them toward activist type actions, rather than actions that affect election outcomes. This observation offers a potentially key corrective to the forecasts about the 2016 (and perhaps 2020) elections. Contrary to the expectation that the unique racial threat represented by a prospective Trump regime would sufficiently spur turnout among people of color, it is likely the case that any anger activated by Trump more effectively steered people of color to the front lines of protest action rather than to the polls. 

Based on your research, what kind of message will motivate African American, Asian American and Latinx voters in 2020?

In addition to uncovering a racial anger gap, my work uncovers a racial enthusiasm advantage. Enthusiasm is generally the term applied to a bundle of the positive emotions of hope and pride. And I find that pride in particular is quite effective at motivating political action of all types among black, Asian and Latinx Americans. Unlike anger, which is animated by an external change or threat to one’s environment, pride is a self-reflective emotion. It can be activated in both threatening and promising times.

So messaging intended to mobilize communities of color should aim to engender senses of racial or community pride. This messaging does not need to apply rose-colored glasses to the current political landscape. On the contrary, a mobilizing message to groups of color can speak directly to the distinct vulnerabilities and challenges facing these groups in the current era. But in addition, the message can highlight the strength and resilience of the group in the face of these challenges, and identify specific instances in the not-so-distant past in which the group’s collective action reaped tangible benefits. These cues can augment the recipients’ senses of racial agency while providing a collective ego boost. And those forces can in turn propel the types of actions that shape election outcomes. 

How can a candidate take this information and apply it in 2020?

It’s critical to note at the outset that candidates looking to mobilize people of color in 2020 must devote full resources to a particularized ground game—entering into neighborhoods where people most acutely feel the sense of resignation that comes from increased barriers to voting (be they real or perceived, they still can inhibit someone’s intent to vote) in the form of voter ID requirements, limits on registration, seemingly arbitrary changes to polling locations, etc. If campaigns are not squarely focused on helping people in communities of color navigate the phalanx of voting requirements that have been passed across the country over the past few years, then the best messaging in the world will fall on deaf ears.

Having said that, candidates can adopt a messaging strategy that makes plain and direct the myriad threats facing communities of color in the current political landscape, while also making explicitly clear the specific means these communities have at their disposal to counteract these threats and advance their distinct policy agendas. Simply positing the opposing side as the object of ire to rally against will likely prove insufficient. Candidates courting minority votes need to also emphasize what the groups stand to gain by working on the candidate’s side. This will likely mean the candidate needs to make a credible case to an otherwise skeptical audience about what they will indeed gain from a political system often perceived as unresponsive to their interests.  In essence, I argue that if people of color are resigned to politics not working in their best interests, a candidate who offers a compelling vision of how to disrupt that status quo will strike a responsive chord. I fully recognize that this assessment might sound so obvious as to be rote. But I’d counter by asking this: Just how often do we see candidates go into communities of color, explicitly acknowledge their distinct grievances with politics, and pledge to act on those grievances? Or is it more often the case that they simply implore those communities to augment their political behavior without any promise of substantial change?

And is there a candidate currently in the race that may be able to rally minority voters to the polls?

At this stage I don’t think any candidate has a particular advantage over the others in crafting a message that effectively motivates potential voters of color. I think it largely comes down to who is most acutely aware of the messaging that has energized voters of color in recent cycles. I point to a couple examples of candidates who offer potential roadmaps for such messaging.

Former candidate Julian Castro managed to generate excitement from political observers of color with his forceful and unflinching diagnoses of the ways people of color’s interests have been marginalized. For example, his calling out of the lack of racial diversity in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states with outsized influence in determining the eventual nominee.

Meanwhile, despite her narrow gubernatorial loss, Stacey Abrams earned more votes than any previous Democrat seeking statewide office in the state of Georgia. She struck a chord with minority voters with her lively and forceful articulation of the challenges plaguing people at the intersection of class-based and race-based inequities. And her famous “this is not a concession” speech after the election exemplified a passionate and precise critique of a set of electoral rules often perceived by many people of color as not always working for them.

This kind of messaging both acknowledges the frustrations that people of color have with the broader political system and articulates a vision of striving for systemic change. Thus, it carries potential to animate political action among people of color driven by a proud defiance. Whichever candidate utilizes this messaging most effectively—either personally or through prominent surrogates—may be most successful at getting out the vote.

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences
-photo by Steve Zylius, UCI

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