What's at the Heart of Right-Wing Outrage Culture? An Unshaking Belief in an Ultimate Truth


The following is an excerpt from the new book On Purpose by Paul Froese (Oxford University Press, 2016): 

Politics deals with the hard truths of life. To carry through a policy agenda, a politician requires popular support, yet the intricacies of policy tend to be highly detailed, complex, and—frankly—boring. A political leader needs to appeal to voters through rhetoric, metaphor, and narrative; he needs to get a crowd excited about social change. This aspect of politics has less to do with the truth of policy and everything to do with emotional resonance. In the best-case scenario, the politician finds a deeply held Truth and links it to his platform, making the messiness of politics appear simple and the purpose of government clear.

Politics is emotional because it directly affects people’s lives; it determines who gets what opportunities and what behaviors get rewarded. The emotions of politics stem not only from how policies impact our individual lives but also from our attachment to specific visions of a just and good society. For this reason, political rhetoric draws on what people find meaningful in life; it taps into popular conceptions of moral Truth. In turn, political rhetoric can shape how individuals understand their position in society and the purpose of the nation.

President Obama won his first presidential bid on a vision of “hope.” Hope is an emotional state, the opposite of despair, but it is not a policy platform or even a political ideology. Obama explained his vision this way:

"I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting."

For Obama, hope is not “wishful idealism” but rather an informed rejection of fatalism. It is the hope of a pragmatist as opposed to a dreamer.

This alters a particular stereotype of what it means to be a liberal. Namely, the liberal is supposed to be the bleeding-heart idealist who wistfully dreams about an equal and just society, while the conservative is supposedly the hard-nosed pragmatist concerned with class and party loyalty. President Bill Clinton summarized this stereotype when he said that “Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans want to fall in line.” While many Democrats fell in love with Obama, the president’s style and rhetoric leans toward pragmatism over romanticism.

President Obama’s pragmatism reflects different liberal and conservative stereotypes. From this perspective, the liberal is the nerdy academic more interested in spreadsheets than lofty ideals, while the conservative has deep moral and social values that guide his decision-making. William F. Buckley summarized this perspective, saying, “Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths … which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.”

While stereotypes of liberals and conservatives will always fall short of reality, Americans who self-identify as conservative are much more likely to believe in an ultimate Truth (see Figure 5.3). Researchers have longer theorized about the fundamental differences in liberal and conservative moral perspectives, but these data suggest that conservatives tend to view their moral beliefs as worthy of “universal recognition,” as Buckley has said. In other words, both liberals and conservatives have strong values, but conservatives are more likely to feel that their values reflect an ultimate Truth.

This finding might simply reflect the fact that conservatives are, on average, more religious. For instance, high-tension religious people are more likely to vote Republican and believe in Truth. But even after controlling for religious tradition, level of religiosity, and education, conservatives are still more likely to believe in Truth. This means that there is something about conservative culture and ideology that is more closely aligned with absolute moral Truth.

The Left has also been criticized for moral absolutism. The communist, as critiqued by George Orwell, was the epitome of moral certitude and blind ideology. Liberals certainly are more invested in Truth when they strongly identify with the Democratic Party (see Figure 5.4). Yet in the United States today, Truth appears to be mainly the domain of the GOP.

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After spending decades studying ideological trends in American politics, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute concluded:

"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

Of course, Mann and Ornstein are denounced as partisans themselves. But their reputations as honest analysts of American politics indicate that there is much more to what they say than simple bias.

Conservative Truth reflects the deep cultural underpinnings of American political identity. Political labels have become cultural identifiers passed from generation to generation just like ethnic pride and reverence for family tradition. In fact, policy preferences may actually be secondary to political identity. Our political identity is reflected in how we dress, what we eat, and what kinds of television shows we watch. James Hunter’s use of the phrase “culture war” is apt. Political divisions reflect not just policy preferences but entire lifestyles.

A predilection for Truth attracts many conservatives to what Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj call “the outrage industry.” Celebrity political pundits have created media empires based almost entirely on the expression of political rage. Berry and Sobieraj explain:

"Outrage discourse involves efforts to provoke emotional responses (e.g. anger, fear, moral indignation) from the audience through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponents."

Sound familiar? Cable television and talk radio are overrun with outrage discourse. It is emotionally and morally satisfying for listeners to share in the righteous indignation of their pundit of choice. Righteousness confirms the goodness of self; it affirms that our choices and preferences are morally superior to everyone else’s. In fact, neuroscientists find that feelings of rage can stimulate the brain in ways similar to feelings of romantic love. Outrage excites, focuses, and gives us direction.

In the end, outrage discourse provides an emotional charge to one’s moral identity. While there is a vast and ever-expanding outrage industry, no one embodies the essence of this phenomenon like Rush Limbaugh. He didn’t invent outrage discourse, but he is one of its most talented practitioners.

Limbaugh listeners are a near-homogeneous demographic group. They are middle-aged and middle-income white men who believe in Truth. They collectively feel the sting of a historical paradox—they have been taught to be proud and commanding men, yet lack the political and economic power they think they deserve. Theirs is a frustrated, entitled masculinity, and Limbaugh is their moral beacon.

Limbaugh rarely offers a coherent argument, but he does offer Truth. After the Supreme Court voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Limbaugh asserted that the uninsured are mainly rich college kids who don’t want insurance anyway. He claims that Justice Ginsburg prefers European rule of law over the American Constitution, and he blames this debacle on “academics” “who all wear Che Guevara t-shirts.” No part of this rant is rooted in logical truth. Instead, it boldly asserts a moral Truth.

At root, Limbaugh’s Truth is the faith that his rage and frustration, and that of his followers, emerge from a sacred moral purpose—the duty to defend an imagined “perfect America.” The idea that personal emotions mirror a larger moral struggle is one of the most common forms of Truth. Limbaugh’s True emotions define how a True American should feel—he should feel like a “Dittohead.”

That’s right, Limbaugh listeners proudly refer to themselves as Dittoheads. Critics of Limbaugh’s show wondered how Limbaugh’s listeners could passively accept his ranting at face value. Weren’t they just mindless rubes? In typical fashion, Limbaugh thumbed his nose at his critics and proudly invented the “Dittohead Nation.” What the critics saw as ignorance, Limbaugh reframed as loyalty, patriotism, and emotional solidarity. You can even purchase Dittohead T-shirts and bumper stickers on Limbaugh’s website.

In this way, the Dittohead Nation resembles biblical literalism. High-tension religious groups instill Truth by forging close emotional bonds. These attachments enhance the confidence that one’s emotions reflect a grander Truth. The outrage industry creates similar bonds, but these attachments are not as personal. Rather, they rely on cultural compatibility. Limbaugh’s persona, style, and language feel familiar to his listeners; this familiarity bonds his nation of Dittoheads together. As a virtual nation, Limbaugh’s audience will never be as dedicated as members in a tight-knit religious group, but the Dittohead Nation still offers a sense of moral belonging and meaning. Limbaugh’s Truth was never premised on facts but rather the strong feeling his listeners have that they are like him—united by their shared outrage.

The outrage industry is also premised on identifying moral outsiders. This requires pundits to promote broad stereotypes that clearly distinguish good guys from bad. Limbaugh’s monologue is a ritual refrain of these stories and identities, solidifying in the minds of his listeners that they wear the white hats and have much to fear from their scheming enemies. Limbaugh consoles his listeners with the idea that their frustration is warranted and their anger should be directed at the perpetrators of America’s decline. They are easy to recognize—they are “terrorists,” “liberals,” “elites,” “femi-nazis,” “socialists,” “intellectuals,” “Democrats,” and “people who don’t want to work for a living.” For Limbaugh, these people are guided by impure thoughts—impure because they question his emotional Truth and that of his listeners.

Still, Truth in politics does not necessarily lead to outrage. Deep emotional connections to ideals of freedom, justice, and equality can motivate individuals to selflessly work to help others. How Truth is framed and from what emotional tendencies it draws determine its political consequences.

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