How Americans are coping with the bitter political climate of the Trump era
As the country looks ahead to President Donald Trump’s possible impeachment proceedings, as social scientists, we anticipate that not only will the Americans’ opinions be polarized, but so will their emotions.
Based on our research, we believe that impeachment stories will likely feel increasingly more personal, passionate and irritating to people as the proceedings unfold. For some, this will draw them in, while others will likely turn off from the news.
During Trump’s first 10 months in office, we conducted 71 interviews in the greater metropolitan areas of Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia, seeking to understand media consumption habits.
Participants in our study, published on Sept. 25, 2019 were a cross-section of Americans, diverse in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, ideological orientation and occupation.
In talking to these Americans, we were immediately struck by their emotional reactions to stories about Trump. There is scarce literature that explores the emotional dimension of reading the news. Our study indicated that voters on both sides of the aisle felt “inundated” by three particular emotions: anger, frustration and an overall feeling of being overwhelmed.
The people we interviewed told us that this heightened emotional experience rose during the 2016 campaign and its aftermath, affecting their media habits in different ways.
For instance, Fiona, a 50-year-old librarian, said, “I find that after Trump was elected, it is harder to read the news, for me.”
Same emotions, different reasons
While the feelings were shared across interviewees, the causes of these emotions split down party lines.
While liberals were usually upset about Trump’s statements and policies, conservatives experienced similar emotions about how negatively the mainstream media covered news related to the president.
For example, an 80-year-old Democrat who is a community organizer said that his most recent news consumption was focused on “that two-week juvenile that we have for president.” He added: “Sometimes I just get so disgusted with [the news] that I don’t even want to know much more about it.”
Meanwhile, a 51-year-old Republican homemaker said she was upset at the media.
“I see beyond whether I like how [Trump] talks or what he says,” she told us. “What they are showing [on CNN] I think it’s so wrong that it makes me feel very angry.”
Our study also showed that consuming political news on social media, rather than via the news media, intensified the emotional experience. According to their accounts, this was partially due to social media’s personal component: acquaintances sharing and commenting on news stories.
A 33-year-old paralegal commented that, after the 2016 electoral cycle, he reduced his exposure to Facebook and Instagram. Posts about the news got “a little too toxic for me,” he said, since other people wanted to “play devil’s advocate or spark a fire.”
Dealing with high levels of emotion
Common forms of dealing with these negative emotions included closely selecting what news to hear, reducing the time devoted to news or even avoiding the news completely.
News avoidance has been on the rise in the United States. According to a report from the University of Oxford, while 38% of Americans said they sometimes or often avoided the news in 2017, that figure grew to 41% in 2019. That’s above the global average of 32% for that year.
However, consistent with prior research, some Americans reported that being informed and participating in conversations with friends was beneficial to them and gave them the sense of fulfilling their civic duty. “I enjoy knowing what’s going on, and I think it’s part of being a voter,” said a 25-year-old schoolteacher.
Our study highlights the importance of developing empathy and understanding the ways in which their communication has strong emotional impact in people’s everyday life.
Although some participants want to participate in politics more actively as a result of feeling upset about the current political situation, many others expressed a need to protect themselves.
Because an emotionally polarized public opinion might discourage citizens from different forms of civic engagement, to us, an angry and overwhelmed citizenry does not seem a good recipe for a healthy democracy.
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