Manufacturing Outrage

Here’s an interesting little fact: to the best of my ability to recall, I have never seen one of my conservative friends post anything on their Facebook feed by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Pat Robertson.

But my liberal friends post something outrageous by one of these commentators every day. When Ann Coulter wrote a column denouncing soccer as a symbol of America’s moral decline, I probably saw a hundred links to it. I forwarded it on myself.

But every single person who forwarded it did so with the intention of mocking it. A million people probably read Ann Coulter’s column that day just so they could laugh at what a Neanderthal she was. To my knowledge, nobody read it and agreed with her.

So Ann Coulter gets a million readers and makes a big pile of money so that liberals can smile smugly at their superiority, even as they drive another million readers to her site by forwarding her posts. Outrage, as it turns out, is kind of fun.

It’s fun for everyone, liberal and conservative alike. Though none of my conservative friends forward things by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, quite a few of them forward nearly everything that President Obama says or does or is rumored to have done—normally with a statement like “there he goes again.”

I read, dozens of times a day, descriptions of Obama as a “tyrant,” a “dictator,” a “communist,” a “traitor,” and, of course, “the worst president we have ever had.” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that he is merely a bad president, or even one in the bottom quartile. Come to think of it, I have never even heard him described as the “second worst president we have ever had.” Millard Fillmore and James Buchannan get a pass — outrage only works with superlatives.

And this pretty much sums up our political environment today: we are outraged. Everything is outrageous. Obama is outrageous. Benghazi is outrageous. The tea party is outrageous. Ann Coulter is outrageous. Immigration, health care, contraception, the Supreme Court, Russia, Israel, Egypt, and the World Cup — it’s all outrageous, and it all proves that things are worse than they have ever been.

I suspect that this narrative prevails on both sides of the aisle because we really do enjoy being outraged. It makes us feel smart and special, like we are actually doing something noble by reducing everything to the most vile proposition we can imagine and then getting outraged about it. If we feel especially noble, we will go out on the Internet and call people stupid. That’ll show ‘em.

And, at the same time, the political parties know that outrage works. It gets people to the polls, and, more importantly, it convinces them to donate to politicians and their causes. Not many people will donate to defeat a “mediocre manager with left of center positions.” But make them believe that they are donating to defeat “the most liberal, tyrannical dictator in our nation’s history,” and they will take out a second mortgage to support you.

Actual political argument is hard, while recreational outrage is easy. As long as we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are participating meaningfully in the political process–when all we are really doing is stoking our own outrage and that of people who think exactly like we do–then we will be at the mercy of people who know how to use our outrage to their advantage and our intellectual sloth as a way to make sure that nothing significant ever changes.