…In 2001, just 8 percent of Americans told Pew they were angry at the federal government; by 2013, that number had more than tripled.
…In 2012, political scientists at Emory University found that fewer than half of voters said they were deeply angry at the other party’s presidential nominee. In 2016, almost 70 percent of Americans were. What’s worse, this partisan nastiness was also directed at fellow citizens who held opposing views. In 2016, nearly half of Republicans believed that Democrats were lazy, dishonest, and immoral, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrats returned the favor: More than 70 percent said that “Republicans are more closed-minded than other Americans,” and a third said that they were unethical and unintelligent.
…“When the regiments had an opportunity to reframe their complaints as moral offenses, it sparked something,” Rao told me. People’s righteous anger gave them permission to fight back.
…But moral outrage must be closely managed, or it can do more harm than good.
…For anger to be productive, at some point, it must stop. Victory often demands compromise.
…“You have to control and direct the passion, or else it can burn down everything you’ve worked so hard to build,”
…“The trick they were teaching was to use anger strategically,” Sutton told me. “They had it as a formula: when to fake anger, when to cool down, when to give people a bit of forgiveness.” Even when the debtors on the other end of the line sounded friendly, the collectors were trained to pretend they were angry at them. One supervisor told Sutton that in some instances, you have to “slam ’em. I slam ’em against the wall.” He explained that callers needed to hear a “hostile tone,” something that said, “I want the payment today! Express mail!”
The point wasn’t to intimidate the debtors into paying—the strategy was more sophisticated than that. As soon as a debtor started screaming back, the collector would switch tactics and become soothing and accommodating. “The idea was, once you get them angry and aroused, you need to deliver catharsis, a sense of relief. That’s going to make them more likely to pay up,” Sutton told me. One collector recounted to him: “I would say, in a soft voice, ‘Mr. Jones, calm down. Excuse me.’ If you can’t cut the person off, then you should just let them blow their smoke, and then when your chance comes, try and be positive with them. Say, ‘Look, I know you’ve got a problem. I hope nothing I did set you off, because neither of us is going to benefit if we don’t resolve this thing.’”
…Executives from other cable-news channels publicly disdained his approach—and rushed to imitate it. In 2009, a Tufts University study of opinion media found that “100 percent of TV episodes and 98.8 percent of talk radio programs contained outrage.” On MSNBC, commentators such as Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow found ratings success by playing on their viewers’ discontent, even if they stopped short of borrowing O’Reilly’s most demagogic tactics. In 2012, Bill Clinton ruefully observed that the network had become “our version of Fox.” Later that year, the Pew Research Center found that MSNBC devoted 85 percent of its programming to opinion, and just 15 percent to news.
… The point is to keep viewers tuned in, which means keeping them angry all the time. No reconciliation, no catharsis, no compromise.
…When people believe that social institutions are functioning, they’re much less likely to feel vengeful urges. One study, for instance, found that when laid-off workers believed firings were handled fairly—that a process was adhered to, that seniority was respected, that worker evaluations were properly considered—they were less likely to protest or complain, even if they disagreed with the outcome. Alternately, if workers believed that managers were playing favorites or manipulating the rule book, sabotage was more likely.
…Whatever faith he had left in the system has evaporated. He doesn’t describe what he feels as a desire for revenge; he says he is focused on trying to make things better, …he often seemed past the point of compromise. …“I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to burn something down to save it.”
…The campaign worked, the social scientists believe, because instead of telling people they were wrong, the ads agreed with them—to embarrassing, offensive extremes. “No one wants to think of themselves as some angry crank,” one of the researchers, Eran Halperin, told me. “No one wants to be lumped in with extremists or the angriest fringe.” Sometimes, however, we don’t realize we’ve become extremists until someone makes it painfully obvious.
…When we scrutinize the sources of our anger, we should see clearly that our rage is often being stoked not for our benefit but for someone else’s. If we can stop and see the anger merchants’ self-serving motives, we can perhaps start to loosen their grip on us.
…Yet we can’t pin the blame entirely on the anger profiteers. At the heart of much of our discontent is a very real sense that our government systems are broken. Larry Cagle wasn’t wrong to be livid at a state government that refused to allocate funds to educate the next generation of Oklahomans; his mistake was succumbing to the view that the only way to fix the system was to destroy it.