Anger seems to define the 2016 election. Donald Trump is riding Republican voters' rage to a possible nomination, while Bernie Sanders's fiery call for revolution has rattled his party’s establishment. Yet an angry electorate is far from unusual in presidential elections. William Jennings Bryan was nothing if not the anger candidate in his three runs as the Democrats' nominee. George Wallace and Richard Nixon stoked the nation's anger in 1968. In 1972 George McGovern's supporters went from the streets to the ballot box.
Still, there is something fundamentally different about the 2016 election. Trump's description of Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers and his call to ban Muslim immigrants seem to have crossed a line of civility while at the same time propelling his candidacy forward. Pundits say that Trump has struck a chord with an infuriated electorate, eager to hear someone voice their frustration with our economy and political system.
Anger, however, is not simply an attitude finding an outlet in this year's candidates. Anger is also a commodity, a business product successfully marketed to select customers. The companies within America's outrage industry are sophisticated enterprises built on modern analytics. Measurement tools immediately convey what content is working to generate "stickiness" with viewers, listeners, and readers. Outrage businesses, particularly Fox and talk radio networks, appeal primarily to conservatives. MSNBC draws only a small audience and there is virtually no liberal presence on talk radio.
Outrage discourse involves efforts to provoke emotional responses, (especially anger, fear, and moral indignation) from the audience through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, patently inaccurate information, and belittling ridicule of opponents. Outrage sidesteps the messy nuances of complex political issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom.
It is personality centered, with its ad hominem attacks dividing the political world into heroes and villains. Opponents are morons and idiots, not people meriting a civil response to their viewpoints. Outrage takes the form of political competition, political theater with a scorecard. It is ideologically selective, using a conservative or liberal frame to analyze the issues of the day. Finally, it is highly engaging — the vast audience would be absent if it wasn’t for the skill of hosts and writers to entice their viewers, listeners, and readers to keep coming back.
In less abstract terms, outrage is Rush Limbaugh saying that Obamacare "mirrors Nazi Germany’s" health care system, Martin Bashir saying someone should defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth, Ann Coulter telling Sean Hannity that Ted Kennedy was a "piece of human excrement," and Mark Levin calling Sen. Chuck Schumer "Schmucky." These are not occasional transgressions—our measurements show that some hosts use this kind of language at the rate of once a minute.
Donald Trump fits perfectly into this world where his racist taunts reverberate across multiple platforms at a startling velocity. He's turned political campaigning upside down, relying on interviews with the cable networks and largely eschewing TV commercials. Not coincidentally, he performs strongly among those who are regular cable viewers or talk radio listeners.
What isn’t well understood is just how vast the outrage industry is. Our estimate, built upon audience measurements by rating agencies, is that cable news, talk radio, and the top political blogs draw an audience of 47 million a day. By far the largest segment of this business is talk radio, which attracts 35 million of this total. These aggregate figures do not even include social media, where new outrage material is generated, copied, and disseminated broadly.
Also, mainstream political media report on the most outrageous commentary. For example, Politico typically has a reporter on the talk radio and cable news beat, allowing those who do not watch or listen to stay informed as to emerging themes of discourse by the industry’s most controversial and popular hosts.
The audience for outrage encompasses a lot of ears and eyeballs, and advertisers will pay to reach demographic slices that are most likely to buy their product. Ultimately, the financial foundation of this industry comes not from those who want to influence you politically, but from companies that want to sell you car insurance, Viagra, and computer backup systems.
The growing polarization of the American electorate may seem to underlie the rise of the outrage industry. Polarization surely aided the development of outrage businesses, but this industry’s growth is derived largely from a transformation in the structure of the media.
One source of fundamental change comes from government policy. The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 unleashed highly ideological programming into a world where blandness and neutrality ruled. Less well known are changes in antitrust law enacted in 1996. Afterward, they altered the basic foundation of the radio industry, allowing chains to build huge inventories of individual stations. Clear Channel Communications owned 43 stations in 1995; by 2010 it owned 800. In turn, it became difficult for local station owners to hold on, and the arrival of the chains created demand for cheap, syndicated programming.
Changing government policy was accompanied by new technology that sharply lowered barriers to entry in various media markets. The daunting capital requirements for creating a broadcast television network gave CBS, NBC, and ABC a virtual monopoly for decades. With the advent of cable, new networks didn’t require such huge outlays and advertising efficiencies made niche channels economically viable. Fox News Channel, which made $1 billion this past year, was an early success while MSNBC floundered with different formats until branding itself as the liberal alternative to Fox in 2010.
Talk radio surged forward between 1998 and 2010, with talk stations tripling in number to about 3,800. The principle causes of this growth were new technologies that allowed consumers to listen to music in ways much more appealing than the randomness of radio playlists. As audiences for music on the radio dwindled, individual stations searched for new formats that would give them a better chance of selling advertising. Into this void stepped talk radio syndicators. Talk radio programs are typically bartered, with local stations receiving the programs for free while, in exchange, the syndicators take back advertising slots.
In the end, the outrage industry does not so much demonstrate America’s growing polarization as it reflects the ability of business entities to package polarization and to sell it in the marketplace.
Anger is a product
What is remarkable about anger as a commercial product is that anger isn’t usually associated with good business practices. If you walk out of a Home Depot angry, you’re probably not going to go back. Yet the finely honed practices of outrage media are designed to do exactly that: to make you angry. Political anger or fear is emotionally compelling, and such reactions are validated because viewers and listeners have great trust in the hosts of the programs they select. Making your blood boil is a key to getting you to come back to the next day’s program for more. It’s a brilliant business strategy.
A perverse commonality between conservative programs and blogs and liberal ones is that both sides delight in vilifying the Republican Party. Fox, conservative talk radio, and right-leaning blogs eviscerate the GOP with almost the same zeal they go after the Democrats. Who was it that turned John Boehner into a punching bag?
At the core of the business model is telling the audience that no one in government or politics can be trusted. The subtext, of course, is that you need to tune into outrage networks and programs if you're to hear the truth. Moreover, a curious co-dependency has developed where Republican politicians go on to a program like The Sean Hannity Show to denounce the politicians of their own party. The political figures gain authenticity by "telling it like it is," and the programs and hosts gain stature and ratings. When Ted Cruz called Mitch McConnell a liar, he wasn’t speaking to McConnell but to the people who watch Fox and listen to talk radio.
Donald Trump’s success so far in the race for the GOP nomination may recast the way in which we think about political parties. We live in an environment where the politically active have easy access to an enormous amount of political information. They pick and choose their news sources, and the messaging they receive from the outrage industry is intense, pointed, and adversarial in nature. Outrage narratives are much more powerful, much more urgent than the messaging that comes from the political parties themselves. Think of it this way: When is the last time you heard one of your members of Congress actually give a talk? It might have been awhile. In contrast, the cable news nets are one push of a button away any time of day or night. Their voice is loud and their content is fascinating.
Jeffrey M. Berry is Skuse Professor of Political Science and Sarah Sobieraj is associate professor of sociology at Tufts University. They are co-authors of The Outrage Industry (Oxford University Press).