March 25, 2019

The Origin of Rage in American Politics

“…soon after the snows of 1977 began to thaw, the residents of Greenfield, Massachusetts, received a strange questionnaire in the mail. “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week,” the survey instructed. “Describe the most angry of these experiences.” One woman knew her answer: Recently, her husband had bought a new car. Then he had driven it to his mistress’s house so she could admire the purchase. When the wife found out, she was livid. Furious. Her rage felt like an eruption she couldn’t control.

The survey was interested in the particulars of respondents’ anger. In its 14 pages, it sought an almost voyeuristic level of detail. It asked the woman to describe the stages of her fury, which words she had shouted, whether punches had been thrown. “In becoming angry, did you wish to get back at, or gain revenge?” the survey inquired. Afterward, did you feel “triumphant, confident and dominant” or “ashamed, embarrassed and guilty”? There were also questions for people like her husband, who had been on the receiving end: “Did the other person’s anger come as a surprise to you, or did you expect that it would occur?”

Greenfield, population 18,000, was an unusual place to plumb these depths. It was a middle-class town with a prosperous tool-and-die factory, where churches outnumbered bars two to one. Citizens were private and humble, and—except for a few recent letters to the editor lamenting that the high-school hockey team had been robbed in the playoffs—the town showed little evidence of widespread resentment. In fact, this very placidity was why Greenfield had been chosen for the study.

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