Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Are Americans in Denial and “Mad As Hell” about Climate Change….Or Just More Generally Anxious, Fearful, Disillusioned, Worn Out, Frustrated, Down, and Distrustful?

Have you noticed just how ubiquitous the phrase “mad as hell” has become in news coverage and commentary? The catchphrase has been used to support a narrative that anger is driving the shifts in the electorate and opposition to issues such as climate action.  The term is an allusion to the famous scene in the 1976 film Network, where Peter Finch as news anchor-turned-lunatic George Beale declares on camera that “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore,” setting in motion a Glenn Beck-like following of viewers who act on Beale’s advice to go to their windows and shout the same thing.

Yet does anger really accurately capture the national mood? Certainly, there are segments of angry voters on the right and the left, but can the motivations, opinions, and voting decisions of Americans be attributed to this darkest of emotions?

For journalists and commentators, the attribution makes for an easy and dramatic narrative.  It also feels comfortable to many liberals and Democrats. If opposition is based on deep anger, there is no hope to reason or compromise with the other side. Or perhaps more importantly there is no reason to re-evaluate policies such as cap-and-trade, turning to other climate solutions that might offer clearer benefits to Americans. Instead, opposition to cap and trade is narrowly defined as outright denialism or a “bottom up” war on science.

Yet in contrast, public opinion experts define today’s public mood very differently.  As Dan Balz reports at the Washington Post , polling and focus groups turn up feelings not of anger but of anxiety, frustration, disillusionment, fear, and distrust of almost every major institution in America including business. 

Consider also a separate survey reported on at The Post that finds that a majority of Americans fear that they won’t be able to make next month’s rent or mortgage payment, up from 37% when Obama took office in 2008.

In this emotional context, questioning climate science is a natural psychological defense strategy, making it easy for a person to articulate opposition to climate policies that are perceived as risky, costly, overly complex, an increase in government regulation, and offering no perceived immediate or tangible benefits.

From the article at The Post by Dan Balz on public mood:

“The mood is a combination of frustration and fear and desperation and down,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who helps oversee the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. “Everybody wants to talk about it as anger, and anger is certainly there. But it cuts much deeper than the traditional anger that you see in so many elections. This one really goes to the sense of people feeling on the edge and ‘How do I make life work?’ They’re striking out in all directions in order to just change things.”

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster and Hart’s partner in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, said, “The words I would use are ‘anxious’ and ‘worn out.’ People are losing hope. . . . We are in a very unusual, long economic crunch that is making people feel very, very anxious. People are used to down times where America bounces back, but they’re not seeing it bounce back.”

Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center says disillusionment is the most powerful sentiment of the electorate as a whole. Trust in government is at low ebb. Evaluations of Congress’s performance are as negative as they have been in two decades. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are rated positively.

“Generally in a wave election, one party comes up as the other goes down,” Kohut said. “But Republicans are not well rated.” Dissatisfaction extends to the private sector, too, with most institutions drawing low marks. “People are pretty down,” he added. “A lot of this is fed by a bad economy, a feeling of hopelessness.”


Up Next