Mark McKelvey was still in bed when the phone rang in his Old Irving Park two-flat.
His wife, Betsy, who had taken the dog for an early morning walk, was calling to say that someone had set fire to their Biden-Harris yard sign. McKelvey said he raced to the front window, where he could see the flames still lapping the blue and red placard.
“I’m 66 years old, and I’ve been politically active since I could walk,” McKelvey said.
“This is as bad as I’ve ever seen political division in this country.”
Political anger is on the rise, studies and interviews indicate, with some members of both major parties viewing the opposition as not just mistaken, but morally wrong and even dangerous.
Slogans have taken on an unkind edge, with some Democrats posting “Flush the Turd” yard signs featuring a cartoon image of President Donald Trump’s hair, and Republicans countering with “Donald Trump 2020 1/4 u2033 and an unprintable sentiment about “Your Feelings.” In Texas on Friday, vehicles with Trump flags and signs surrounded a Biden-Harris campaign bus, leading Democrats to accuse those in the vehicles of interference.
A new study in the journal Science found that hostility toward the opposing party is at its highest point since at least 1980, and our negative feelings toward our political foes are now actually stronger than our positive feelings toward our allies.
“The people who pay attention to politics are extremely angry,” said the study’s lead author, Northwestern University psychology professor Eli Finkel.
Anger can have an upside, experts said. It’s a powerful political motivator, and passionate debate is a cornerstone of American democracy.
But there are also concerns that a healthy debate about real issues has given way to a fiercely partisan, winner-take-all fight that leaves little room for constructive dialogue.
“The tone, the timbre, everything is so anti,” said Alison Dagnes, author of “Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Political Media and Our National Anger.”
If you ask, “What are you for?” she said, the answer often seems to be, “I don’t care. I just really hate the other team.”
McKelvey remembers a less partisan time. He grew up in a Republican family in small-town Huron, Ohio, and served an alternate delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention. As a young man, he worked for Michigan Gov. William Milliken, a pro-choice Republican who supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
Some political analysts trace the current partisan divisiveness back to the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich successfully leveraged partisan anger against the Democrats.
More recently, social media has heightened the tension, Dagnes said. Liberals may have been angry at Reagan in the 1980s, but once they whipped themselves up about, say, supply-side economics, they settled down and went on with their lives.
Social media has made it easier to feed political rage, and cellphones — or “anger machines,” to use Dagnes’ phrase — have made rage highly portable.
“Of course, I could take all the push alerts off (my phone),” Dagnes said with a laugh. “But then how would I know what to be angry about?”
For both Democrats and Republicans, she said, strong feelings toward the president have eclipsed debate about policy. She pointed to a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit in which liberals talked about how hard it would be to let go of their Trump obsession, should the president lose the election.
“I argue with my dad every day about Trump. Before this, we hadn’t spoken in years,” one of the characters in the skit said.
Finkel said the first stage in addressing outsize anger is to get people to care about the problem and realize that those on the other side probably feel that their beliefs are morally right.
After that, he suggests introducing facts, among them that Democrats and Republicans are actually less divided than we tend to think, he said.
Democrats estimate that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 a year, when in fact only 2% do, according to Finkel’s study. Meanwhile, Republicans think 32% of Democrats are LGBTQ, when the actual figure is 6%.
Dagnes suggests limiting your political news intake to two “meals” a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, and treating partisan news as a “dessert” to be enjoyed in small portions. She also recommends removing the push notifications from your phone.
McKelvey, who started voting Democratic as the Republicans moved right, said he has had disagreements with relatives about the president, whom he distrusts: “For me, having him as president is like having a rattlesnake in the backyard,” he said.
As a fundraiser for a Chicago nonprofit, McKelvey shares his political views on Facebook, mixing in some pictures of his garden, and he and some of his neighbors put up Biden-Harris yard signs this year.
One of his neighbors’ Biden signs was burned completely Oct. 15, according to McKelvey and a memo to police that McKelvey shared with the Tribune.
An unknown individual also distributed about 20 homemade flyers equating Joe Biden and Kamala Harris with Adolf Hitler.
“To think of a person sitting down and downloading a picture of Adolf Hitler — and then putting Biden-Harris with it. It was just incredibly creepy,” McKelvey said.
And then on Oct. 27, his wife left the house at about 6:20 a.m. with their Yorkie mix, Tootie. Betsy McKelvey, a hospital-based midwife, didn’t even leave the block. She just walked down one side of the street and up the other, and by the time she returned to the house, the Biden-Harris sign was on fire.
On Friday, Mark McKelvey filed a police report, a copy of which he showed to the Tribune. He has replaced his burned sign with two new ones.
Anger can be a force for good, he said, and if political rage leads to a large voter turnout tomorrow, he views that as a positive.
But still, he said, he’s concerned by the level of fury that Americans are now expressing.
“It’s corrosive,” he said. “How can I even say it? The way we are now, I don’t consider us to be functioning well as a democracy.”
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