WASHINGTON, October 15, 2016 — The 2016 presidential election has engendered more anxiety than most. American voters are accustomed to hearing that the Republican candidate wants to enslave women and force the elderly to eat cat food, while the Democrat hates God, traditional families and America’s men and women in uniform. This year, the hysterical caricatures seem plausible.
The American Psychological Association has run surveys over the last decade to measure levels of stress in America. The full survey will be released next year, but the APA has released some preliminary findings. One is that 52 percent of Americans say that the 2016 has been a source of significant stress.
On a scale of 1 (“no stress”) to 10 (“a great deal of stress”), the average stress reported is 5.1.
This result is bipartisan and applies to political independents. It also crosses race, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. The stress is felt by all age groups, though Matures (71+) and Millenials seem to feel the stress most keenly; 59 percent of Matures and 56 percent of Millenials claim that the election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.
The stress is exacerbated by social media, with 38 percent reporting that social media interactions dealing with politics cause them stress. Among adults who use social media, 54 percent report election stress; among those who don’t, 45 percent report election stress.
While Republicans and Democrats are statistically equally likely to feel election stress, they may deal with it differently. A 2014 Pew Research poll showed that 44 percent of consistent liberals have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because of their political views. Only 31 percent of consistent conservatives have done the same. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of “unfriending” for both groups has climbed as the election has approached.
The impending election has turned normally kind and gentle souls into great white sharks in a sea of chum. Many of us have seen people we always admired and respected turn angry and vindictive, snarky and condescending. Some of us have strayed into that territory ourselves. It isn’t pretty.
Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways. Bad temper is one. Mass hysteria is another.
Sinister clown sightings have spread across America. Most of them are unverified, and it’s a safe bet that most of them are as imaginary as Stephen King’s Pennywise.
There are only a couple of verified reports of clowns inflicting harm on anyone. It would be a bad idea to walk through your neighborhood dressed as a clown for a Halloween party this year, though. Police in Orem, Utah have had to warn citizens that it isn’t legal to shoot unarmed clowns, and hundreds of students at Penn State formed a clown-hunting mob after reports of clown sightings in State College.
No clowns were found by the students, who in any event seemed to treat the clown threat with the same seriousness they usually treat schoolwork. But clown anxiety is clearly real and widespread, and it is probably related to election anxiety.
We could go for the low-hanging fruit at this point and draw a direct comparison between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and clowns. It must be admitted that Clinton has a Joker-ish quality at times, while Trump is reminiscent of Bozo, but that shot is far too cheap.
Let’s go for something higher.
Last month at the Texas Tribune Festival, clowns came up during a panel discussion on the future of conservatism. The moderator, Erica Grieder, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, mentioned a conversation she had some years ago with Janet Davis, an historian at the University of Texas. Davis wrote a book in 2002 called “The Circus Age,” detailing the role the circus once played in American life.
Besides being a spectacle for entertainment, circuses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a way for Americans to grapple with the massive changes and transitions happening all around them—what academics call “liminal anxiety.”
He goes on,
During the panel, Grieder noted that clowns have always been a manifestation of this “liminal anxiety,” in part because they don’t fit into normal society. …
That’s not to say the recent mass sightings of demented clowns across the country are a portent of American decline. But they are likely a sign of heightened anxiety, fear, and tension. In that sense, the clowns might be a good thing: they’re trying to tell us something. To be sure, we’re going through a period of change and transition—a “liminal” moment, so to speak—but the presidential election has stirred up racial tensions and class resentments that many Americans thought were a thing of the past.
They’re not, and it’s an ugly and uncomfortable thing to behold. So uncomfortable, maybe, that only a bunch of psychotic clowns can break the news to us.
Perhaps with that we’ve shot too high, and the clowns are simply clowns. So let’s ask a question: How can we deal with election anxiety? What can we tell our friends that might help them?
They can be boiled down to two:
- Grow up.
- Get a life.
We might add, please don’t shoot any clowns.