Nasty Politicians Are Not Just Mirroring Their Base of Supporters

I have to quibble just a little bit with E.J. Dionne because “negative partisanship” is definitely more of a chicken and egg question than the way it is portrayed in his recent column:

A political scientist at Emory University, [Alan] Abramowitz is perhaps best known for the idea of “negative partisanship.” It explains a great deal about the fractious nature of our public sphere.

“Over the past two decades,” he writes, “the proportion of party supporters . . . who have strongly negative feelings toward the opposing party has risen sharply. A growing number of Americans have been voting against the opposing party rather than for their own.”

People rate their own side about the same as they used to. On a 100-degree “feeling thermometer,” Americans gave their own party a moderately warm 71 degrees in 1978 and 70 degrees in 2012.

But over the same years, their sentiments toward the opposing party turned ice-cold, plummeting from 47 degrees to 30 degrees. When politicians are nasty to the other side, they are mirroring the attitudes of their supporters. Polarization, in other words, is not just an elite thing. It reflects deeply held opinions among voters themselves.

There are a lot of competing explanations for why so many people are developing highly negative feelings toward the other major party (or both of them). An obvious factor is that the electorate has sorted itself much more thoroughly in recent decades by region, ideology, race and even age. As a result, the parties are more ideologically orthodox, less tolerant of dissenting views and less representative of anyone who has a mix of political views.

We can explain this as an organic process that isn’t driven by any particular decisions made by people in leadership positions, but I think that overstates the case. Changes in media, media ownership, campaign finance laws and campaign strategy have all played a major part in the transformation of our country into two broadly antagonistic camps with a growing group of independents who refuse to identify as Democrats or Republicans. Mr. Dionne says “when politicians are nasty to the other side, they are mirroring the attitudes of their supporters,” but he could just as easily say that “when politicians are nasty to the other side, they are signaling an attitude to their supporters.”

And it’s not just politicians. The rise of partisan right-wing media, first on radio, then through the launch of Fox News and finally through outlets like Breitbart News have combined with social media to create an alternative reality echo chamber of demonization. These groups are teaching people to have contempt for or fear their political opponents. Maybe after a couple decades of work we can say that they are only mirroring the views of their audiences, but they cultivated and created those audiences.

Politicians, starting with Newt Gingrich, have pursued the same path. They have found that alarmist and insulting language is a great short-cut to meeting their campaign finance targets and building their email lists and bases of support. If corporations weren’t considered people under the law and it was possible to compete with public financing, the pressure to raise money would not be so great and the temptation to take the low road would be reduced. As it stands, most federal politicians feel the need to spend every free moment dialing for dollars and anything that can improve that situation is hard to resist.

As Nancy pointed out yesterday, another factor has been exposed by the investigation of Cambridge Analytica, which has shown how strategists are increasingly abandoning the effort to convince voters with rational arguments and are instead plumbing the depths of our lizard brains in search of our deepest hopes and fears. The following is from a surreptitious recording of a Cambridge Analytica staff meeting.

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion. The big mistake political parties make is that they attempt to win the argument rather than locate the emotional center of the issue, the concern, and speaking directly to that.

We could get bogged down in a Calvinist argument about free will and human autonomy, but there’s no question than people can be manipulated and molded in subliminal ways. This has always been a big part of political persuasion. It’s why a politician puts happy family shots on his or her website and stands in front of an American flag when delivering a speech. It’s why they darken the screen and play menacing music when showing their opponent in an advertisement. But it’s getting so sophisticated now that we’re being subjected to molding and manipulation on our social media without it even being identified with a candidate or party. There are people who signed contracts and made an affirmative decision to pursue this kind of politics.

When political pros are getting paid to ramp up people’s fear, it’s not at all clear that we can say that the politicians are only reflecting the hatred and fear and contempt of their voters. It’s more accurate to say that they are tapping into the dark side in an effort to put our better angels to sleep. It’s the opposite of this:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, Monday, March 4, 1861.

This is all a long way of saying that leadership plays a big role in how the people of our country feel about each other. That’s not to say that there aren’t independent or accidental forces driving us apart, nor is it to deny that some things are the result not of design but of unforeseen consequences. But it’s also true that actual people, including Supreme Court justices, political leaders, political strategists and media investors, have made choices that led us to this point. They’ve created an arms race now, where the most effective weapon is not persuasion but hatred, anger and fear toward the other side. And it has escalated to the point that factual reality has only a tangential role to play in our political debates.

For the Democrats, who are not immune to any of this, they don’t necessarily have the option of putting one arm behind their back and fighting with a higher standard of behavior. They also need to raise too much money in too short a time. They also need to grow their mailing lists. They also need to compete on the plain of hope and fear.

Bad choices got us here and only good choices can get us out. That’s why we need electoral and campaign finance reforms and new media rules. We’re in a race to the bottom and we’re rapidly approaching our destination. The public has to take its measure of responsibility for this, but our country’s leaders cannot be absolved. They aren’t just mirroring what the voters want. They have corrupted the voters for their own convenience and advantage, and now they’re shocked that the result is a president like Donald Trump and a nation that cannot reconcile.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.