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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

Nasty Politics

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis debated California Governor Gavin Newsom last night. For your own sanity and for the sake of the country, I hope you missed it. But if you didn't, you would have witnessed the verbal equivalent of a schoolyard brawl rather than an intellectual, informed debate over ideas. There were insults, ad hominems, lies, threats, and a lot of dodged questions. Each ended the debate by calling the other a bully.


Nasty politics of this sort has been on the rise. I've written before about how empirical evidence shows clearly that the increase in vitriol, anger, and disinformation in our politics is real and not imagined. A recent book by Thomas Zeitzoff, a political scientist at American University, confirms the disturbing trend. The book is called Nasty Politics, and it covers the use of rhetoric by contemporary politicians. The basic argument is that even though voters say they don't like nasty politicians, they respond to perceived toughness in times of danger or economic threat. And politicians who can project that kind of toughness are rewarded with votes. Maybe Plato was right that democracy is a recipe for disaster.


The book is chocked full of empirical data that paints a picture of objective increases in the use of name-calling (remind you of anyone?), threats, petty insults, and other forms of rhetorical bullying. But this chart (produced by Zeitzoff, not me), struck a chord:

It's a count of how many nasty politics stories appear in major newspapers relative to every 100,000 stories, with 'nasty politics' defined to includes stories headlining insults, threats, etc. The blue line charts the number of stories, and the red columns indicate the Civil War and the Trump presidency. The pattern is as obvious as it is concerning.


The surge of nasty politics surrounding the implosion of our country in the 1850s and 60s swamps WWI and WWII, both appearing as short blips on the radar. It's not until 2016 or so that the trend starts to move, and then it skyrockets to levels not seen since the country was literally at war with itself.


I think that makes total sense.


In today's fake news marketplace, people can tune in to get just the facts they way, told from just the angle they want, and mixed with any proportion of falsehoods that they prefer. Gone are the days when both liberals and conservatives watched the same evening news. Now we each have the people we follow on X, the national newspaper that reflects our preferences, and preferred websites to watch the other side get skewered. You shouldn't expect such a disparate populace to come together and agree on basic facts, much less policies.


Instead, in this kind of informational environment, politicians aren't rewarded for truth, careful analysis, or fair-minded observations. They are rewarded for cutting through the noise with zingers, disdain, and name-calling. And as every good economist knows, incentives matter.


In the preface to my book on fake news, I wrote that "We are well past just disagreeing about the facts or proposals for fixing the nation's problems. We're moving towards civil war." At the time, my editor thought that line was too extreme. He wanted me to cut it. This chart suggests that we were wise to keep it in.

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