From an emotional standpoint, attacking character rather than policies can be a one-way street.
More than ever in the age of social media, when political opponents compete they focus on each other’s character flaws, missteps, and past bad behavior rather than differentiated policy proposals. Some call it the politics of denunciation, and at this point in the evolution of culture, denunciation often focuses on transgressions against identity: perceived racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, or insensitivity to immigrants.
Getting millions of people talking and tweeting about a serious policy proposal is nigh unto impossible, and even when they do, they are likely to hold their opinions with some degree of uncertainty. By contrast, denunciation can be a highly effective political tool because it elicits clear, strong emotional reactions like anger, disgust and righteous indignation, which make it viral. By triggering a visceral, moral reaction, it shapes loyalties and loathing in a way that few policies can. The candidate yells at her staff? He kissed a woman on the head without prior consent? She claims to be part native? He praised Israelis? She snarked at children? Can you believe it?!!!!!
Denunciation activates the mix of anger and disgust that we call moral outrage, which channels energy against something that violates our sense of right and wrong. As a moral emotion, outrage can be a powerful catalyst for social change movements.
But as a motivator, outrage has some serious flaws. For one, disgust can go from zero to sixty almost instantaneously, making it part of what behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman calls thinking fast—a set of thought processes that can bypass the rational cortex. Second, outrage isn’t necessarily proportional to harms done; our reaction to a dead kitten may be stronger than our reaction to a dead species. Third, we respond more viscerally to stories than statistics, which means we often channel our ire toward anomalous situations. Fourth, our sense of outrage is easily manipulated and socially contagious. Add it all up, and you have an unreliable roadmap to a better world.
But there is one reason in particular that a culture of denunciation during primary season on the left can build power for the right: Once the visceral outrage reaction has been triggered against a specific candidate, it is very hard to reverse.
Here is how it works:
Moral Emotions are Sticky
Socially, when outrage gets activated, it separates the target of the outrage from the community of the offended. In the language of sociology, it others the one perceived as a bad actor. For the group that has closed ranks, being outraged and expressing it—especially in a punitive way—makes us feel better about ourselves and the people around us, so it’s great for fostering ingroup loyalty and energy. But the target of our outrage becomes not one of us.
Cognitively, we abandon trying to see things from their perspective and we stop asking nuanced questions about context. The fundamental attribution error kicks in, which means that we explain their disapproved behavior as caused by something internal to them. (By contrast, we explain our own bad behavior or that of our group as being caused by external factors.)
Morally, we experience outrage as representing values that are binding. These values are not matters of taste or preference, but rather truths we see as non-negotiable. So, we don’t easily pivot once we have moral feelings about a person, situation, or class of situations.
If, during the course of the primary fight, we argue for the policies of our preferred candidate and they lose the primary, we’re likely to settle for the person next in line, meaning the person whose policies or political ideology is most like that of the person we wanted. But if we’ve been persuaded that the other candidates are morally reprehensible and we loathe them for it, we’re likely to keep feeling that way once the primary is over.
We saw this with some Bernie supporters during the last presidential campaign. Most started out preferring Sanders because his political ideas represented a radical break with the establishment and captured their imagination. It was a positive attraction. But months before the primary ended, the rhetoric among some shifted to focus on Clinton as a corrupt, greedy liar. They borrowed language and logic from the far right, when needed, to make the case. It was not so much about being attracted by Bernie as being repelled by Hillary.
When the primary ended, Sanders encouraged his followers to vote for Clinton, whose policy positions were often similar to his own. But it was too late. Many of his supporters couldn’t see past the narrative of corruption and greed, and years later some still can’t stop talking about it. They get viscerally angry and activated whenever they think about Clinton. For some, this passion is stronger than any loathing they may feel toward Trump, because by the time the battle was narrowed to Clinton and Trump their attitude was a pox on both of their houses. They had disengaged.
This dynamic—the fact that moral disgust has such a long half-life—is the reason that the left-wing politics of denunciation may function, in part, as a Trump re-election campaign. If contenders and their aficionados taint each other in a lasting way, reducing enthusiasm and breadth of support for the last person standing on the left, Trump is the obvious beneficiary.
Frustration Can Goad Us Off a Cliff
In the current presidential primary fight, denunciation has heated up even faster than in the last one. That may be partly because the language of grievance has sharpened overall and social discourse has become more fractious. But also, political operatives and activists have gotten better at stirring the pot; and it’s easier because we’re more networked than ever.
Paradoxically, the existence of Trump in office may contribute to dynamics on the left that help keep him there. That is because of a psychological phenomenon called displacement. When people are feeling frustrated by their inability to have harms or grievances addressed in one arena, it is normal that some of that energy gets directed into other relationships or situations where being heard is more possible. We are living with a government that is captive to greed, science-denial, racial fear, corruption, and religious fundamentalism—and is headed by a moral degenerate who has yet to be held accountable. The election of Donald Trump shook us, profoundly. Many progressives carry anger or anxiety near the boiling point. That makes us more likely to go after who we can when we can, because outrage focuses us on here and now, proportion and long-term consequences be damned. And that is exactly where Trump’s re-election campaign wants us.
We Don’t Have to Feed the Beast
Outrage tends to escalate when people perceive that their friends and community are unanimous in sharing their perspective and feelings. Under those circumstances, people—all of us—trend toward greater certitude and more extreme opinions even when our shared evidence is poor and our thinking simplistic. Conversely, each of us has some power to reduce pile-ons by simply making people aware that there are multiple perspectives present “in the room.” By pointing out denunciation dynamics when we see them and adding nuance or offering alternative thoughts and ideas, we keep at bay the false sense that everybody of conscience is in agreement (except when they actually are).
Smart candidates who are decent people are going to have personal flaws. They are going to have done things they regret. They are going to change their minds because they are capable of learning as they go. And every one of them is going to disagree with you or me about something we think is important, because smart, informed, decent people don’t always agree. Accepting that, rather than feeling betrayed by it, is part of what young folks call adulting. We can do it.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Excellent evaluation of “what makes me tick” and how my resulting attitudes and actions probably hurt me and inadvertently help those who have differing views. Gotta give this some thought.
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Timely, powerful and sobering!
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“She has every policy that works in my interests and makes the world a better place, but I just don’t LIKE her.”
“His policies work against me, will make me poorer and empower the very rich and give them sway over me and my future, but he makes me laugh and he STICKS it to her!”
I couldn’t even imagine voting for her.
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And: How I wish you had 22 million followers reading this! Decent newspapers and websites should run this wonderful essay. Responsible TV talk shows should have you saying this.
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Thank you! I wish more people were thinking and talking about these issues too.
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Extremely well said, and you share many of my concerns as well. I think it’s also important to note that much of the divisiveness on the political left has been intentionally increased by the Russians. This is well proven. They successfully suppressed the democratic vote by either enhancing devotion to candidates outside the establishment or by vilifying Clinton. It’s also worth noting that while, sadly, there are many Sanders supporters that “get viscerally angry and activated whenever they think about Clinton”. There are an equal number of Clinton supporters who react the same way towards Bernie. On twitter if you watch people who comment on threads that are anti-Bernie, or anti-Tulsi Gabbard (a big Bernie support) you will see an unreasonable level of anger and unsupported accusations. The point is, that very few people are critiquing ideas for either candidate. It’s fine to have your favorite horse going in, but in the end we need to be united and it seems hard to see how that’s going to happen. This is probably why there are so many dem candidates this time around. Dems are desperately trying to find someone who will appease multiple groups on the left.
The right voted anti-establishment last election. As much as Trump has a whole host of reasons why he is a bad president, and is really just a snake oil salesman, he tapped into anger, he tapped into anti-establishment sentiment. Bernie did the same thing, and so it’s not surprising that there were a subset of Bernie supporters who voted for Trump. For all the wrong reasons of course, but I think we are likely to see people stay home or cross over again if we don’t find someone who at least isn’t seen as a Washington insider. I’d still take that over Trump, but we need to find that sweet spot candidate who wants to both truly shake things up, but also satisfies establishment democrats, many of them who are center right.
I also think it’s not that surprising the left is so divided. The political right has been shifting the conversation so far to the extreme that center right has become the compromise and maybe that’s where we have to start this next election, but my point is there are a whole bunch of people who are liberals who don’t want to have to compromise that far to the right. It’s frustrating.
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Very true. I’ve certainly witnessed the strong anger towards Clinton -but it is matched, if not surpassed by that directed toward Bernie and his people. And it seems to be growing still. So disappointing.
I know… It’s pretty disheartening. I’ve seen him called Trump on the left by establishment Democrats. They’ll say… Even though I agree with most of what he says I wouldn’t vote for him. It’s just very weird. I think he has successfully changed the conversation towards more liberal ideals… Because the Democratic party had become mostly center right politically with neo-liberalism. I’m okay with him not becoming president… But I still thinking he’s pointing to the right problem which is the greed of big banks and corporations.
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Reblogged this on Cloak Unfurled.
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How much do you think this social dynamic is influenced by religious psycho-social models? Having lived in a few different countries, it seems to me that the outrage factor as a social phenomenon is much more prevalent in cultures that have a Protestant/Puritan origin.
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Excellent article, Valerie. Your reasoning is very though-provoking & we Democrats should abjure from cannibalizing our own.Shar
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Excellent commentary and insight. The challenge is how to move forward. Taking and holding multiple perspectives is incredibly difficult and particularly so when attempting public policy and solutions that address both political sides of the aisle. Here is one look at this potential approach based on shared values: https://www.culturalevolution.org/political-campaigns/why-centrism-fails-and-how-we-can-better-achieve-political-cooperation/
I was glad to see this column reposted on Alternet this morning. That should get a much wider readership for, IMNSHO, one of your most important posts in a long time. You are very skilled at explaining how our psyche affects our behavior and thinking. We could all profit from being more discriminating in our targets of outrage and the reasons for that outrage. Policy, not personality.