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Nasty Politics

New book by SPA professor considers the logic behind political insults and incitements to violence.

The 2024 election cycle has kicked off amid a flurry of legal proceedings and harsh rhetoric, leaving Americans concerned about the specter of political violence. To help understand our current political moment, AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Associate Professor Thomas Zeitzoff has just published Nasty Politics: The Logic of Insults, Threats, and Incitement (Oxford University Press), which examines why politicians sling insults and demonize their opponents, and why voters reward such behavior.

Zeitzoff studies political violence across the globe; at SPA, his courses address the psychology of terrorism, ideology, extremism, and violence. For Nasty Politics, Zeitzoff tracked trends across the U.S., Ukraine, and Israel, revealing how key leaders such as Trump, Zelensky, and Netanyahu deploy ugly rhetoric for political gain. 

“I was always interested in why people fight, and how people exposed to violence respond,” said Zeitzoff. “I would see politicians use nasty rhetoric in other countries, calling their opponents ‘animal,’ ‘scum,’ or ‘terrorist.’ Around 2015, I started seeing it reflected here in the U.S. I wanted to understand: why do people do this? The conventional wisdom is that it's distasteful, but it works.”

Ukraine features relatively weak political parties, such that Volodymyr Zelensky was able to create a brand new one based on (and named after) his television show, Servant to the People. Zeitzoff deems Israel, with its high polarization and moderately strong parties, a middle case. While Israel has a standard left-center-right party structure, voters tend to shift parties from election to election.

“Even though these are very different countries with different political systems and histories, their motives and incentives to use this rhetoric and style of politics are pretty similar,” he said.

In 2018, Zeitzoff set out to solve this mystery. He conducted surveys in all three countries, examining how voters feel about different types of rhetoric, polled local political elites to understand their attitudes and motivations, and built a dataset of more than 400 reported incidents of nasty politics in Ukraine and nearly 1,000 in the U.S. He began writing his book amidst the lockdown in April 2020. 

Zeitzoff considers the motivation for nasty politics through the lens of political psychology.

“Humans are really bad at understanding and explaining the motivations for our actions,” he said. “The idea of political psychology is that, like it or not, politics determines our nations, our laws, our legal system, all the way down to the school board. Our motivations, emotions, social group identity, and personalities all influence how we come to politics and how politicians try to woo voters.”

Sometimes these processes darken into a state of so-called affective polarization, he continued, in which groups not only disagree over policy, but maintain and express a visceral dislike of the other side. This deep aversion serves as a ready breeding ground for ugly rhetoric.

But are strong partisan allegiances the only driver of nasty politics? Zeitzoff is unconvinced. 

“Ukraine is a country with, historically, a very weak partisan identity,” he said. “If the story of nasty politics is about partisan polarization, you have to explain why the politics in Ukraine––marked by physical fights on the legislature floor––were way nastier than they were in the U.S (before the Russian invasion in 2022).”

The book addresses this question, as well as the ultimate head-scratcher: why do politicians use nasty politics if voters don’t like it?

“One, nastiness grabs attention,” Zeitzoff said. “The news media is not going to report on a politician saying ‘I respectfully disagree with my opponent,’ but if they say ‘my opponent is a junkyard dog who should be put down,’ that is going to get clicks and likes.” 

“Secondly, during periods of heightened threat or uncertainty, voters may want somebody who's a little tough,” he continued. “If you were going through a nasty divorce, you don't want the nice, polite lawyer. So there's this trade-off that voters are willing to make. They don't particularly like this politician and wish they would tone it down, but things are so bad that we need somebody tough and willing to fight for us.”

Zeitzoff shared examples, both at home and abroad. Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted, in 2018: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”

Ukrainian politician Oleh Lyashko used similar tactics in 2014, when protests in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine turned to armed conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian forces. He formed a militia, recorded himself interrogating detainees, engaged in brawls on the parliament floor, and hurled epithets at his opponents that translate to “animal bastards.”

“Before that period, people thought of Lyashko as a carnival barker,” said Zeitzoff. “But during Euromaidan, he actually finished third in the presidential election, with 15% of the vote. Eventually, people grew tired of his act, and he was voted out in 2019. I think there was a time and period for nasty politics. A lot of the people that do it, not surprisingly, are outsiders.”

Zeitzoff compares Lyashko’s trajectory to that of Donald Trump.

“If you look at Trump's style of politics, he was not really a member of the Republican elite party,” he said. “He came in and sucked a lot of oxygen with his flamboyant, inflammatory rhetoric. And, uniquely among party leaders, he did not stop once he became the de facto leader of the Republican Party.” 

The danger, he continued, comes when leaders at the top rungs of power deploy nasty rhetoric, and harness such antipathy, resulting in violence such as the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

“In other countries, when main party leaders have been under criminal indictment or gone to trial—e.g., Yulia Tymoshenko (in Ukraine) and Benjamin Netanyahu (in Israel)––nasty politics has followed; Israel has had five elections in three years and 30 weeks of protest,” he said. “When party leaders are under criminal indictment or facing criminal charges, the level of rhetoric ratchets up and enters the mainstream and we have the real possibility of increased political violence.”

In Nasty Politics, Zeitzoff used New York Times historical data to chart U.S. trends in such rhetoric over time, discovering two large peaks, one in the 1850s, in the lead-up to the Civil War, and the second in last few decades, culminating in the 2016 presidential election.

“Polarization [in the U.S.] has increased going back to the '70s and '80s,” he said. “Then, when Newt Gingrich came into Congress, he helped usher in an era of no-holds-barred power politics. Next, the Tea Party faction took over a large wing of the Republican Party, supporting a more confrontational style. The election of Trump then accelerated Democrats' use of nasty rhetoric and talk about threats that Republicans posed.”

Similar dynamics are playing out in Israel, he added, noting polarization over security, attitudes towards the moribund peace process with Palestinians, and the role of religion in the nation. In Ukraine, before the outbreak of the War in Donbas, there were growing divisions between those favoring more integration with Europe and those who prefer stronger ties with Russian. The brutal ongoing war with Russia has muted these divisions, as Ukrainians have rallied around President Zelensky. 

Zeitzoff’s study found that one popular suspect in the rise of nasty politics, the rise of social media, does not tell whole story.

“I think we have good evidence that the polarization happened before then,” he said. “The rise of partisan cable news has had a really big effect ... At the end of the day, what I would say is that nasty politics is a choice that elites make. It's a style of politics and a calculus. No one was helpless, or forced to put out a bunch of inflammatory tweets.”

He maintains that the nastiness is concentrated among party elites, county- and state-level political operatives who help select local candidates––the backbone of partisan machines. 

“Voters tune a lot of this out,” he insisted. “The book argues that nasty politics doesn't mobilize people. It actually demobilizes people. People become less interested in participating in politics writ large.”

However, when the stakes seem high, voters overcome this repulsion to nastiness, particularly those who are already comfortable with the idea of violence. Those folks were attracted to political participation by the very element that soured others, changing the nature of the coalition itself.

“The Republican Party now is very different than the Republican Party was 10 years ago,” said Zeitzoff. “People have come into that coalition who were maybe inactive, or maybe Blue Dog Democrats, whereas a lot of the Never Trump and hawkish foreign policy people have left. I mean, Bill Kristol is on MSNBC, right?”

While Zeitzoff insists that the average voter dislikes nasty politics, and blames political elites for opting for such strategies, he reveals an additional concern about the nation itself. 

“For a long time, we thought the U.S. was immune from these populist leaders,” he said. “As the political scientist Juan Linz argued, presidential systems like the U.S., in which we directly elect a president and vote for candidates instead of parties, tend to be unstable [as seen in certain coup-prone Latin American nations]. If there's a fight between Congress and the president, or Congress and the Supreme Court, you can't resolve that constitutionally.”

“If something happens in what they call a proportional representation system, in countries with prime ministers, they can just [call new elections]. That would have happened several times in the Trump era. I think what we have shown, after January 6 and other events, is that the U.S. isn't as much of an outlier politically as we want. We elect populists. We have political instability. We had an insurrection.”

In his next book, Zeitzoff changes tack to consider two questions related to the radical environmental movement. First, after 9/11, so-called ecoterrorism was the number one domestic terror threat, and then it largely disappeared—what happened? Second, given the threat of climate change, will radical activists shift towards more extreme and intense tactics? 

Watch this conversation with The Washington Post’s Philip Bump to hear Zeitzoff discuss his book in detail, and order a copy of Nasty Politics, for yourself or your classroom. 
To learn more about Dr. Zeitzoff’s larger research agenda, visit his website.