With the 2016 presidential primary season in full swing and certain (ahem) candidates seeming to delight in ever more inflammatory statements, politics is beginning to feel more and more like a car accident we can’t look away from — somehow both appalling and appealing.
In her book, In-Your-Face Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media, Diana Mutz explores the media’s role in this phenomenon. She looks at the way political conflict is viewed on television and argues that it is this closeness that intensifies our negative feelings toward politicians while simultaneously making it that much more engrossing.
We spoke with Mutz to get her take on an election season that literally seems to be taking a page out of her book.
Why are people drawn to watch politicians fighting on television?
Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to conflict. It’s like when we look by the side of the road at an accident — we don’t like to see people hurt, but we do look. The argument is one from evolutionary psychology: negative things, especially conflict, call our attention because it’s evolutionarily adaptive to pay attention to them. In prehistoric terms, you don’t want to get eaten by the lion. So threat, which is what conflict is about, makes us particularly pay attention.
But watching is not the same thing as liking. I find that when politicians are uncivil with one another usually they’re both being uncivil at the same time. Incivility doesn't change your mind about which candidate you support but it does increase the extent to which you hate the opposition. So if you don’t like Donald Trump and he's acting in this inflammatory way, you’ll hate him even more.
And this is particularly interesting because at the end of the primary season, whoever the Republican nominee is will need to get the support of all the Republicans. That’s going to be increasingly hard to do in the context of a vitriolic primary season.
How does the media play into this dynamic?
Television as a medium does the opposite of what we would do normally if we disagreed in a face-to-face situation. In person we would, without even knowing it, put greater physical space between us. But during these moments of conflict on TV, the cameras go in for tight close ups and you actually feel physically closer to the people who are arguing. When that happens, our level of emotional arousal goes through the roof. People remember a lot more of what is said when it’s said loudly during an intense loud exchange. So in that sense it’s good at helping people learn about the candidates, but on the other hand they come away thinking that politicians are just a bunch of screaming idiots.
Part of the problem is the extremely competitive media environment we’re in right now. In order to get attention, you need to call attention to yourself, and this is happening through incivility.
There are other ways of getting attention, for example, humor — people will watch something because it’s funny. However, the real problem is there's always something else on television you could be watching. If you’re not really into politics you’re probably going to tune out entirely. As citizens we all have a vested interest in people paying attention. So the problem is how we draw attention to politics without damaging people's attitudes towards politicians.
People have always been drawn to politics because it’s competitive, lively, and entertaining. As Americans, we love competition. It’s fun and that’s why we engage with it, not because we feel it’s our civic duty.
It’s the same reason people are drawn to NFL games through fantasy football. All of a sudden people have an interest in watching games that aren't their home team’s because they have players that come from every team in the League. Viewership of NFL games has gone through the roof since fantasy football started. Well, why not have a political version?
Yes! In fact, Canada did a similarly pop culture political thing from 2007-2009. “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister” was an American Idol type show where the judges were former prime ministers. The “performers” were young people who wanted to get involved in politics, who would debate topics every week like health care. They could win big scholarship money as a prize, but every week the public got to vote somebody off the show.
It’s not quite that simple to employ in the U.S., but I think we could do something like this for the primaries and it would give primary candidates free media time. Many countries do have free airtime for candidates, but we don’t.
Overall, I think there are alternatives to incivility, but right now that's the only game in town.