A prominent political scientist asks why politicians and political advocates so often seem like “nasty, boorish sorts who somehow feel they need not obey the same social norms as ordinary citizens.”
Observing George W. Bush’s face on TV, Mutz (Political Science and Communication/Univ. of Penn.; Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy, 2006, etc.) realized that “[t]o obtain the same visual perspective in person, [one] would need to be either his lover or his dentist.” With ample humor and sufficient exposition for a lay audience, she conducts and analyzes a series of experiments carefully crafted to study how extreme close-ups and uncivil behavior in political TV affect the public discourse. Unsurprisingly, the results suggest that incivility erodes trust in government: “[U]ncivil political exchanges prime people to think about less savory, more strongly disliked examples of politicians and politics. This, in turn, prompts them to evaluate the whole enterprise more negatively.” Examining people’s political viewing habits, Mutz finds that “Republicans are exposed to fewer programs [than Democrats], a much larger proportion of which are uncivil.” (She does not make the connection that many Republican policies are themselves designed to limit the power and appeal of government, pointing to potential positive externalities of incivility for Republican actors.) Few of Mutz’s conclusions are surprising, and the most entertaining chapter is the last, in which she proffers an assortment of delightfully bizarre remedies to the fact that “[f]or most people, politics on its own merits is not sufficiently exciting…so it requires the drama and tension of uncivil human conflict to make it more interesting to watch.” Taking a page from the Korean networks, perhaps election coverage should involve “animations based on popular movies and sporting events to show who [is] surging ahead or falling behind,” or maybe candidates should compete on a season of Political Idol.
An approachable yet scientifically rigorous look at what passes for political discourse in America.