Political Toxicity as a Political Strategy

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Certain special interests are interested in voter apathy (or voter apathy among specific demographic groups) because it politically benefits them. They want you to feel powerless; Don’t let them.

Why is politics often toxic?

The 2024 U.S. general election has been unprecedently toxic. I mean that there is hatred, misinformation, gaslighting, lies, and so on at a heightened level. It makes intuitive sense to withdraw from politics because it damages our mental health. We can feel hopeless when we observe the destruction of epistemic norms by relentless denial of evidence and epistemic contamination, where the influx of falsehoods and manipulative tactics overwhelms our ability to discern truth from falsity. Still, we ought to double down on voting because epistemic integrity is essential, and political toxicity is often a strategy to suppress voter turnout. I’m not sure about other countries, but in the U.S., one of the parties tends to benefit when people stay at home.

My claim here is that political toxicity is an intentional strategy used to suppress voter turnout, which disproportionately benefits the Republican Party in the United States. The preceding is one reason politics may be intentionally toxic. First, while the connection seems intuitive, let us evaluate some evidence tying political toxicity to reduced voter turnout. Second, I will show how this strategy benefits the U.S. Republican Party.

Empirical Evidence of Political Toxicity Reducing Voter Turnout

Meta-Analyses on Negative Campaigning and Voter Turnout

One significant meta-analysis by Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner (2007) examined the effects of negative political campaigns on voter turnout. This comprehensive analysis synthesized results from 111 studies on the impact of negative campaigning. The findings suggest that while negative campaigns can sometimes mobilize partisan voters, they generally have a demobilizing effect on the electorate as a whole. This demobilization is pronounced among less politically engaged and independent voters, often deterred by the negativity and cynicism of toxic political strategies. Similarly, a meta-analysis by Nai and Maier (2018) explored the psychological and behavioral effects of negative campaigning. The analysis found consistent evidence that negative campaigning increases political cynicism and reduces political efficacy with lower voter turnout.

Misinformation and Disengagement

The spread of misinformation and fake news has been identified as a significant factor in voter disengagement. According to a study by Guess, Nyhan, and Reifler (2018), exposure to fake news during the 2016 U.S. general election led to confusion and a loss of trust in the political process. This erosion of confidence can result in reduced voter turnout as people become skeptical about the integrity and fairness of elections. The study highlights how misinformation can create a toxic political environment that alienates voters.

Political Cynicism

Political cynicism, often fueled by toxic political strategies, also leads to lower voter turnout. Research conducted by Valentino, Beckmann, and Buhr (2001) suggests that voters are less likely to participate in elections when they perceive that all politicians are corrupt or that their vote won’t make a difference. Negative campaigning and misinformation exacerbate cynicism and futility.

Some Survey Reports About Young Voters

Younger voters are more susceptible to being dissuaded by toxic political environments. According to a Hamilton College poll on political attitudes of young Americans, negative campaigning and political cynicism were among the top reasons young people cited for not voting. Research by Elenbaas and de Vreese (2008) supports the claim: They show that exposure to strategically framed campaign coverage significantly increases political cynicism, particularly among young voters. Additionally, the Pew Research Center 2012 highlighted that young adults are coming of age when the political system appears paralyzed and partisan, leading many to disengage from politics.

By incorporating these empirical studies and statistics, it becomes more evident that political toxicity creates a hostile political environment and significantly reduces voter turnout. This undermines the democratic process.

Political Toxicity Benefits the U.S. Republican Party

Political toxicity has been observed to benefit the Republican Party by suppressing voter turnout in specific demographics; consequently, they have more incentives to fuel toxic narratives. Younger voters are such demographics. For example, a study by Abrajano, Nagler, and Alvarez (2005) found that negative campaigning tends to decrease turnout among less partisan, less politically engaged voters who are often more diverse and younger. These demographics typically lean Democratic.

Additionally, the campaign and its surrogates strategically used misinformation to create confusion and mistrust in the electoral process during the 2016 U.S. general election, where targeted misinformation efforts were linked to reduced voter turnout in critical Democratic-leaning areas (Guess, Nyhan & Reifler, 2018). By constructing a toxic political environment, the Republican Party can potentially benefit from a depressed voter turnout, which often disproportionately affects Democratic voters, thus skewing electoral outcomes in their favor.

Some strategies:

To avoid unnecessary toxic political content, consider disengaging from political content entirely for a period leading up to an election, for a week or two before (unless you are actively participating in a campaign. E.g., knocking on doors ). Constantly following political news months in advance often doesn’t provide significant benefits and can contribute to stress and anxiety. It is a waste of time (unless political content is a form of entertainment to you). Instead, set aside a limited time closer to the election to catch up on essential information, ensuring you stay informed without being overwhelmed by the ongoing political discourse. Do the same with your family. Make an agreement that no one will bring up political discourse before the designated dates. During this period, I suggest using fact-checkers to verify critical information.

Opt out of toxic political content entirely by unfollowing political accounts, especially sensational ones, on social media. If you own a TV, turn off the TV news; any significant news will reach you through conversations. These steps can help reduce exposure to toxic political content and maintain mental well-being.

Conclusion:

Political toxicity is a strategic tool used to suppress voter turnout and undermine democracy and often truths. Here, I will not pretend to be neutral. If we value epistemic virtues and democratic values, we ought to mobilize against the actors who employ toxicity to suppress voter turnout or deny evidence. We can do this by voting against them while avoiding toxic political news. You can also support organizations like FairVote.Org; we can combat these tactics and promote fair elections. Your contribution can make a difference in ensuring every vote counts, restoring faith in the democratic process, and protecting epistemic integrity and virtue.


Reference:

  1. Abrajano, M., Nagler, J., & Alvarez, R. M. (2005). A natural experiment of race-based and issue voting: The 2008 Louisiana presidential primary. Political Research Quarterly, 58(2), 203-218. Link.
  2. CIRCLE (2020). Election Week 2020: Vote Choice by Age and by Race and Ethnicity. Retrieved from Link.
  3. Guess, A., Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2018). Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Link.
  4. Elenbaas, M., & de Vreese, C. H. (2008). “The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism and Vote Choice Among Young Voters.” Journal of Communication, 58(3), 550-567. Link.
  5. Hamilton College. (2024). “Political Attitudes of Young Americans.” Link.
  6. Lau, R. R., Sigelman, L., & Rovner, I. B. (2007). The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment. The Journal of Politics, 69(4), 1176-1209. Link.
  7. Nai, A., & Maier, J. (2018). Perceived Effectiveness of Negative Campaigning: A Meta-Analytical Assessment. American Politics Research, 46(4), 566-601.
  8. Valentino, N. A., Beckmann, M. N., & Buhr, T. A. (2001). A Spiral of Cynicism for Some: The Contingent Effects of Campaign News Frames on Participation and Confidence in Government. Link.
  9. Pew Research Center. (2012). “Ask the Expert: Young People and Political Engagement.” Link.