Baumgart’s Box: Our political conversation is unhealthy. Here’s why.
Maybe you are the political type. Perhaps you like a good debate, and you can hold your own, defending your side no matter what. Or maybe you cannot stand politics because you think it is unproductive. People are stuck in their ways and refuse to hear each other out, you say. Either way, you probably won’t approach political conversations with a willingness to hear your “opposition” out. It’s even less likely that you will allow the conversation to modify your beliefs, even if it could expand your worldview.
This toxic polarization in American politics seems inexplicable, but it actually mirrors common and expected trends in health communication and morality. That’s only fitting. The nation’s political climate is unhealthy and health communication explains why. How ironic.
The parallel between health communication and political communication start with the strategies message senders use. In both fields, the persuader can use either positive or negative appeals. People will argue that supporters of their side will reap all sorts of rewards when they use positive appeals. On the flipside, communicators can use negative appeals to contest that supporting the opposition will hurt them economically, socially, or physically. Sound familiar?
Your parents try to convince you that eating vegetables has its benefits, like growing big and strong. They use positive appeals to tell you that the desired action has benefits, but the same argument style also pops up in politics. Former president George H.W. Bush famously used a positive appeal to argue that if he was elected, Americans would not have to worry about tax increases. He assertively promised, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Bush ultimately failed to live up to his promise, but his appeal won him the presidency.
Health and political messages also use negative appeals to scare message receivers onto their side. Doctors tell you not to do drugs because they are addictive and dangerous to your body. The doctor uses their professional status to convince you that the undesired action is detrimental, appealing to the negative aspects of it. President Donald Trump is known for doing the same, hoping to intimidate Americans with threats from outside enemies.
One of his classic negative appeals attempted to explain why loose immigration laws are dangerous, but it turned out to be one of the most controversial statements of his presidency. Trump exclaimed that Mexican immigrants are, “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Critics called his statement racist. Clearly, Trump’s negative appeal flopped. Critics called his statement racist, and he faced fierce backlash. Clearly, Trump’s negative appeal flopped.
Political communication and health communication styles are similar, but how does that help us understand why we are so divided? Well, knowing that the two message structures are similar helps us know the effects are also alike. People have a tendency to automatically react to appeal-based evidence that they dislike.
There are three reactions people often have when others tell them how they should feel about something. The first reaction is to automatically block out all arguments and take the opposite side in a process called psychological reactance. This is why teenagers argue against their parents no matter what. Another reaction to forced opinions is counter-arguing. These are the “Oh yeah? What about xyz?” questions that basically push back against the message. Lastly, if the arguments are too strong, people could deny the applicability of the evidence to their cause. Debaters display this when they say things like, “That would never happen in my neighborhood.”
Essentially, it is natural for people to push back against health messages. Since political messages often assert the same force, people often oppose their “enemy” without actually listening to their arguments.
Moral psychology can also explain the American tendency to completely block out their political adversaries. Jonathan Haidt describes how this is possible in his book “The Righteous Mind,” claiming that somebody’s moral ideas both bind and blind them. He summed it up perfectly, writing, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us to ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” To most ideologues, their political ideology is the actualization of their moral compass. Since people are bound to their unbreakable moral compass, they are also bound to their associated and unshakeable political ideology. Such a dedication to a moral and political ideology solidifies an unwillingness to explore arguments that contradict one’s own.
This leads to the stagnant political conversation and gridlocked legislatures that characterize our nation. The same old arguments in these conversations follow the predictable routines of those of the ad campaigns that nobody pays attention too, meaning that people find reasons to tune out political talking points altogether. Unquestionable dedication to one’s beliefs and ideology paired with a tendency to ignore the “opposition’s” political rhetoric means that bipartisan cooperation will remain an unrealized dream until Americans construct a healthier national conversation.
Jacob Baumgart is the editor-in-chief of The Review. His views are his own and do not reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s editorial staff. He may be reached at Baumgart@udel.edu.