Loathing and Leadership

“As the president fiddles, people are dying. The president, his denial at the beginning, was deadly.  The truth is a weak person, a poor leader, takes no responsibility.  A weak person blames others.”  Speaker of the House Pelosi commenting on President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Crazy Nancy Pelosi, you are a weak person.  You are a poor leader.  You are the reason America hates career politicians, like yourself.”  President Trump responds to Nancy Pelosi’s accusations.   

Why so personal?  What happened to civility?  Can’t they stop! 

After observing the latest exchanges between Trump and Pelosi, frustrated Americans must be asking themselves these same questions.

For sure, the remarks signify new lows in public discourse and a disturbing personalization of politics.  Even during times of great national urgency, the top two elected officials cannot find the proper discipline and poise. 

Here’s why.

Representation

Trump and Pelosi illustrate representation gone awry.   The offensive remarks are not widely criticized, as you might expect.  Rather they are embraced: The angry words satisfy – if temporarily – a legion of partisans focused exclusively on defeating the opposition.   The harsh language strengthens that competitive drive and intensifies group loyalties.     

It is Pavlovian.

Leaders hurl insults and supporters – on cue – applaud.  The antipathy deepens.  The cycle then repeats, conditioning leader and follower. 

Trump and Pelosi firmly believe they are representing constituents.  After all, to stay in power they must stand for their people.

Tactics    

Politicians have always exploited existing social and political divisions.  They do so to gain advantage and seize control.  Words are weapons used to divide, reinforce, and combine segments of the population.     

This is not about personality, nor about character.  The persistent media focus on Trump’s nastiness or Pelosi’s hostility misses the point entirely. 

Neither politician could use such coarse language two decades ago.  But society changes, people change, and so do the tactics of political representation.  Don’t forget, Trump and Pelosi are successful, at the very top of the political pyramid.  They define today’s politics.        

 Loathing   

Let’s take a look at Democrats’ feelings toward Trump and Republicans’ feelings toward Clinton during the 2016 campaign – sorry I do not have data on Pelosi.  A large share of both parties reported the coldest feelings possible on a scale of 0 – coldest to 100 – warmest.  Clearly, partisans detest rival candidates.  The average scores for Trump and Clinton are historically low – and frankly alarming.   

For example, in 2000 Al Gore’s average feeling thermometer score among Republicans was 41.  Four years later, in 2004, John Kerry’s average was 34.  In 2008, Barack Obama’s was 37 and four years, 26.  Low, yes, but still twice the size of Clinton’s average.    

Democrats’ rating of Republican candidates exhibited a similar pattern.  In 2000, Democrats’ average feeling toward George W. Bush was 45.  The next election the average declined by 6 points to 39 for John McCain.  And, in 2012, 27 for Mitt Romney.  With each election, the loathing grows.     Once more, consider the proportions of both parties that report the coldest feelings (a zero).  I hope now the words of Pelosi and Trump make some sense.   

Anger

Rival candidates also make partisans angry.  This was not always the case.  With the exception of 2004 – Democrats were notably angry at Bush for the Iraq War, candidates typically did not elicit such strong emotions from the opposition. 

That changed in 2012.  Eighty percent of Republicans agreed that Obama made them feel angry and 63% of Democrats felt the same about Romney.  Once again, 2016 set records.  Ninety three percent of Democrats said Trump made them angry and 92% of Republicans said the same about Clinton.  Incredible figures and the highest percentages ever recorded. 

Answers

Let’s return to the questions posed at the beginning. 

Why so personal? 

Long ago, I quit trying to pinpoint a psychological explanation for leaders’ rhetoric and tactics.  Instead, I prefer explanations derived from the social and political environment.  Our present reality is this:  Party loyalists are committed to winning and despise the opposition. 

Because most Democrats’ truly dislike Trump, and say he makes them angry, Pelosi has two options.  Ignore Trump.  Or, align her rhetoric with the feelings of most Democrats.  She decided to represent her party.  Trump did so as well.        

What happened to civility? 

Nothing.  The leaders could and probably will express kindness and respect.  They can work together.  But we should not expect it.  Look again at the data.  There appears to be no reward for civility, especially in a presidential election year.   

Can’t they stop!   

They can.  But they won’t – not until the numbers change. 

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