Consequences of Violent Political Rhetoric
Sample size: 500
Field period: 7/1/2010-8/17/2010
Political leaders regularly infuse communication with violent metaphors, yet we know little about its consequences for political behavior. In this design, I randomly assign subjects to read the text of a short campaign ad employing mild violent rhetoric or non-violent synonyms. I examine the impact of this subtle change on support for political violence, leader evaluations, and intentions to participate, as conditioned by trait aggression. First, I find that mild violent political rhetoric increases support for violence against political leaders among trait-aggressive citizens, particularly among young adults, though the results only reach statistical significance among this latter subset. Second, I find that increases favorability ratings of leaders using the rhetoric, especially among older adults, though the results only reach statistical significance among this latter subset. Third, I find that violent political rhetoric increases participation intentions among trait-aggressive citizens when they have confidence in elections, but decreases participation intentions when they have doubts. Patterns are reversed among low-aggression citizens. This work reveals new insights on the interactive effects of communication frames and a personality trait that are new to the study of political behavior, rooted in aggression, a timeless human predisposition.
- Violent political rhetoric increases support for violence against political leaders by priming aggression in trait-aggressive citizens.
- Violent political rhetoric increases support for the source of violent rhetoric among trait aggressive citizens, who tend to be attracted to violent content.
- Violent political rhetoric increases participation intentions among trait-aggressive citizens by who are mobilized into action by the language of aggression.
Next we will show the text from a campaign ad by a candidate running for the U.S. House of Representatives. After the ad, please give you impressions of the candidate.
“Fighting for You”
“Americans today are fighting to keep their jobs and their homes. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side and fight for your future. That’s just what I intend to do. I will fight hard to get our economy back on track. I will fight for our children’s future. And I will fight for justice and opportunity for all. I will always fight for America’s future, no matter how tough it gets. Join me in this fight.”
“Working for You”
“Americans today are struggling to keep their jobs and their homes. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side and stand up for your future. That’s just what I intend to do. I will work hard to get our economy back on track. I will work for our children’s future. And I will work for justice and opportunity for all. I will always work for America’s future, no matter how tough it gets. Join me in this effort.”
Key Dependent Variables:
Support for political violence is measured with a three-item index of 5-point agree-disagree items, including smashing the windows of politicians with bricks, solving problems with government with “a few well-aimed bullets,” and a rejection of non-violence in politics.
Leader evaluation is measured with three five-point items on favorability, ralatability, and perceptions of forceful advocacy.
Participation intentions are measured with three five-point items on voting, volunteering/contributions, and political attention.
Summary of Findings:
Support for political violence: Exposure to mild violent political rhetoric increases support for violence against political leaders among trait-aggressive citizens, but the results only reach statistical significance among young adults, for whom the effects are strongest. Violent rhetoric doubles the power of trait aggression in the youngest half of the sample. This finding is consistent with two similar studies.
Leader evaluation: Exposure to mild violent political rhetoric increases favorability ratings of the communication source among trait-aggressive citizens at marginally-significant levels (p<.10), particularly among older adults. This finding is at odds with the findings from two similar studies, which show a significant decrease in leader evaluations among trait-aggressive citizens exposed to violent rhetoric, especially among younger adults. Marginal treatment effects for relatability and forcefulness are not statistically different from zero in this study.
Participation intentions: Beliefs about whether elections matter condition the treatment effects. Exposure to mild violent rhetoric significantly increases intention to vote and intention to volunteer among trait-aggressive citizens who have confidence that elections matter (external efficacy), but violent rhetoric significantly decreases intention to vote and volunteer among trait-aggressive citizens who doubt the effectiveness of elections. Reactions are significantly reversed in each category among low-aggression citizens. No effects appear for the political attention item. These patterns are replicated in a second similar study.
Trait aggression is measured here using the short-form Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ-SF). Aggression research – including the media violence studies on which the theory here is based – sometimes use all four subscales of the BPAQ, but other times use just one based on the the subscale that best matches the domain of the outcome. Generally, results in this study are substantively similar using the full BPAQ index or the physical aggression subscale, though the statistical reliability is sometimes stronger for one or the other. There is no a priori expectation for one to be activated more strongly by violent political rhetoric than the other.