Extremism in American Politics: Part 1

In the U.S., partisan extremism has been on the rise since 1980 and has been growing more severe in recent decades. In order to investigate political extremism we must examine some of its causes. While many factors contribute to political extremism, I believe schadenfreude, party dominance, or lack thereof, and ideological polarization are the most prevalent. In part one of a three part editorial series, I will be delving into schadenfreude and how it has aided in increasing partisan extremism.

Schadenfreude, the pleasure one gets from someone else’s pain, has been gradually used more and more in the political realm. To understand how schadenfreude affects our nation’s politics we must first understand how it affects our minds. Evidence shows that schadenfreude, literally “harm-joy,” is felt the same way pure joy is. This is because both emotions pass through the ventral striatum of the brain, which controls motor functions that deal with emotional and motivational activities. This physical effect legitimizes schadenfreude because it makes it harder to detect.

Some may believe feeling schadenfreude doesn’t negatively influence political decisions, and they’re right in a way. Schadenfreude has the potential to makepolitical decisions instead of just influencing them. When we feel schadenfreude, whether we recognize the emotion or not, it may cause us to take action since the ventral striatum controls the emotional motor functions we use. In the political field this action may be casting a vote based on your feeling instead of your knowledge. When we let schadenfreude take the better of our emotions we are making it harder to care about people. Our thoughts about others, politicians for this article’s purposes, are reduced to superficial judgements instead of merits or experiences.

The recent decades are not the first time in U.S. history that schadenfreude has been an issue. Manipulation of schadenfreude is cyclical in U.S. politics in depending on public reception. Acceptance of schadenfreude has forced politicians to “give the people what they want,” in a sense. In order to be successful, politicians give schadenfreude as much and as frequently as the public accepts it. This is basic supply and demand.

The first major rise of schadenfreude in political elections surrounded Andrew Jackson v John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s camp spread rumors about Adams, most notably that while on a visit to Russia he pimped out a young American girl as a gift to the Czar. In defense of Adams, Republicans published a pamphlet titled “Reminiscences; or, an Extract from the Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty.”

This lengthy pamphlet accused Jackson of adultery, cockfighting and gambling and even made fun of Mrs. Jackson’s weight. In that election the use of schadenfreude won votes for each camp and the emotion was widely accepted in the political landscape.

That era of schadenfreude did not last long. The U.S.’s acceptance of schadenfreude waned and it was not accepted widely again until over 60 years later during the Gilded Age, arguably the most extreme point in American politics up to that time.  Politicians were openly corrupt and dependent on political machines for votes. Political machines like Tammany Hall in New York and Boss Reuf in San Francisco gained votes for candidates by pointing out the flaws in opposition that had nothing to with their politics.

The partisan sway and schadenfreude of the Gilded Age only lasted about 10 years. Our modern acceptance of schadenfreude has stretched from the 1980s to today, almost three decades longer than the last period of political extremism.

The modern era of schadenfreude was ushered in with the Reagan Revolution. Presidential campaigns have been gradually increasing their use of schadenfreude since then. The nation’s continually increasing love of schadenfreude has delivered the election that the public has asked for. The 2016 race saw an egregious amount of name-calling, opponent bashing and general unruliness.

If you’re having trouble thinking of the highlights of the 2016 election, let me remind you. Donald Trump called Marco Rubio “Little Marco.” Rubio said Trump has small hands in response. Trump associated Ted Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald. Cruz said that Trump is a pathological liar. Hillary Clinton called Trump a racist. Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman.” Media called Trump a cheeto and Clinton a robot. These comments are just a handful of the race’s insults.

Unsurprisingly, the media and general public ate these up, encouraging the candidates to go further in their bashing. The fact that the public enjoyed the language and banter among the candidates is the most obvious proof of our acceptance of schadenfreude. It also shows that schadenfreude is a destructive force in American politics.

Schadenfreude has become a part of America’s everyday political life as well. Although there has been evidence of schadenfreude in almost every presidential administration in recent decades, it seems most appropriate to take a look at our current one.

Trump has used schadenfreude so much in his management that Americans have become numb to it. Most recently he has taken to calling Kim Jong Un, a hostile world leader, “Little Rocket Man.” This provocative nickname for a leader who has already threatened war against the U.S. began at the United Nations General Assembly, after which the media and public alike began talking about it ravenously.

The legitimacy of such comments has been questioned nonstop since his election. Although one side condemns his comments, the other supports them. And just like a child who continues bad behavior because one person encourages it, Trump will continue his schadenfreudic actions until they are condemned by all sides and he can no longer use this marketing technique to gain support and approval.

The name calling and attention grabbing stunts will only intensify as our love of schadenfreude does in upcoming elections. The cycle of partisan extremism runs on schadenfreude, and although it has traditionally died out in the past, the U.S. has never had as prolonged a love for schadenfreude as it does now.

The growing generation of young voters has the chance to determine whether or not schadenfreudic elections continue. By rejecting the schadenfreudic techniques of politicians and demanding legitimate politics, the reign of schadenfreude could be halted. Likely, if the U.S. refuses schadenfreude the landscape of its politics will become less extreme.

Photo courtesy of Stanford University.

Savannah Hawley

Savannah Hawley is the Managing Editor and Chief Copy Editor of The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: Literature & Theory and French.

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