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The Consequences of Political Vilification

30 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 28 Aug 2011

Michael W. Wagner

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - Political Science

Dona-Gene Mitchell

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Elizabeth Theiss-Morse

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - Department of Political Science

Date Written: 2011


Disagreement and conflict are inherent to democratic politics, and heated disagreement has long been a feature of politics in the United States. Incivility in Washington currently runs rampant, with politicians and pundits alike engaging in name calling and resorting to disrespectful outbursts. Calls for greater civility abound. We propose that a different, and potentially more destructive, type of political rhetoric has become more commonplace, what we call political vilification. Partisan disagreements are increasingly steeped in rhetoric that depicts the opposition as the enemy, an enemy that is evil and a threat to the United States and to its people. Vilification has become a preferred mode of political rhetoric and its effects are not benign. We argue that when people hear vilifying rhetoric, the immediate effect is heightened emotions and partisan identity and the broader effects involve shifts in partisan attitudes, support for democratic processes, and political behavior. These effects depend, though, on whether one’s party is the vilifier or the vilified and on whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. We conducted a preliminary test of our model using an experimental design in which participants were randomly assigned to read about a simple policy disagreement, the opposing party vilifying the participant’s party, or a control paragraph on a policy problem. We found that when their party is vilified, Republicans express significantly more negative views toward the Democratic Party whereas Democrats do not express meaningfully different views about Republicans across conditions. Rather, Democrats express more favorable views about Democrats as compared to the incivility and control conditions. Regarding participation, Democrats are more likely to respond to vilification by expressing a desire to participate in politics by talking with friends about an issue whereas Republicans respond by wanting to donate money to their party. We also find partisan differences when it comes to support for democratic processes. Democrats react to vilification by becoming more approving of government and more supportive of compromise whereas Republicans react by becoming more disapproving and less supportive. We conclude by discussing the implications of our analysis and our plans for future research.

Keywords: political rhetoric, incivility, democratic processes, partisanship, group identity

Suggested Citation

Wagner, Michael W. and Mitchell, Dona-Gene and Theiss-Morse, Elizabeth, The Consequences of Political Vilification (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Michael W. Wagner (Contact Author)

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - Political Science ( email )

Lincoln, NE 68588
United States

Dona-Gene Mitchell

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

Elizabeth Theiss-Morse

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - Department of Political Science ( email )

511 Oldfather Hall
P.O. Box 880328
Lincoln, NE 68588-0328
United States

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