Disgust, Politics and Participation

by L. Matthew Vandenbroek

Perhaps you’ve heard nonvoters complain about “dirty” politics, or vow, “I’ll hold my nose when I vote for (so-and-so).” What are they really saying? It’s not very likely these individuals literally see dirt on politicians or smell something foul as they cast their ballots. Rather, they are metaphorically invoking disgust, a uniquely human and powerful moral emotion.

Political scientists have recently reinvigorated inquiry into the links between emotions and political behavior. It may be tempting to see this as a new frontier for the discipline. However, emotions have captivated classical political thinkers for centuries. Thomas Hobbes, for example, wrote of the “sudden courage” inspired by anger. The Federalists’ concerns about popular “passions” were so dire that they proposed to cure their effects with widespread participation. What is new about recent work in political psychology is the seemingly perverse possibility of emotions being not destructive and irrational “passions,” but rather guides to more rational political behavior. Scholars have recently shown that anxiety, for example, snaps citizens out of thoughtless habits and predispositions, heightening attention to political news. Anger, meanwhile, is shown by other political scientists to increase an individual’s likelihood of participating.

Disgust may be often invoked in political conversation, but its effects on political participation are heretofore understudied. So far, there is some anecdotal evidence. For example, a 2000 Harvard survey found that more than one-third of nonvoters said they were abstaining because “politics disgusts me and I don’t want to get involved.” Long form interviews and focus groups also reveal frequent references to disgust. My research attempts to systematize these rhetorical claims, grounding them in psychological theories of how emotions are elicited and their influence on our behavior.

My dissertation proposes that many Americans withdraw from politics, avoiding political news and actively refusing to vote, when they believe the political system routinely flouts their moral expectations of how the system ought to work. To be sure, people often confuse terms like disgust and anger, but psychologists argue that disgust is a unique emotional reaction to perceived threats of moral contamination by poisonous ideas. Disgusting events and people are not ones we can fight back against (as in the case of anger) or run away from (as in the case of fear). Rather, when we are disgusted, we simply reject and avoid the perceived contaminant. When politics is the poisonous idea, individuals become disgust- ed and repulsed by politics, and like spitting out a sip of spoiled milk, they refuse to vote.

This proposed theory appears to bear out in data I gathered through the Department of Government’s questionnaire on the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Turnout in the 2010 midterms was nearly 18% lower than average among individuals whose most frequent emotional reaction to politics was disgust (rather than anger, anxiety or enthusiasm). This relationship holds in a multivariate model of turnout controlling for well-established predictors of voting such as education, party identification and political interest. All else equal, moving from never being disgusted by politics, to often being disgusted by politics, corresponds with a one-third decrease in the probability of turning out to vote. Among the emotions measured, only disgust predicted less participation.

To further test my theory, I am currently in the midst of experimental studies which directly induce disgust and then offer an opportunity to participate in a political exercise. While preliminary, results using UT-Austin undergrads suggest disgust diminishes participation when the target of the emotion is politics, as well as among morally traditional individuals. Next, I will conduct the final test, a nationally representative simulated campaign experiment funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.