In their article, From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News, Sarah Sobieraj & Jeffrey M. Berry consider the current state of the study of incivility in politics to be incomplete. This is because most research on incivility in American politics focuses on other aspects besides outrage and incivility, per se. The authors provide a premise that, “there is remarkably little data on the extent to which political discourse is actually uncivil”. They hypothesize that political discourse is very uncivil, further asserting that this condition merits study to a more meaningful degree. Sobieraj and Berry believe that is critical to develop a deeper understanding of the depth and nature of political instability through study of uncivil political discourse. They argue that widespread proliferation and visibility of outrageous speech is new, that this increase in the importance of its role is explicit, and as a result, it behooves us to better understand it. We are pressed to better integrate understanding of the emotional appeal aspect of outrage tactics, a basis of argument which, if successful, may have social and political implications.

Sobieraj and Berry find that outrage discourse is extensive. Analysis of their data revealed that nearly nine of ten cases in their sample contained at least one outrage incident, supporting that finding. Also argued is that outrage discourse takes many different forms, and spans media formats. In Spring of 2009, a sample of political discourse was analyzed over a ten week period, providing some of the basis for the conclusions from which these arguments arise.

Parallel to the argument that outrage discourse is prolific, is a determination that the more one uses outrage tactics, the more likely one is to be a conservative. Sobieraj and Berry also found that the use of outrage tactics is not more or less evenly distributed. Rather, conservative media use outrage tactics to a considerably greater degree, using outrage speech decidedly more often.

There are at least thirteen variable factors to outrage tactics, for the purposes of these arguments. These are “manifestations of outrage language and behavior”. 

What does the proliferation of “outrage” via media say about the political climate in the United States over the past several years?

Taken as a snapshot in time, October 2015 showed political discourse as being in a brief recuperative state of sorts, following an extended period of exceedingly high outrage speech that re-emerged following the election of Mr. Trump. This excessively high level of outrage speech can now be considered ongoing to a meaningfully corrosive degree. America experienced a crescendo, in my estimation, of outrageous discourse, and had suffered some of its more immediate effects to government, such as inexplicable or ego based intransigence, ideology-rooted obstinacy, artificially-created parliamentary impasse and deliberate procedural gridlock. Voters have experienced similar impasses to their relationships when political discourse has become involved, exacerbating discourse challenges where divisive issues have been highlighted by outrage discourse in media. A year following the elevation of Mr. Trump to the executive office, the nation is ensconced on a plateau of outrage discourse, seemingly challenged to find a way down.

Per the “flood of research” concluding that a “downward spiral of negativity cannot necessarily be established”, I would not suggest all the indications are negative, however; Just as there is a silver lining in negative campaigning (but for mudslinging) that is increased voter turnout, I suggest that there are unexpected effects from years of outrageous discourse and behavior.

Late in 2015, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner was resigning. The intransigence of his party’s most extreme faction, accompanied by outrage tactics, had been a direct cause of multiple damaging effects -to not only the House of Representatives, but also to the country, itself. In one example: Failure to pass a budget over refusal to raise the debt ceiling caused the government to shut down, costing millions, and for the first time, the AAA credit rating of the United States. There are further examples of similar outrageousness presented cogently, elsewhere. Speaker Boehner has publicly expressed his frustration with the Tea Party caucus, and their discontent with him is also well-known. The effect of the Speaker voluntarily resigning can easily be interpreted as indicative of ongoing escalation of outrage discourse, since the Speaker’s decision is suspected to be rooted in a frustration with the Tea Party caucus’ unwillingness to compromise / cooperate (an outrageous behavior), and given that this behavior was unlikely to change (and hasn't). An obstacle to de-escalation has been the widespread messages of outrage circulated by the Tea Party political movement, characterized by Sobieral and Berry as employing outrage speech to a much greater degree than other movements, until revelations regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election arose which suggest that troll farms also have a meaningful part in exacerbating divisions among Americans, to this day.

Seeming to exacerbate the problems arising from uncivil political discourse in 2015, was that the elite Republicans had no clear leader. A presidential election was approaching; While there were at least two distinctly viable, qualified candidates for the liberal movement (who demonstrated at a debate how civil discourse is still not only possible but common), the conservative movement languished with more than a dozen candidates ill-equipped for leadership except for instruction in outrageous speech. Astonishingly, rank-and-file conservatives overtly flocked to an outsider (Trump) with no government experience. Given the information elucidated upon in the article, however, it shouldn't surprise anyone that these grassroots conservatives are attracted to what has been some of the most inflammatory, outrageous statements ever made in politics.

I am not under the impression that vitriol, outrageous statements nor accusations are something new to politics.
They’re not.

The Republican Party, while seeming to be more brash than ever, is not different this way from previous generations, but as Sobieraj and Berry reinforce: While the outrageous political discourse is not new (pointing out that the Founders engaged in mudslinging), its ubiquitousness and hugeness is. It benefits Trump more than anyone else. This hugeness of outrage has had a deleterious effect on our democracy.

Donald Trump was, and is, the modern conservative movement’s ideal candidate and Republican Party leader. They all have the near ubiquitous appeal of outrage discourse to thank for it.

Consider that before your next, less-than-civil, tweet.

-Benjamin Sisko

Citation: Sarah Sobieraj & Jeffrey M. Berry (2011): 
From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News

Follow Benjamin Sisko on Twitter @CaptSisko2018