August 8, 2023 – Free Speech & Peace

What we’re reading: U.S. needs bottom-up solutions to stem political animosity and violence


According to Thomas Zeitzoff, an associate professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs, “the level of nastiness in U.S. politics has increased dramatically.” 

Zeitzoff has the data to prove it. 

“Nasty politics” can lead to political violence

In his new book, NASTY POLITICS: The Logic of InsultsThreats, and Incitement, Zeitzoff compiled historical data from The New York Times on the relative frequency of stories related to political violence and animosity. He found “nasty politics,” or efforts to intimidate, slander, or cause violence against one’s political opponents, is more prevalent than at any time since the U.S. Civil War.

“Nasty politics has important implications for democracy,” Zeitzoff pointed out. “It can be a legitimate tool for opposition and outsider politicians to call attention to bad behavior. But it can also be used as a cynical, dangerous tool by incumbents to cling to power that can lead to violence.”

Zeitzoff is not the only one concerned:

  • According to recent Pew Research Center polling, Americans rank the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together as the second-most pressing problem facing the country. 
  • NPR’s Senior Political Correspondent Domenico Montanaro has argued “lack of domestic political unity is also giving openings to Russia and China, who are actively seeking to sow that division.”
  • Independent research organization More in Common has found Americans grossly overestimate how far apart they really are when it comes to key issues. These miscalculations breed distrust and hostility toward their political opponents. 
  • The Polarization Research Lab has found divisive rhetoric from elected official is intensifying polarization among the general public.

Supporting bottom-up solutions to address partisan violence

The Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) supports scholars like Zeitzoff and the Polarization Research Lab who are investigating political animosity and developing solutions to reduce polarization, prevent political violence, and rebuild social trust in U.S. communities. 

CKF also supports New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics. Its researchers work to strengthen democracy by conducting rigorous research, advancing evidence-based public policy, and training the next generation of scholars on how digital technologies shape our lives.

Leaders within the academy are grappling with these issues, and people in communities, business, and government are taking notice. Scholarly findings help shape initiatives such as “Disagree Better,” a newly announced project spearheaded by several of the nation’s governors to promote civil and respectful debate among leaders from both parties. As The Washington Post editorial board noted, incoming National Governors Association Chair Gov. Spencer Cox is “working with experts at universities such as Stanford and Dartmouth to understand the science behind toxic animosity. He said research shows that leaders of different political tribes talking to each other respectfully in public works to lower animosity.” 

Read more about CKF’s commitment to free speech and peace.