why politically incorrect speech can boost politicians’ approval

Politicians need to keep their voters happy and voters don't like to be offended. But it turns out, dishing out a little offense once in a while gives politicians a real edge.

mouth zipped shut

Politics is literally a popularity contest in which people vote for who they like more to represent their interests, so you’d think that the last thing any politician should do is offend even a single potential voter. After all, what if the election in which they’re running for office comes down to a single vote and the deciding ballot is cast by someone they offended on the campaign trail? It would be the ultimate payback for their target. Oh, you wanted power and money after you mocked me? Have fun imagining me cackling while voting for your opponent.

But if this axiom holds true, how do we explain the meteoric rise of loud-mouthed man-children who built their brands on offending anyone they don’t like in Western politics? How did we end up with Maxime Berniers, Doug Fords, Jair Bolsonaros, Nigel Farages, and Donald Trumps as the standard-bearers for so many voters? If the public is so easily offended by politically incorrect antics, these human equivalents of spoiled gas station sushi should’ve had trouble finding any work at all, much less garner the attention and support to win elections. So, what’s going on? Do voters actually like their politicians to be offensive and brash?

what is political correctness anyway?

According to a recent study, the answer lies in how you define political incorrectness. While we generally frame it as discriminatory, racist, sexist, or bigoted speech against minorities, calling rural residents “rednecks” or the religiously devout “Bible-thumpers” would also fit under that umbrella. Now, obviously, there are political groups driven almost entirely by grievance, see an opposing opinion as evil and treasonous, and loudly cheer for their leaders to hurt their own fellow citizens, so to them, hearing the people they hate vilified is viscerally gratifying and they see the person doing it as an obvious choice at the polls. But these supporters are an extreme minority and fail to fully explain what’s happening here.

You see, just insulting other groups for your supporters is just what gives politically incorrect politicians the initial burst of attention. What cements their following is the public’s perception that because they let distinctly non-PC language fly, they’re more authentic. Politicians trying to be as inoffensive and tame as possible come off as milquetoast jellyfish who have no beliefs or opinions of their own or are too afraid to voice and defend them. Their careful language full of evasive platitudes, scripted by teams of consultants and intensely tested by focus groups, lands as hollow and fake on mostly disinterested, jaded ears. Voters given the choice between a fiery demagogue and a wallflower, who looks and sounds like the color beige, barely even register the prim and proper candidate.

Obviously, we’re not talking about something as basic as not using slurs against racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities or mocking them by say, wearing blackface. The problem starts when politicians try their hardest to appease PC activists who don’t want us to use certain language they link to an an offensive past. For example, according to to some, calling an opponent “crazy” or “an imbecile” in a heated debate trivializes mental illness and disabilities, and because these terms were used to demean and discriminate, we should treat them like slurs. So if a candidate either forgoes a swift jab at an opponent in favor of extra PC terminology, or uses it and then immediately apologies for it, voters don’t think “oh how nice, he’s avoiding the ableist attitudes of the 1950s.” They think that if he’s so busy trying not to offend a living soul, he won’t be able to stand up for his proposals and hit back at critics or rally popular opinion around himself.

why voters want politicians with a backbone

Edgy politicians who don’t hold back look like principled fighters and sure, you may not agree with absolutely everything they say, but at least they have a spine. They might even get things done, especially in today’s chaotic world dominated by uncertainty, fear, and greed. If we look at populists from this angle, they come across not as angry buffoons but as challengers to the anodyne status quo, making voters wonder if PC politicians would actually fight for the interests of those who elect them or simply say what they think opinions polls want them to say while the populists go out there and fight the system, or at least sound like they are as they refuse to police their language in debates and issued statements.

Of course, there are limits to what voters will find acceptable. Both liberals and conservatives are fine with non-PC terms being applied but only to describe groups they see as opponents, and while they tolerate political incorrectness in debates, and usually don’t think it disqualifies opposing opinions by default, they do see those who indulge in it too much as cold and difficult to persuade to see other points of view. This makes perfect sense because if you insult those who disagree with you, they’re unlikely to think their arguments will carry much weight with someone who obviously looks down on them, making the aforementioned authenticity and clarity on your stances backfire, turning you into an authentic stubborn asshole in their eyes.

why becoming a popular politician is like dating

In short, politicians have to walk a fine line in which they allow themselves to sound strong, confident, and authentic by being willing to say something biting and attention-grabbing about their competition without worrying about strict PC dogma. At the same time, if they choose to dole out that dose of politically incorrect acid, they have to be careful not to cut too deeply so they’re not seen as stubborn mules on a mission, but people at least somewhat open to hearing others’ perspectives. If this sounds extremely difficult and contradictory, consider that many of us do it all the time without running for office. We may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we’ll at least try not to be combative jerks to everyone who doesn’t instantly like us.

Popular politicians will forgo bland, generic, buzzword-laden soundbites and make it clear they have strong opinions, but they’ll do it without being so combative about them that the majority of the public gets the impression they couldn’t argue about any of the relevant topics in good faith. They won’t worry about ruffling a few feathers or issue profuse non-apologies to every group that demands them, or even respond to every offended group or person, but they won’t be outright malicious and offensive. They’ll let a swear slip every now and then, and they’ll get heated on a subject near and dear to their hearts, but they won’t go on hour-long rabid tirades with spittle flying from their mouths.

So, in a way, aspiring politicians may want to think of running for office as going on dates with the electorate. They need to be themselves, be interesting, have important things to say and just say them when prompted instead of worrying if a wrong turn of a phrase will immediately end the date and cause a small scandal — because the vast majority of people don’t function on a hair trigger for being offended — but also be respectful, tolerate disagreement with thoughtful debates, and refuse to turn themselves in something they aren’t. People have enough artifice and mass-marketed generic stuff in their lives today. They want their leaders to rise above that and actually lead, just like they wouldn’t want to date someone codependent and fearful, knowing full well the resulting relationship will be frustrating and toxic.

See: Rosenblum, M., Gino, F. (2019) Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000206

# science // political campaign / political correctness / sociology


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