The Outrage Epidemic-II

How the Attention Economy Pushes Politicians to the Extremes

Suppose you’re running for office and you have one opponent — an extremist on the right. How should you position yourself if all you care about is winning? The standard answer in political science is to get close to the center or even a little bit to the right of center. Everyone on the left prefers you to the extremist. Even some of the people on the right prefer you to the extremist. So the centrist wins easily.

Presidential candidates understand this logic. After winning their party’s nomination, they move toward the center. So in many presidential elections, you get Tweedle-dum vs, Tweedle-dee — the actual differences between the two candidates are often relatively small as each candidate counts on their partisan base and tries to grab as many moderate independents as they can.

When parties deviate from this strategy, the results are dramatic. The nomination of George McGovern in 1972 led to a 61–38 Nixon victory in the popular vote and a 520–17 electoral thrashing.

But something has changed. Democratic voters followed the standard logic in 2016 and chose Hillary Clinton over the more extreme Bernie Sanders. Hillary should have won easily. Yes, Hillary managed to get more votes than Trump. But presidential elections in America are decided by the electoral college. If popular vote was decisive, both Trump and Clinton would have campaigned differently and there is no way of knowing how the popular vote would have turned out. What we do know is that Trump, a crude political amateur did shockingly well despite the logic I described above. Hillary should have won easily against such an extreme candidate, extreme on both his views and his demeanor, yet something else was going on.

What has changed that opens the door to successful electoral outcomes for extremists on both the left and the right?

In this earlier essay on the rising tide of outrage, I suggested that tribalism was on the rise in America because of our ability to customize our news and information streams to fit our ideological and partisan narratives. I think this rise in tribalism is making it harder for centrist candidates to survive. In the attention economy, in the fight for eyeballs, clicks, likes, and followers, centrists struggle to compete.

Today’s voter can’t get excited about a lukewarm partisan, a candidate eager for bipartisan compromise. That’s like reading a newspaper with a balanced editorial approach or a cable network that covers President Trump even-handedly. Who wants that? Not many, evidently. The choices are more like fan clubs or hate clubs. I don’t see much in between.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, which politicians from the Democrats are going to get the most attention and love? The angriest. The loudest. Those are the candidates that are going to generate the attention, the clicks, the re-tweets and the coverage.

You might think that that’s just what’s needed in the age of Trump. “You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, right. It’s time to stand up to the bully with another bully.” But the people on the other side feel the same way. In the beginning of the Trump administration I was pretty confident that someone would challenge him for the nomination in 2020 and reclaim the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was an obvious example.

I can’t imagine that now. Romney’s too genteel. Too nice. Too polite. Trump would chew him up. He chewed up the nice candidates in 2016; 2020 would be more of the same. If Bernie Sanders is the Democrat’s nominee or Kamala Harris, does a Republican want Romney on the other side? Republican voters will feel the need for a warrior to protect America from socialism. Trump is that warrior for a lot of people, even those who don’t like him. They like the extremists on the other side even less so they hold your nose and vote for the extremist.

The Democrats will do the same. Joe Biden currently leads all Democrats in a random sample of Americans with 33% followed by Bernie Sanders with a mere 13%. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are at 9% and 8%. Joe Biden is the Hillary Clinton of 2020. If he decides to run he will struggle to compete against any of the more extreme candidates. His lead will not endure. Someone angrier and more ideologically extreme (and younger) will be the standard-bearer of the Democrats in 2020.

When both of the nominees are extremists, both sides will use fear to motivate their own supporters. As the rhetoric and hatred of both sides ratchets up, each side starts to think that the other side isn’t just wrong. They’re evil. Violence becomes a lot easier to justify. That’s where I’m afraid we’re headed. We’re going to tear ourselves apart.

People on the left tend to blame these problems on Donald Trump. But he is only a proximate cause. The underlying cause as I argued here, is the information landscape that lets Trump being Trump emerge as a successful strategy.

I don’t see this turning out very well.

When losing an election means not just someone gets power who is a little to the left or right of your preferred position but someone radically on the other side, compromise become less likely and the ballot box is a very unsatisfying route to getting the political outcomes you like. Dislike a world with an apathetic electorate? Wait till you see what a world looks like when each side thinks the future of the country is at stake with each election.

I’m worried about a civil war. That’s the downside, not policies we don’t like. We ought to be thinking about how to reduce extremism on both sides of the political divide to reduce the risk of political violence at the national level.



I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

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Russ Roberts

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.