A generation ago, political discourse seemed to be civil. Politicians and pundits debated ideas and policies. Today, the political dialogue has degenerated, and these groups mostly hurl insults. What caused this change? I blame the internet. This connection will not be obvious to anyone, but bear with me, as I draw on the insights of psychologists to make my case.

The relevant theory was explained in a story form by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. In his story, an investment advisor was charged with determining whether buying Ford stock was a good investment. As you can imagine, this is a really complicated task. He must decide if the current stock price is high or low compared to the value of the firm. To know the value of the firm, he must know about the quality of the firm’s management team, its debt obligations, the future value of its research and development projects, and so on. Because this task was so complicated, the investment analyst did not answer the question: is buying Ford stock a good investment? Instead, he substituted this hard question for the easier question: do I like Ford cars? In this story, the investment professional formulated the easy question and his answer to it based on his impression of the automobiles that he saw at a car show.

Kahneman’s example illustrates the point that when we are faced with a complicated question, we often replace the hard question with an easier question. Getting back to politics, I would argue that becoming informed about policy was a relatively easy task a generation ago, mostly because you only had to keep track of the news reported by a few sources. A generation ago, the majority of people got their news from one of three network newscasts, one of the two high quality news magazines (Time or Newsweek), and a newspaper. A person would have just three sources of news. People, who wanted to become informed, knew where to go for their information and they could reasonably read or watch these three news offerings. In short, becoming informed was easy enough that people were able to answer the hard question: what is my opinion about the President’s policy proposal?

Today, with the advent of the internet, there are thousands of news sources. It is unclear what a person needs to read and watch in order to be informed. The problem of determining a policy position on a proposal has become a very complicated task. Because people have so much trouble answering a hard question about a specific policy proposal, they substitute this hard question for an easier question. Today, people ask: do I like Trump? If the answer is no, then they tend to dislike all of his policy proposals -- because they are evaluating Trump and not the specific proposal.

Given that citizens support policies based on their assessment of the person that they associate with the policy, the current political environment, which is characterized by insults, makes sense. News outlets will not produce a meaningful analysis of various policies because their customers are not trying to determine their positions on various issues. Instead, these customers are attempting to gage whether they like the various political figures. Therefore, when CNN and FOX News air shows that seem to be a litany of insults against politicians, they are merely providing people with information to determine the simple question that these viewers are trying to answer: do I like this politician?

 --

Joe McGarrity is a professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. Contact him by email at joem@uca.edu.