Dehumanization in Politics

By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

July, 2020



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


While US politics has always been marked by deep differences and bitterly fought campaigns, our civic culture has been on a downward trajectory since the early 1990s when Newt Gingrich successfully pioneered a new kind of politics based on viewing the other political party, anything that they tried to accomplish, and even the government itself with utter contempt.  Donald Trump has taken this playbook to its logical extreme where all opponents, including former members of his Administration, who dare to disagree with him are demonized and dehumanized to the point where incarceration or getting "roughed up" are openly endorsed. [1]

When Obama was President, the Republicans primary goal was to prevent him from being a two-term president. Toward this end, they tried to prevent him from succeeding at anything (even the national implementation Romney's Republican health care plan—the model for Obamacare which they tried to repeal over 70 times.) When Trump was elected President in 2016, and one of his primary goals, it has seemed, was to undo everything Obama did. And the Democrats took over the job of trying to block pretty much every move Trump tried to take. 

Hate and distrust between the political parties is deepening even further.  ... If America is to survive in any semblance of a recognizable form, we are going to have to reverse this hyper-polarization and resulting political stalemate very quickly.  A first step is stopping the dehumanizing language on both sides.

In addition, Trump, along with his Republican colleagues in the House, Senate, and blogosphere have gone out of their way to denigrate all Democrats, saying, among other things that "The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat." [2]

Democrats, too, are responding—by calling Trump and his supporters racist bigots, sexists, homophobes, fascists, white supremacist, and, in general, "deplorables" (and other deplorable names). [3] As a result, hate and distrust between the political parties is deepening even further, and their ability to work together to combat shared problems such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, the collapsed economy, or climate change (among many others) is close to nil. The result is that Americans are suffering through a far more devastating pandemic than other developed democracies.  [4]

Read the updated BI essay on Dehumanization to learn more!

The United States ability to survive the pandemic and the associated economic collapse is ultimately going to be dependent on its ability to reverse this hyper-polarization and resulting political stalemate very quickly.  A first step toward doing this is stopping the dehumanizing language (and thinking) now being widely used on both sides. 

We have recently updated the Beyond Intractability essay on Dehumanization to highlight its application to the current crisis. Read it here!

[1] Kyle Swenson "The ever-growing list of people Donald Trump says should be jailed" The Washington Post . November 29, 2018.

[2] Aaron Blake. "‘The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.' ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’ Twice in 25 hours, Trump tweets conspicuous allusions to violence." The Washington Post, May 29. 2020.

[3] Thomas B. Edsall "No Hate Left Behind" The New York Times. March 13, 2019.

[4] Nicholas Kristof. "Trump Is Feeding America's Coronavirus Nightmare" The New York Times. June 24, 2020

Metagraphic image: Picture of Donald Trump taken from Photo by Andy Morataya.  Public domain.