Press "Enter" to skip to content

Why Are So Many Americans Disgusted With Politics?

By Martha Quillen

Americans persistently gripe about negative campaigning, back-biting politics, and candidates who talk more about their opponent’s shortcomings than their own intentions. Yet this sort of campaigning persists because fueling disgust works.

Disgust is, according to psychologist David Pizarro, one of the easiest emotions to elicit, and it unduly “influences our moral beliefs and even our deeply held political intuitions.” In fact, studies indicate that sensitivity to disgust has a bizarre connection to people’s political beliefs. In essence, the easier you are to disgust, the more conservative you are.

Pizarro has conducted some interesting experiments to document this, feeding people meal worms and chocolate molded to look like feces to see who will gag first and who will never gag. He also dispenses questionnaires to determine people’s political leanings and their sensitivity to disgust. And crazily enough, even something as simple as asking people to wash their hands before filling out a questionnaire moves their answers to the right. Making a room smell worse likewise moves results to the right. When you’re feeling grossed out, you’re more likely to think conservatively.


Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” says that humans are tribal and, therefore our minds are designed to form associations. Curiously enough, what disgusts us helps define our tribes and who we are. Human groups have vastly different ideas about what is clean and unclean, what people should eat, and how they should handle sex, birth and death.

“Everybody thinks they are right,” Haidt says, and he contends we are biased and hypocritical by nature. He also points out that being easily disgusted likely plays a key role in why conservatives want government to define what’s acceptable in art and literature, and other people’s sexual behavior. Haidt cites the five moral fundamentals common to all human societies and explains how people’s differing views on them influence their politics. They are concerns about: 1) harm and caring; 2) fairness and reciprocity; 3) ingroup loyalty; 4) respect for authority; 5) purity and sanctity. Surveys show conservatives tend to hold all of these values equally, while liberals worry more about caring for one another and fairness than about the other three values. Libertarians share the same values as liberals, but show far less compassion and are almost impossible to disgust.

In a 2012 interview (years before Trump rocked America), Haidt told Bill Moyers, “… when there are moral divisions within the group, and no external attack, the tribalism can ramp up, and reach really pathological proportions. And that’s where we are now.”

Haidt has tons to say, and it’s unlikely anyone would agree with all of his conclusions. But, the fact that Haidt is likely wrong on numerous points actually illustrates his greater message, which is that we are fallible creatures incapable of seeing the truths outside of our own “matrix.” Instead we see things as group members who view their own mores and perspectives as superior.

A TED Talk by social psychologist Robb Willer entitled “How to have better political conversations,” tackles some of the same subjects. As a psychologist and movie buff, Willer tries to determine just what sort of movie we’re in. A disaster movie? A war movie? Whichever it is, Willer thinks we can improve things by understanding the deeper underlying moral divides between us and addressing each other accordingly.

The politics of disgust isn’t a subject merely embraced by psychologists. A philosopher and professor, Martha Nussbaum, has been writing books about the importance of various emotions in public life for years. She has written about how bigotry against blacks, Jews, and women is often stoked by unfounded accusations that they are dirty, oversexualized and spread disease. And David Zucchino, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, tried to reverse some damage caused by politically induced disgust with his book “The Myth of the Welfare Queen,” which came out in 1997.

Using disgust as a weapon or to improve your own position comes naturally, even to schoolchildren, as evidenced by playground taunts about who’s fat, ugly, stupid, or smells. And trying to get children to refrain from their cruel use of disgust is a major part of child-rearing.

What’s interesting about psychological studies of disgust is not how effective disgust can prove to be as a tool. It’s how easily you can be influenced by disgust without even being aware of it.

From babyhood on, we are taught that calling people fat, disgusting, stupid, ugly, dirty and gross is taboo. Yet humans employ disgust as a weapon because it works. Disgust is an essential element behind every political movement. It grabs attention, motivates and influences votes. It also begets rage, cuts deep, and leaves a lasting impression. Today, the descendants of native Americans, slaves, Jews, and Japanese Americans alike, remember their troubled heritage.

When disgust is a primary tactic, it tends to eclipse all other goals and messages. The Klan? Nazis? Isis? Actions fueled by disgust are their dominant image.

And even in moderation, disgust has nasty repercussions. Disgust is a tool frequently wielded between friends, lovers, family members and associates in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, towns small and large, where it often fuels vicious gossip and callow indifference and creates permanent rifts between old and young, rich and poor, black and white, newcomers and old-timers, servants and the people they serve.

The generalized dissemination of fury and disgust without a list of commands, or an edict to tack to the wall, or a clear idea of what measures should be adopted to make things better is not a movement. It is merely an exercise in spreading discontent, not furthering solutions.

Now, citizens are blaming desperate immigrants for our economic problems, Muslims for terrorism, and half of mankind for sexual assaults and misbehavior, instead of holding the actual perpetrators responsible and focusing on the laws and cultural factors that encourage the continuation of untenable cruelty. Disgust generates anger that encourages groups to lay blame on the other instead of on the guilty, and spurs on hate groups and shooters. But stigmatizing innocent men, Muslims and Mexicans merely contributes more horror to our stressed society.

Today, Americans attempt to glean attention for their positions with taunts, insults, meanness, stereotyping, or whatever else it takes. But is this wise? And more to the point, are we making things better? Or worse?

Once again I come to the end of a column about cultural factors that are threatening the peace and tranquility of our nation. But in this case, the solution seems fairly obvious: We need to quit marketing, employing, spreading and spewing disgust as if it were as harmless as jelly beans.

Recently, the House hearing regarding Peter Strzok, turned into a disgust-dispersing free-for-all. Strzok, an FBI agent removed from his position on the Russian election-tampering investigation due to political bias, was presumably questioned to determine how much damage he may have caused.

But very little inquiring happened at that inquiry. Instead, the topic quickly gave way to direct insults and taunts; an exhortation about the horrors of extramarital sex; a heartfelt plea to reunite immigrant orphans and their parents; and countless heated verbal exchanges. When all was said and done, it was clear that both sides had already made up their minds, and were there to express their contempt, not discuss evidence.

So if you’re wondering whatever happened to decorum? Solemnity? And statesmenship? Disgust is bringing them down. As a marketing strategy and political tool, disgust is easy to manufacture, it’s free, fast-acting, and it works, but it’s also hard to control and tends to poison everything. Disgust is 100 percent natural, but so are feces, spit, urine, and animal entrails, and that doesn’t make them good political tools. Oh, wait, don’t tell me they’re coming next. 

Martha Quillen recommends YouTube presentations on disgust; because they are far more palatable than the real thing. Go to TED Talks and listen to Pizarro or Willer and the site will suggest numerous talks on similar topics. A Google search will direct you to hours of Haidt.