My research focuses primarily upon the interactions between political elites and citizens. In particular, I examine the psychological processes underlying the ways that citizens view their political elites and the associated political consequences. Emotions in politics, the role of ideology in political behavior, and the dynamics of partisanship and issue ownership are particular thematic interests, while post-communist Europe is my main geographic area of study.

For a perspective on the 2016 election using a tiny bit of my own research and a whole lot of excellent political psychology research, please check out my recent Lifelong Learning Lecture (lifelonglearning) given at Fort Lewis College as part of the Lifelong Learning series.

Dissertation Project:

Turning Outrage into Disgust: The Emotional Basis of Democratic Backsliding in Hungary

Committee: Irfan Nooruddin (co-chair), Goldie A. Shabad (co-chair), Anthony Mughan, Kathleen M. McGraw

Once a frontrunner of democratization in post-communist Europe, Hungary is backsliding. The 2010 election left the country with an unstable and polarized party system, and the population is standing by as the Fidesz government wages an all-out assault on the institutions of liberal democracy. Indeed, support for the very idea of democracy is weaker today in Hungary than it was at the transition. Democracy, it turns out, is not seen to be the only game in town for many Hungarians.

These developments are puzzling from the perspective of theories positing democratic consolidation as a function of time. Why would experience with democracy fail to yield support for the ideals and norms of democracy? Answering this question requires attending to voters’ experiences with and feelings towards their democratic systems. This dissertation examines the emotional dynamics of political behavior in Hungary, revealing high levels of popular disgust towards politics driving an active rejection of competitive multiparty politics and engendering democratic backsliding.

I show that policy constraint from the European Union limits the ability of mainstream political parties in post-communist Europe to differentiate themselves from one another on key policy issues. This leaves elites with little room to make programmatic appeals, increasing incentives to leverage the power of populist outrage – a discourse of alleging real or imagined moral transgressions against political competitors – to differentiate themselves from competitors and inspire political action. Where this vitriolic discourse elicits anger it causes participation in the form of protest voting, thus explaining persistent party system volatility. However, this constant stream of vitriol often elicits disgust. This powerful emotion, heretofore overlooked by political science, causes a visceral avoidance of politics that undermines the accountability mechanism at the heart of democracy and explains rising disaffection from democracy in Hungary and around the world.

I test this argument with multiple methods and sources of original data. A combination of Comparative Manifestos data and a novel large-scale web scrapping of Hungarian political coverage shows a rise in the use of populist outrage in political communications in the wake of increased EU constraint and new media technologies. Data from nine months of fieldwork document the effects of this outrage upon the public. An online experiment and a lab-in-the-field experiment demonstrate the reactions of both anger and disgust to populist outrage and show that partisanship is the key determinant of who becomes angry instead of merely disgusted. An original survey of 1,000 Hungarian adults reveals very high levels of political anger and disgust among the populace and shows that disgusted citizens are less likely to view democracy as a good system of government for their country. Finally, interviews and focus groups conducted during the 2014 Hungarian national election show an over-time evolution of anger at political vitriol into disgust, demonstrating that where multiparty competition is equated to a war between immoral, self-interested factions, the popular response will be a rejection of the system.

During my fieldwork in 2012 and 2014 I was based at Central European University’s Department of Political Science in Budapest, where I had the pleasure to work with the CEU’s Political Behavior Research Group and the Political Ideology Lab at Eötvös Loránd University.

A paper version of the fourth chapter entitled “Undermining Democracy with Disgust” is currently under review.

Other projects:

What is the Value of Left and Right? Party Competition and Political Ideology in East Central Europe with Jason Morgan (currently under review) 

What does left-right self-identification tell us about voters, and how do these ideological labels come to have meaning? We compare self-placement across 23 countries in Eastern and Western Europe. Comporting with previous studies, we find consistency between psychological traits and left-right self-identification in established democracies, but variability in young post-communist democracies. We then demonstrate a link between elite appeals and the meaning of left and right held by voters.  Matching elite appeals to left-right self-placement in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, we show that messages espoused by political parties determine voter ideological orientation as a function of whether these messages are congruent with (or repugnant to) a voter’s own psychological orientations. This research provides important insight into how ideology comes to have meaning for voters, showing that psychological motives are expressed by ideology in different ways across political contexts.

Elite Cueing of Causal Absolutism and its Implications for the Democratic Consequences of Ideology with Raymond Pingee and Sarah Esralew

This study develops a measure of ideological causal absolutism and examines two of its potential sources: elite cues in news coverage and citizen self-expression. Absolutism refers to treating ideological casual beliefs as always applicable, without any boundary conditions. We use an experiment to manipulate both exposure to and expression of absolutist versus nuanced ideological causal statements, and test for effects of these manipulations on whether participants select the absolute answers of “always true” or “always false” on a range of ideological causal belief questions. The resulting measure of absolutism is validated as distinct from ideological consistency in predicting self-reported ideological strength as well as political participation and willingness to compromise. Exposure to a news story containing absolutist cues from elites was found to increase absolutism, but two interventions designed to reduce absolutism had no effect.

Mapping and Accounting for Attack Politics in Post-Communist Europe 

Recent scholarship documents an increasingly negative tone in politics, but while these studies focus on the United States, there are reasons to believe this negative turn is even more severe in certain young democracies. In this paper I focus on East Central Europe (ECE), where increased constraint from supranational bodies like the European Union limits the ability of domestic elites to provide distinct and consistent policy programs to constituents. This limited policy space, along with weak parties and atomized civil societies, increases elite incentives to go negative. Meanwhile, the increasingly fragmented and competitive media environment gives purveyors of political news greater incentives to cover the dark side of politics and various outrages that drive up ratings. I test this theory by analyzing two data sources. First, I compute variables capturing populism and policy content using Manifestos Project data, allowing for a cross-national analysis of the prevalence and sources of populist versus policy-based appeals over time in ECE. Next I turn to a more fine-grained analysis of the political dialogue in Hungary, conducting a content analysis of political coverage of parliamentary campaigns from 1998 to 2014 in Hungary’s most prominent newspapers. Substantively, the findings suggest that the rate of accusatory, attack politics increased in recent years, particularly following EU accession and from the right. Comparing these data sources offers a detailed look at the use of political attacks in the young democracies of ECE as well as at the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing each method of analyzing elite messages.