This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Politics.

This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Politics.


By Lorie Hood

The 2016 presidential election will no doubt go down in history as one of the most polarizing and divisive events in American history. The question is, why? Political historians, journalists and scholars have long documented what has become known as dirty politics and most trace the beginnings of it back to 1800 when Thomas Jefferson fought John Adams for control of the Presidency. In his book Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time (2008), political professor and author Kerwin Swint cites the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry and the 1970 Alabama Democratic primary between George Wallace and Albert Brewer as two of the most vicious battles in American history. However, when he published his book in 2008, the depths to which American political processes would fall were unknown.

Political Ethics

Political Ethics is defined as the study of the morality of political action. It is generally divided into the two concentrations; the ethics of policy which focuses on judgments about policies and laws, and the ethics of process which studies public officials, their behavior and methods they use. The latter, is the focus of this article.

If politics processes have been “dirty” and candidates have engaged in “mudslinging” since the birth of our nation, what is different about the current political climate? What has made it so polarizing? Is the behavior of political candidates that much worse than it was in 1800? Are the words that they use more offensive? Are the tactics more immoral or illegal? Have public officials, their behavior and methods changed that radically since the birth of our nation or have we and the technology we use changed them and thus, the process of political ethics?


Jefferson’s men referred to Adams as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” (p. 57). Adams’ cohorts called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” The slurs were insulting for their time and the words and labels were used as weapons just as they are today. Words like fool, hypocrite, criminal, and tyrant were used to attack Adams’ character while Jefferson was labeled with words like atheist, libertine, weakling and coward (Swint, 2008).

Although at the time there was no such thing as actively “campaigning” for political office, Jefferson did give birth to the first “hatchet man” by hiring a man named James Callendar to spread rumors about Adams. To his credit as a man but his downfall as a politician, Adams considered himself above such schemes. Callendar convinced enough Americans that Adams wanted to attack France and although this was untrue, Jefferson defeated Adams in the election.

The First Amendment

First Amendment to our Constitution provides:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (U. S. Constitution).

When we refer to the first amendment, we generally think of it as the granting of the freedom of speech however, the first amendment was written to protect unpopular political speech; a specific kind of speech called “core political speech.” Core political speech consists of words and behavior that are intended to gain public support for a specific candidate, issue, or position. The Supreme Court has ruled that the discussion of the qualifications of candidates are necessary forms of political expression and integral to our system of government (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976). As such, they have provided an interpretation of the first amendment that allows citizens and candidates to say nearly anything without the risk of the law being used to silence them.

Restrictions are rarely placed upon core political speech and when they are they must weather “strict scrutiny” analysis. The primary exception to this would be within the context of the electoral process, whereby the Supreme Court has ruled that suffrage or standing for political office as a candidate are not political speech and thus can be subjected to significant regulations; such restrictions have been upheld in Buckley v. Valeo. Thus, circulating flyers, posting signs and making speeches are all forms of core political speech, so long as they address social issues, political positions, parties, candidates, government officials, or governmental activities.



While it may appear that smearing one’s opponent’s character, name calling and slander have been a part of American politics from the beginning, there is a critical difference between the politics of 1800 and 2016: Jefferson’s hatchet man was punished for his unethical behavior. Recall that the ethics of process focuses on public officials, their behavior and the methods they use. As such, the ethics of process in the 1800’s supported the idea that spreading lies about one’s political opponent was a punishable offense. Thus, Callendar was sentenced to jail for slander. When did we transition from a society that refused to tolerate slander and viewed lying as unethical to one that not only accepts it but expects it as part of the political process?

The Supreme Court and Changes to the Process of Ethics

The political landscape surrounding the first amendment and the ethics of political process dramatically changed in 1960 when U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.The Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Court’s decision with the following opinion:

“We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials” (1960-1969).

The Court continued with “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate” and that punishing critics of public officials for any factual errors would chill speech about matters of public interest. The high court established a rule for defamation cases that dominates modern-day American libel law. The Court wrote:

“The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” (376 U.S. 254).

The Court required a public official defamation plaintiff to show evidence of actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth by “convincing clarity” or clear and convincing evidence. This threshold has meant that many defamation defendants have stopped defamation suits before they go to a jury.

Thus, the gloves came off.

It is difficult to argue with the above Supreme Court opinion and while the language is clear that any statement must possess actual malice for it to be considered illegal, there were also unwritten rules about how far one could push the boundaries of what the public collectively deems acceptable—until now.

Unwritten rules

Within the context of political ethics, unwritten rules are behavioral constraints imposed on individual candidates that are not voiced or written down. They are part of a collective agreement within a group or society and are supported through tacit assumptions. Unwritten rules allow groups of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe because they create predictable behavior by individuals based on context.

In 1788 James Madison (under pseudonym) wrote specifically about the necessary qualities of a would-be President. In Federalist 57, The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many, he makes clear that one of the most important qualities of a leader is self-control.

“The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust” (376 U.S. 254).

Since the Supreme Court has given free rein to political candidates to use speech that is “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials” (376 U.S. 254), what is left to impose limits on those attacks?

Madison would argue that the only safeguard left would be the self-restraint imposed by the candidate him or herself. Is the apparent lack of self-control; the “wisdom to discern” and the “virtue to pursue the common good of the society” (Federalist 57) what has produced the polarization in this presidential election? Is there a collective understanding about the how far a candidate can push those unwritten rules? Does either party have a moral high ground on which to stand to convince the American electorate they are in ethically safe hands? A brief review of political news, blogs and social media over the last year reveals that Americans have a more negative view of both candidates than in any point in history.

One senses a common experience of ethical freefall.

Even though The Supreme Court of the United States has made clear the letter of the law which essentially allows for very little control over political speech, until recently, there have been unspoken rules which most political candidates at the national level observed. In an article written for The Economist, entitled The Debasing of American Politics, author,Taegan Goddard writes, that “healthy democracies depend on unwritten rules” however, the speech and behavior of Republican nominee in the current presidential election has “trampled all over them” (2016, page 1).

Social Transmission Theory and Unethical Behavior

We tend to like people who agree with us and we attend to things that confirm our world view. This is called Selection Bias and while it seems harmless, it also means that we often ignore or are unconsciously threatened by things that contradict our world view (Knoblauch-Westerwick and Meng, 2009). Selection bias also accounts for the tendency of people to choose social groups that support their biases and assumptive world views: things like religion, political affiliations, morality and social groups. Not only do we tend to choose those with whom we surround ourselves through Selection Bias, researchers found that we share lying tendencies with them as well. In a study on social contagion and unethical behavior, Mann, Garcia-Rada, Houser and Ariely (2014) found that lying behavior was spread through social transmission. The authors are quick to point out that causality could also work in reverse. That is, that individuals with similarities (i.e., a similar world view) may be drawn to the same social networks and thus, those with similar lying tendencies may join similar groups.

Add to Social Transmission Theory the findings by behavioral economist Dan Ariely that our decisions are strongly influenced by our environment in what he calls the “everybody else is doing it” affect (2014). If we tend to surround ourselves with people, information and experiences that confirm our worldview and if we are influenced by those same social networks, how much more powerful are these influences with the addition of social media?

Social Media

Social media is defined associal communities that useforms of electronic communication for users to share information, photos, videos, personal messages and other online content (Merriam Webster, 2016).

Social media has also taken the “everybody else is doing it” effect to a whole new level. Given that it has only been around since 2009, and only increasing, the true effects are yet to be determined. What we do know is that social media transmits messages rapidly and exponentially, is a natural conduit for and likely amplifies confirmation bias. In addition, most social media is, at best, a disconnected (non-face to face) form of communication and, at worst, completely anonymous.

Unlike the myriad options to form social groups today, in 1800, there were only a few ways to communicate; and they were, by today’s standards, grindingly slow. One could speak to others face to face, read or write in a newspaper or other written publication, disseminate flyers or other written material or communicate through public debate, forum or another physical gathering. Through these types of communication, one was often face to face with the person or persons with whom they were communicating which, would provide a natural and very human way to debate and discuss ideas, morals, values and opinions. If one was reading a written publication there were still ample opportunities to discuss, face to face, one’s reactions and feelings, and to listen to those of others.

Another natural part of communication during the early years of our nation was time. Precisely because written transmissions of communication were so slow, they allowed time for people not only to talk face to face and to absorb and process their own thoughts and feelings about political speech but time to reflect upon the ideas of those around them. Thus, the process of selection bias was a slow, deep, ongoing and bounded. There were only a limited number of individuals within one’s social circle because there was limited access to those outside one’s physical proximity. This bounded social grouping was important. If a neighbor or fellow church member disagreed politically with another, there was a certain amount of interaction that one was forced to have with that person; like it or not. Today, one literally has access through the internet to anyone else who has a computer in the entire world. And through social media, one can select those who confirm their world view with the click of a mouse or the change of settings that tell the computer to narrow and refine that selection bias.

At this writing, the election less than a week away. It is difficult to know which nominee the American electorate will place in the Oval Office. Never in history have all three branches of government been open for the transfer of power at the same time. At this moment in history, they are. There are two and potentially three Supreme Court Justices who will be appointed by the next President of the United States. Given that Supreme Court Justices hold lifetime appointments, whoever is our next president has the power to tip the Supreme Court toward a more liberal ideology or a more conservative one for the decades to come.

As important as which way scales of power between Democrats and Republicans tip—and it is important—what cannot be minimized is the fact that the unspoken rules of behavior, decorum, and formally public display of taboo attitudes and behaviors have changed. It will difficult, if not impossible to find our way back to the former unspoken rules of political ethics. Until we do come to a collective understanding of unspoken rules, will continue to feel unsafe. I happen to think this is a good thing.

Perhaps since we have been unable to admit to ourselves that we have large groups of our population that feel marginalized, betrayed, unheard, hopeless and angry, we need to get rid of the old unspoken rules. If we can use our understanding of the human brain, social media, decision making, ethics and all of the research that surrounds these and other literatures we can find our way through this collective identity crisis.

Let’s do what we Americans do best; innovate, create and turn our hardship and trauma into opportunity.


Buckley v. Valeo. (1976). 424 U.S. 1, 96 S. Ct. 612, 46 L. Ed. 2d 659

Callender, J. (1800-1801). The Prospect Before Us (Richmond, Virginia: Printed for the author and sold by M. Jones, S. Pleasants, Jun., and J. Lyon, v. 2 pt. 2, p. 57.Bottom of Form

Chance, Z., Gino, F., Norton, M.I., Ariely, D. (2015). Everyone else is doing it: Exploring social transmission of lying behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, (6)1 – 6.

Goddard, T. (2016).

Gino, F., Ayal, S., & Ariely, D. (2009). Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior: The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel. Psychological Science, 20(3), 393-398. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02306.x

Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Meng, J. (2009). Looking the other way: Selective exposure to attitude-consistent and counter attitudinal political information. Communication Research 36(3), 426–448.

Krebs, V. (2008). New Political Patterns. Retrieved December 2010 from

Swint, K. C. (2006). Mudslingers: The top 25 negative political campaigns of all time: Countdown from no. 25 to no. 1. Westport, CT: Praeger.

The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy

NewYork Times Co. V Sullivan, U.S Supreme Court Media – 2008 –

Madison, J. (1788) Federalist No. 57

U. S. Constitution, Amendment 1