Using the Bully Pulpit to Bridge the Partisan Divide

Elevating Political Messages Lead to Increased Positivity, According to New Study

The partisan divide seems to deepen with each U.S. election. A tense political climate has become the subject of many newscasts and public speeches, leaving many Americans asking how to reverse the trend.

“There’s a sense that people aren’t participating. People are disillusioned,” said Morgan Ellithorpe, Ph.D. “People on each side of the partisan divide are not speaking to one another and not listening to one another.”

Ellithorpe spends a lot of time researching the risks and responses to certain types of media. An assistant professor at MSU’s Department of Advertising + Public Relations, she has a side interest in moral reasoning and political communication, which relates to media psychology.

The nature of political discourse in the U.S. in recent years prompted Ellithorpe to lead a new type of study. In research published by the Journal of Communication, she set out to discover whether elevating political speeches could inspire positive attitudes toward politics.

When Entertainment Causes Elevation

The emotion at the center of Ellithorpe’s work is elevation.

It’s marked by the sensation of feeling tightness in your chest or a lump in your throat, while also experiencing a mix of emotions that are positive and inspiring, or tender and poignant. Elevation often occurs while watching a movie or TV series, and it has measurable effects on human behavior.

“We have this emotion that we know has all these great positive effects when it’s looked at in an entertainment context. There’s an opportunity to find out if it does other things in a political context,” said Ellithorpe. “We know that with exposure to dramas that bring up these feelings, people are more likely to want to be altruistic and to be kind to one another – and to see fewer divides between racial groups – for example.”

With this knowledge, Ellithorpe conducted a research project to test the connection between media and psychology in a political context. Her study exposed participants to video clips displaying politicians in action, as a selection of governors delivered their State of the State address.

Reaching across the Aisle

Using theories that have never been tested, researchers conducted two studies leading up to the 2016 U.S. Election. They used clips of political messages to find out which speeches were the most and least elevating.

“If we can do things like reduce racism and increase people being altruistic to one another, in general, can we do that with political groups and with political behavior? That is what led us into this project,” Ellithorpe said. “Given the political climate, is this potentially one way to reduce some of those tensions and to increase people’s positivity toward participating in politics?”

The study measured a range of attitudes and behaviors in the participants, including their elevation responses, ratings of the speaker, attitudes toward politics and behavioral intentions. It also measured for political cynicism, posing a question to participants about whether they had faith in the U.S. electoral system.

In the first study on elevation, researchers gathered data from Americans without disclosing information about the political party of the speaker. They showed the clips, and presented participants with an online survey that asked about attitudes and opinions toward the speaker, politics and the political system.

For the second study, researchers recruited people who self-identified as Democrats or Republicans. They then showed the clips, which they told half of the participants were from a Republican politician and the other half they told were from a Democrat. They then conducted the same survey from the first study, with the addition of feelings about a participant’s political in-group and their political out-group.

“In the second study, even though the speeches were ostensibly from a Republican or a Democrat, most people were not familiar with these specific governors,” said Ellithorpe. “So, we were able to tell them that it was a Democrat or a Republican, even if it wasn’t.”

They theorized that participants would feel less elevation if they viewed a speech from a politician of the opposing political party, but that was not the case. In both studies, participants had elevated responses to the governors’ speeches, regardless of political affiliation.

“The topics of the elevating conditions were fairly apolitical, and so that is one of the reasons we likely found that the speaker’s political persuasion had no effect,” said Ellithorpe.

A Recipe for Civic Engagement

Researchers saw the need for this study years before it became a reality. By coincidence, they gathered the data leading up to the 2016 U.S. Election.

While they didn’t plan to study American politics during a presidential election, they worked hard to complete both studies before the election concluded. They were encouraged by the findings of the study and found the timing significant.

“It’s even more telling that during such a contentious political time, we were able to find these effects,” said Ellithorpe. “It provides the evidence that people don’t automatically shut down elevating responses just because a politician is a Republican or Democrat. They are still listening to what the person says, and as long as that topic is elevating to them, they will report elevation.”

The elevating topics presented to participants were issues most Americans can agree on. They included a successful drug rehabilitation program and the heroic efforts of first responders who come to the rescue of flood victims. Regardless, Republicans and Democrats were equally elevated by these topics.

“Our second study found that it didn’t matter if the person giving the speech was the same political party or a different political party,” said Ellithorpe. “To the extent that that person caused elevation. you were just as likely to experience all those good outcomes.”

The outcome of experiencing elevation in a political context varied for participants, but it often led to restored faith in the political system, and more importantly, positive feelings across the aisle.

“In the second study, which had more participants and therefore more statistical power, we did find a positive effect that it reduced political cynicism,” said Ellithorpe. “Elevation also led to participants feeling more positively toward their not only their own political in-group, but also their political out-group – indicating that elevation might be one way to reduce barriers between partisans.”

Some participants took the next step proactively, and exhibited information-seeking behavior, such as asking for more information about how to get involved in their local politics, and seeking more information about the politician who delivered the elevating speech.

“There’s this relatively simple thing that politicians are already doing, which is being inspiring, that we can hopefully utilize strategically to make the political system feel a little bit less terrible,” said Ellithorpe.

Ellithorpe said these elevating speeches could be the key ingredient to fostering higher rates of civic engagement in the U.S.

“The big takeaway is that despite all the doom and gloom about how it’s impossible to bring the political divide together — and that political cynicism is on the high and participation is on the low — it’s really not all that difficult to reverse those trends at least temporarily,” said Ellithorpe. “Basically, it’s a win-win-win.”

By Melissa Priebe