The Power of Political Incorrectness
The search for authenticity has made voters increasingly favorable towards outlandish candidates.
While inflammatory statements have long marked the political arena, instances of provocative speech appear more prevalent than ever. From Marjorie Taylor Greene’s infamous “Jewish space laser” theories1 to Ilhan Omar’s comments equating the US and Israel with the Taliban,2 the tenor of our political fringes grows ever more unhinged. Speculation about why politicians have been making such outlandish statements ranges from their need to meet fundraising goals3 to outright delusion.4 Whatever their personal reasons, one would expect these firebrands to face electoral consequences for being so far from the mainstream. And while some analyses suggest that these candidates face diminished support in both primary and general elections,5 many such politicians prevail nonetheless. Why does the electorate tolerate these candidates and, for the most part, turn a blind eye toward absurd statements?
Political polarization is the most common explanation. Because Americans increasingly view members of the opposing party as not just ideologically different, but immoral and even dangerous,6 one can expect more straight-ticket voting. Voters are increasingly willing to hold their nose and vote for a candidate of questionable character if the candidate’s party affiliation matches their own.7 As the thinking goes, the other party’s candidate will surely advocate policies far more dangerous than the few controversial statements uttered by an ideologically aligned candidate. Thus, less measured candidates can skate by as long as they represent a sufficiently partisan district.
In addition, conservatives have recently obtained more margin for error in candidate quality thanks to an extreme (and well-earned) distrust of the media.8 An eye-grabbing story regarding a scandal or preposterous statement attributed to a Republican candidate is likely to be ignored by a conservative voter, disregarded as more fake news peddled by a transparently biased media. And who can blame them: between the debunked 2016 Russian collusion claims, the near-constant propaganda relating to the coronavirus pandemic, and the general disdain media figures exhibit towards conservatives, Republicans are justified in taking every story they see with a grain of salt. However, this prevailing attitude has the negative effect of allowing candidates to avoid appropriate scrutiny from the conservative base. Any reporting on a genuinely unsavory comment can all too easily be construed as biased by Republican candidates. It can be difficult to separate legitimate criticism of a conservative candidate from typical media harassment. As a result, less mainstream Republicans are afforded some electoral leeway, supported by a base that will more readily trust them than the discredited media establishment.
However, while these factors undoubtedly help to explain voters’ increasing indifference towards unconventional leaders, a fundamental change in Americans’ preferences regarding the type of politicians we seek is also crucial. This under-analyzed perspective suggests that Americans increasingly prefer an entirely novel and distinct variety of leader. Moreover, if a candidate fits this new mold, voters appear willing to tolerate and even welcome unhinged statements on occasion.
This new model of preferred politician is best described not by what it is, but rather by what it is not. This newly desirable brand of leadership is not polished. It is not measured. It is not even thoughtful. Simply put, it is not more of the same. We are tired of the cookie-cutter congressman: the silver-haired, smooth-talking politician whose hard-hitting talking points and seemingly perfect cadence are painstakingly constructed for maximal rhetorical effect. These politicians readily deliver memorized speeches and win over voters by conveying a carefully crafted aura of intelligence, strength, and poise. They are idolized as strongmen and statesmen in the elite’s collective memory; their portraits are pasted liberally onto the pages of history textbooks.
It’s all become very trite. We’ve seen this archetype too many times. We’ve grown bored with the hackneyed rhetoric and predictable promises. We’re ready for someone new. We desire someone more real, someone relatable and authentic, someone we can have a beer with—and we will not take ‘no’ for an answer. The new politician is desired because of his imperfections, not in spite of them. These imperfections are precisely what make him relatable. Like us, he might not phrase every sentence correctly. He may say outrageous things, even crossing the line at times. But he will not sugarcoat the truth. Nor will he bow to political correctness, Washington consensus, or any other elite dogma. He is truly like us.
Such sentiment clearly explains the rise of Donald Trump: the ultimate outsider who broke every rule and convention. However, this desire for less “perfect” politicians is not confined to the right. Anti-establishment stirrings on the left have fueled the candidacies of young insurgents like Congresswoman Omar and her colleagues in the so-called ‘Squad.’ These firebrands clearly represent this new and unfiltered brand of politics. Likewise, we see such movement down-ballot from the GOP, made clear by the massive followings of incendiary politicians like Reps. Greene, Boebert, and Gaetz. As a result of their longing for cavalier and genuine leaders, the people are willing to put up with some odd and outlandish statements.
Critically, these new leaders contrast starkly with the old ideal of politicians. The stereotypical, polished politician has come to represent everything that is wrong with the current state of affairs. The polish merely obscured their inability to address head-on the issues most important to the American people. These are the men who left us without direction and without purpose. They implemented programs that burgeoned dependence on the government and offered no path for the future. Their policies brought about the death of the family and eroded our most basic social institutions. They allowed America to be outmaneuvered and outcompeted, forfeiting America’s global dominance without batting an eye. They advocated for wars that have left us broken, bitter, and poor. In short, the plastic politicians failed us.
Particularly thoughtful representatives have always worried about balancing their duties to lead and to represent the people. When a politician’s personal morality, or even their preferred mode of expression, clashes with that of their constituency, which are they to favor? Establishment leaders veered too far for too long in favor of their own judgment, so many Americans lost faith in their ability to lead. Repulsed by the overplayed chorus of broken promises, they naturally look elsewhere for authentic figures. But while one can hardly fault Americans for trying something different, those of the new brand may also prove to be all talk and no action. Crudity need not be linked with honesty, and taking our concerns seriously need not devolve into pandering. We should seek integration between representation and leadership, not an overcorrection from one extreme to the other. Until we find politicians who can strike the right balance, though, one thing is clear: the old politicians focused too much on their words and not enough on the people. We won’t make that mistake again.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fine Print, the April 2023 print issue of the Salient.
Jack Dutton, “Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ‘Jewish Space Lasers’ Conspiracy Met with Derision, Jokes,” Newsweek, Jan. 29, 2021.
Barbara Sprunt, “Omar is Forced to Clarify after Democrats Say She Equated U.S., Israel with Terrorists,” NPR, June 10, 2021.
Erin Mansfield, “Rep. Lauren Boebert and the Politics of Outrage: Why Lawmakers Reap Rewards from Firebrand Tactics,” USA Today, Dec. 5, 2021.
Charles Bethea, “How the “QAnon Candidate” Marjorie Taylor Greene Reached the Doorstep of Congress,” The New Yorker, Oct. 9, 2020.
Erin Mansfield and Rachel Looker, “Far-right Candidates Struggled in the Midterm Election. Who's to Blame? Experts say Trump, GOP,” USA Today, Nov. 14, 2022.
Elizabeth Colbert, “How Politics Got So Polarized,” The New Yorker, Dec. 27, 2021.
Olga Gorelkina, Ioanna Grypari, and Erin Hengel, “The Theory of Straight Ticket Voting,” Social Choice and Welfare (July 2022).
Megan Brenan, “Americans' Trust in Media Remains Near Record Low,” Gallup News, Oct. 18, 2022.