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Making Sense of Political Strife, Avalanche of Attack Ads

Assistant political science professor Patrick Miller hopes his research can help citizens understand today’s partisan politics and how they can make informed decisions in the voting booth.

Date: 3/26/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Tom Robinette
Every presidential election year, radio and television airtime fills with a crescendo of political attack ads, building toward a November finale. All the while, swelling numbers of uninformed voters are yanked by the heartstrings from the comfort of indifference.

Is it just the cost of doing business in our Red vs. Blue, winner-take-all political system? Is morality nothing more than collateral damage in the war to win middle-ground votes?

Patrick Miller says that’s missing the point. As an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, part of his research deals with political psychology. He says those low-blow political ads might not be targeting the audience you think.
Patrick Miller’s research focuses on political psychology and intergroup conflict.

“One cheap criticism of attack ads is that they manipulate voters’ emotions and somehow they’re this nefarious tool that politicians are using to sway the uninformed masses,” Miller says. “My research has shown that the people who are being persuaded and are having their emotions manipulated are actually those who are the most knowledgeable and sophisticated and care the most, which is precisely the opposite of how you’d think about it.”

Miller says the less informed person will have fewer emotions about political issues and is therefore less likely to act on them. It’s the people who know more facts and are more attentive who have the strongest emotional connection to a campaign and are more likely to be compelled to act on their passion. Some of his research on the topic, “The Emotional Citizen: Emotion as a Function of Political Sophistication,” was published last year in the journal, Political Psychology.

It’s an interesting theory in an enigmatic election year. Miller says there’s nothing new about trashing your political rival ¬– it goes as far back as the ancient world. What’s different these days is how pervasive the media’s coverage has become, and Miller says conflict is especially good for ratings.

“Back when you had three TV network choices and not a lot of cable channels, you watched whatever they presented to you,” Miller says. “Now, if CNN is going to get you to watch its programming and not ‘The Real Housewives,’ it helps to put screaming, yelling politicians on TV who are going to call each other names.”

The political impact of that kind of intergroup conflict – and how it relates to racial identities – is another area Miller studies. He published a research paper, “Rethinking Racial Threat: A Comparison of Latino Population Change in the North and South,” in American Review of Politics in 2010.

Miller grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., and completed his undergrad at the College of William & Mary. He also taught low-income schoolchildren in Atlanta through the Teach For America program. So he’s familiar with the South’s perplexing dichotomy of civil behavior – the twin legacies of Southern hospitality and civil unrest.

Before joining the UC faculty in September, Miller earned his PhD at the University of North Carolina and served as a post doctoral survey research associate at Duke University. It’s an academic path that might seem paradoxical to sports fans, considering the heated rivalry between the schools’ basketball programs. But it lends a bit of credence to how well he knows the depths of emotion behind the South’s gentility and hostility.

“Like all good UNC fans, I first root for whoever’s playing Duke, and then I root for UNC,” Miller says.

And the current political sphere isn’t that different from the world of sports. Both areas have passionate fan bases that view winning as paramount. In sports, where the closest thing to compromise is a tie, this “winning is everything” attitude is expected. But in politics, Miller says it can get in the way of what’s good for the country. For example, there are times when a politician’s desire to stay in office trumps standing up for effective policy. Miller says this reveals the politician’s priorities, and in this case partisanship and political purity surmount policy.

But Miller doesn’t place all the blame on politicians. Many times he says they’re just following the lead of their constituents. So in essence, if Americans are disgruntled about the system, they share the blame.

“If Americans were more attentive and cared more about, for example, good policy over their side winning, maybe we would get more competent and more civil politicians,” Miller says. “You get the politicians you elect.”

Miller says this is where political scientists can step in and serve as “doctors of democracy.” Like any family practitioner can diagnose when you have the flu, Miller says political scientists know how to assess what’s ailing the political system. He hopes his research can contribute in a way that helps people understand today’s political climate and what they can do to take an active role in changing it.

“I hope that what I’m doing will help us understand how our political dialog has gotten into the state that it has, maybe how we can fix it, and what that portends for politics down the road,” he says.

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