There are days when I wonder why I’ve devoted my professional career to covering politics. The urge to be a politics reporter came from my interest in how people in government wield their power, whether the public interest is being served, and whether it’s possible to hold accountable those in power.

Mostly I’ve loved my work. But my four-decade study of politics – now as democracy editor at The Conversation – has been discouraging over the past 10 years. While I’ve always enjoyed covering political conflict – it’s a way of getting at what matters to the country – I’ve felt the tenor and content of those conflicts have gotten much uglier than I’ve seen before. American University politics scholar Thomas Zeitzoff offers an explanation for the dismay I’m feeling – and I’m sure you’re feeling – about politics these days in his story this week, “‘Idiots,’ ‘criminals’ and ‘scum’ – nasty politics highest in US since the Civil War.”

“The level of nastiness in U.S. politics has increased dramatically,” writes Zeitzoff. “As an indication of that, I collected historical data from The New York Times on the relative frequency of stories involving Congress that contained keywords associated with nasty politics such as ‘smear,’ ‘brawl’ and ‘slander.’ I found that nasty politics is more prevalent than at any time since the U.S. Civil War.”

And what does this mean for democracy? Nasty politics, writes Zeitzoff, can be a “legitimate tool for opposition and outsider politicians to call attention to bad behavior. But it can also be used as a cynical, dangerous tool by incumbents to cling to power that can lead to violence.”

Naomi Schalit

Democracy Editor

Former U.S. President Donald Trump at the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors summit in June 2023 in Philadelphia. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

‘Idiots,’ ‘criminals’ and ‘scum’ – nasty politics highest in US since the Civil War

Thomas Zeitzoff, American University

Studies show, though, that voters don’t like all that nastiness.

President Joe Biden and other world leaders are together at the 2023 NATO summit in Lithuania on July 11, 2023. Pauline Peleckis/Getty Images

Ukraine is the hot topic at the NATO summit – the most important work is all in the details happening behind the scenes

Tara Sonenshine, Tufts University

The NATO summit is a chance for world leaders to hash out difficult topics, like the war in Ukraine – and for the US to show off its leadership, writes a former diplomat.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power since 2003 and has tried to strengthen the executive branch during that time. AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Many once-democratic countries continue to backslide, becoming less free – but their leaders continue to enjoy popular support

Nisha Bellinger, Boise State University

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, and Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, are two leaders who have consolidated power using a similar playbook.

3 takeaways from the NATO summit – and where it leaves the military alliance

John Deni, US Army War College

As Western leaders depart a crucial summit, a NATO scholar parses what went down.

Puerto Rico has been part of the US for 125 years, but its future remains contested

Jorge Duany, Florida International University

The political status of Puerto Rico continues to be intensely contested, but measures to make the island the 51st state remain elusive.

Anti-LGBTQ laws in the US are getting struck down for limiting free speech of drag queens and doctors

Mark Satta, Wayne State University

A number of judges who considered challenges to anti-LGBTQ legislation passed by state lawmakers in 2023 had strong words for how the laws violated the First Amendment.

How the shooting of Ralph Yarl demonstrates the fiction of a colorblind society in America

Barbara Harris Combs, Kennesaw State University

A high school honors student, Ralph Yarl rang the wrong doorbell. Claiming fear for his life, the 84-year-old white male homeowner shot him.

China’s ties to Cuba and growing presence in Latin America raise security concerns in Washington, even as leaders try to ease tensions

Leland Lazarus, Florida International University

The US and China are talking again, but security issues between the two countries linger.

Affirmative action lasted over 50 years: 3 essential reads explaining how it ended

Howard Manly, The Conversation

The Supreme Court’s decision to ban affirmative action programs reverses nearly 50 years of its own decisions that ruled diversity was of vital national importance.

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