Political Shaming Doesn’t Work

So why do we keep doing it? Political scientist Carolyn Long on the history of—and trouble with—shaming people for their beliefs.

  • February 8, 2024
  • |
  • Interview
  • |
  • By Ariana Sutherland

By nature, we’re a diagnostic people. With democracy on its sickbed, we scramble to give the poison running through its veins a name—often a president, party, or particularly disastrous year—because on this, at least, we agree: something is very wrong with our politics.

Carolyn Long points to a more conceptual culprit. The political science professor attributes the audacity, divisiveness, and increasingly unproductive conversations that have stained the reputation of American politics in recent years to shame and its many variants. Demystifying this malaise requires understanding who is shamed and who is shameless.

Long’s past research and lived experiences led her to this particular focus. Her interest in shame’s role in our politics was piqued by a 2012 study published by the Pew Research Center, which came to two major conclusions: Americans’ values and beliefs were more divided that year than they had been at any point in the previous quarter century, and it was political party affiliation—more than age, gender, or class—that predicted their side of the widening chasm. Long began her own investigation into political polarization, founding, among other things, Washington State University Vancouver’s Initiative for Public Deliberation (IPD) in 2015. The IPD emphasizes the benefits of “listening and conversation” over “rigid partisanship.”

The conversations that followed were formative for Long. After listening to fellow southwest Washington residents voice their dismay about the instability that stemmed from hyperpartisan politics, she was inspired to run for office in Washington’s 3rd congressional district in 2018 and 2020. The races were tight, with Long garnering just over 47% and 43% of the votes each year, respectively. She focused on running a campaign that reflected how she as a political scientist would want a candidate to behave: she avoided personal attacks and mentions of her opponents’ families, and her contrast ads—advertisements which highlight a politician’s merits juxtaposed with their opponent’s weaknesses—were entirely issue-based. It was a campaign she wanted to be proud to talk about when she returned to the political science classroom.

Long stresses, however, that it wasn’t her experience in the political arena that brought her to her current diagnostic lens of shame. The bipartisan framing of her Humanities Washington talk, “Have You No Sense of Decency? Shame in American Politics,” is the holistic, objective consideration of an academic. She is far past diagnosis. If we understand America’s political maladies as a self-perpetuating system of shamelessness and shame, Long hopes a cure can emerge.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Long during her campaign. Image via electlong.com.

In your talk you discuss shame and shamelessness. What is the difference between those and where does each come in? 

Let me first mention that I’m looking at shame as an emotion. When you shame someone, you’re sort of attacking the very core of their identity—who they are as a person—and it can have real noxious effects because of that. People feel like they’re being attacked, and I argue that they become more entrenched.

But I think we have to understand what shame is before we talk about it in a more academic setting such as a humanities talk. I differentiate shamelessness from shame. When I’m speaking about shamelessness, I’m talking primarily about the shameful behavior of elected officials and people running for office. Looking at shamelessness in American politics would look at past candidates and current politicians who acted in a shameful manner.

Shame, on the other hand, is distinct from shamelessness—I’m looking at how it’s used as a weapon, either against politicians or as a weapon against supporters of politicians. One of the things I’ve noticed in politics is we have a tendency now to attack supporters of particular political candidates, and I argue that those attacks actually make people more entrenched in their beliefs. It cuts off communication, and it’s really harmful to our democracy.

So that’s how I look at both of them in very different ways. I try to bring it all together at the end, about what we can do about it, how we can address it, and whether shame might be able to be used strategically as a tool against abhorrent behavior from elected officials without using it against one another in our communities.

How do you imagine shame would be used effectively?

When you use it to punch up rather than punch down, it could be helpful. If a politician, for instance, is blatantly lying all the time and not admitting that they are, and acting as a hypocrite, I think it’s appropriate that people point it out. We have a terrible problem with misinformation in politics, and if we can address that, I think [shame] is potentially effective. At the same time, I just have to add, the Washington Post documented 30,000 lies during the Trump administration, and documenting it called attention to the behavior—but it didn’t change [Trump’s] behavior. But I do think that there are instances where we should feel compelled to point out when people are misbehaving: that would be a punch up.

A punch down is when you attack someone for something they don’t have any control over, someone who’s powerless, or a minority group. It’s tough to use strategically. I open my talk with Joseph Welch calling Senator McCarthy to account in [the 1954 Army-McCarthy] Senate committee meeting, saying “Have you no sense of decency?” He actually used shame very effectively to shut down those congressional committee hearings. That is a punch up, I think. That’s how you hold people in power to account.

I can point to two examples some believe are an effective use of shame to affect behavior, both of which center on institutions rather than people. The first is the United Nation’s practice of “naming and shaming” countries involved in human rights abuses. The second is the use of shame to target corporations involved in misdeeds, which some—including my colleague, Mark Stephan—have found to be effective with corporations violating environmental regulations. But the research is mixed, particularly as it relates to shaming countries. Scholars have found that effectiveness often depends on which countries are involved, their relative power, whether they are friends or allies of the US, and the nature of the abuses.

“When you shame someone, you’re attacking the very core of their identity—who they are as a person—and it can have real noxious effects because of that. People feel like they’re being attacked, and I argue that they become more entrenched.”

In terms of timeline, you mentioned the “rise” of shamelessness, which you trace back to colonial stocks and pillories—but is there a turning point when we really see shame and shamelessness start to define politics?

I think about this a lot, because I believe we have a tendency to blame former President Trump for this. But the reality is, it’s a trend that’s been happening over the last 30 or 40 years. When you have politicians whose behavior is amplified in the media and social media, we become more aware of acts of shamelessness in politicians, but it’s been happening for some time. I do think—and I speak about this in my talk—that the combination of political polarization, hyperpartisanship, and people living in their own media ecosystems have all contributed to this climate where we see more shamelessness on the parts of candidates and elected officials, and we see the use of shame against people.

That’s been happening since 1994. That’s where I would say is a turning point. That’s where the research in my previous work on political polarization has tied into this current topic. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected by 43% of the voters, a plurality [an election where the candidate with the highest number of voters takes the election, as opposed to winning an outright majority] — it’s more common now, but this was the first [plurality win] since 1968. Nineteen-ninety-four was the year of the “Republican Revolution,” where the party ran a national campaign led by Newt Gingrich called “Contract with America.” It resulted in a [Republican] pickup of 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate. Gingrich was subsequently selected Speaker, and we saw an increase in the use of obstructionist tactics, such as the longest ever government shutdown. Trends have accelerated since then, as has the breakdown in institutional norms such as bipartisanship. The problem is exacerbated by issues such as partisan gerrymandering, which has contributed to the election of more extreme members.

What made you want to focus on politics using shame as a lens?

For one, shamelessness. You don’t have to be a political scientist to see the increase in shamelessness in American politics. It’s present. It’s dangerous. Even at its bare minimum it leads to distrust in political institutions. Obviously, that’s on my mind as someone who teaches and follows politics. The shame part came a little later to me when I was thinking about how people look at one another, and how they don’t appear as willing as they were in the past to engage in productive conversations about politics. As we become, again, more polarized and less willing to listen to the other side, I started to think about what was contributing to that. Part of it is what I’ve mentioned previously: we end up demonizing our opponents, not listening to them, and then shaming them, and that makes them even more rigid in their beliefs. The shame part came to me later when I started to look at how people spoke about one another independent to what a politician was doing.

Are people entertained by shamelessness?

One-hundred percent. It’s been a challenge for our political discourse, because if people are having fun with politics, and that fun is these dirty fights that people play, that’s not good for our democracy, right? This infotainment, this rage machine on social media, the fact that you have politicians saying outrageous things so that they can fundraise off of it—all of those things we’ve seen in the last thirty years are really foreboding for our democracy, because it makes politics less focused on policy. I think we should look at that.

But part of the purpose of this talk is for people to reflect on their own behavior, and then to ask themselves the question about whether they’re doing more harm than good. Let me give you an example: when a person says, “Because you support this candidate, you’re a racist, because that candidate says racist things,” you’re not going to change their perspective. Instead, they’re going to be angry. They’re going to double down on their position. When people do that, when they attempt to shame, it actually has a backlash effect. When it has that backlash effect, people may think they’re doing good by calling attention to someone with whom they disagree, but they’re actually contributing to the problem.

Policy is what we hire politicians to work on, and if instead we’re involved in these culture wars or attacking certain political supporters or shaming one another, people are missing the boat on what they are elected to do. It’s really quite dangerous.

Check out Carolyn Long’s talk, “Have You No Sense of Decency? Shame in American Politics.” Find an upcoming event on our calendar.

Ariana Sutherland is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

Humanities Washington

Get the latest news and event information from Humanities Washington, including updates on Think & Drink and Speakers Bureau events.