The Human Cost of Unhealthy Politics

The Human Cost of Unhealthy Politics

I don’t know about you, but I grew up with a lot of political talk that cast both debating and politics as the types of activities that were presumed to have no cost EXCEPT to the home team. The home team (in this case, conservatives) were clearly the victimized ones. But no one else was likely to be hurt by any of these activities. The kind of “snowflake” rhetoric that’s emerged since then has come out of this attitude I grew up with. In today’s blog post I plan to outline several ways this kind of rhetoric works as well as some of the actual human costs of unhealthy right-wing politics and rhetoric.

And at the end, I hope to encourage us all to keep working against such rhetoric. After all, none of us can do everything against dehumanizing politics, and it’s frustrating that it’s there at all. But we can all do what we can, which collectively adds up to a lot.

Where I’m Coming From Here

As always, I’m coming to this subject as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate denomination who grew up to get a PhD in Communication. You know, the discipline that has been working for years to try to figure out the rhetorical side of how things like the Holocaust happen and try to prevent those kinds of outcomes.

My research and teaching focuses on stress, trauma, and conflict communication, which means I’m very aware of the relationship between visceral responses to threat and how it affects what people say and do.

Growing Up with Pre-Genocidal Rhetoric? Ouch!

And yeah, as I just mentioned, over the years I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric that laughs at the idea that politics has any effect on human life at all.

Let’s be clear: Looking back through the lens of things like how dehumanization of opposing groups is often a stage on the way to genocide, that gives me a ton of pause.

Especially when I realized that the assessments we made about opposing political groups (i.e., Democrats) lined up weirdly well with a recent study that measured alt-right attitudes to Democrats and measured them as barely more than 60% human. (See more about this study here; I heard about it in Brene Brown’s podcast here and previously talked about it in this blog post here.)

The Costs of Normalizing “Just Politics”

So yeah, I’ve seen a range of forms of dehumanizing approaches to politics. The people I grew up with often dismissed the idea that political “discussions” or policies alike would have any sort of real human impact, as an example.

I can see how that not only dehumanized the opposing camp by denying any effects of politics on them, but also dehumanized anyone in the room who might feel hurt by what was said during the interaction.

So yeahhhhh double whammy there. (Not at all healthy, that rhetoric and attitude, if you were wondering. Pretty fascistic, in retrospect.)

But yeah, when you grow up with that kind of thing, even if you don’t like it, it gets normalized for you, and you often are taught to dissociate the idea of politics from human cost (which in turn of course increases the human cost of it all—sigh).

Politics Would Disrupt Relationships? Whaaaat? (Add Eyeroll Emoji Here)

And that kind of experience helps me understand the potential perspective of the young person in one of my classes a few years back who found it super weird that people would divorce over one of the parties voting for Trump.

Which is all to say I’ve seen wide variations of strong visceral reactions to the idea that politics (unhealthy or not) translates into measurable impacts on human well-being.

Why Good People Tend to Feel So Stuck About It All

And yeah, there’s that other side of things too—that idea that unhealthy politics often has so much measurable impact on US in such a wide range of ways that we feel traumatized and stuck and assume we can’t do anything about it.

The thing is that the “waterfall approach” of fascism wants us very much to feel that way. Throwing so much genuinely consequential and exhausting crap at us on an ongoing basis is designed to do exactly that—to check out and feel overwhelmed and inconsequential in the face of it all.

And yeah, it’s been going on for years for many of us, and decades and decades for others. And it’s exhausting.

And not just on the political level, is the thing. As I’ve discussed before, it definitely filters down through ALL the levels to hurt an awful lot of people, this kind of distanced unhealthy right-wing attitude about politics.


See, there are a variety of different quantitative and qualitative impacts of unhealthy (including fascistic) politics:

  1. People directly are harmed from the fact from some combination of policies and rhetoric. Think, as an example, of how many people have unnecessarily died during the pandemic since 2020. This one is obviously a big deal. But it’s not the only one.
  2. Bullies making policies and having platforms for unhealthy rhetoric enables other bullies at lower levels, both in and out of government, to feel empowered. This one is HUGE in terms of human impact, from governmental to interpersonal levels.

    (See the above reference to divorces. And note that seeing abusive folx get away with abuse at the highest levels without accountability tends to empower others to abuse people at much smaller scales, but with a huge impact collectively.)
  3. People who have experienced trauma from abuse or trauma from various sources get understandably triggered and have a harder time healing when they see people like those who hurt them empowered at a larger scale.
  4. People in historically marginalized groups who are targeted by unhealthy rhetoric and policies (see my recent posts on the overturn of Roe as an example—and obviously LGBTQ+ people are also being targeted these days, along with BIPOC as always) obviously have an uptick in trauma responses and anxiety, health conditions, etc. when impacted by unhealthy rhetoric and policies.

    And then of course these same people are ALSO harmed by the policies themselves when and if they are crammed through.
  5. Anyone who is paying attention with empathy can get harmed and overwhelmed by trying to stay caught up as much as possible and doing what they can.

Why It’s So Hard to Keep the Scope In View

There are probably more levels, but that’s more than enough to start from, I think. And yeah, thinking about these human costs helps me further understand why all of us have a hard time taking all that human cost in. And why some of us are tempted to crawl in a hole some days.

Communication theorist John Durham Peters addresses this paradox in his book Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. “We mortals really love only personally,” he says, “and yet not to love all people is unjust” (p. 271).

Thinking Through Another Way to Avoid Overwhelm

I think John Peters has a point here, and yet I don’t think it’s as difficult of a paradox as he makes it out to be, either. After all, we can’t INDIVIDUALLY fix the whole world and love everyone, but we can all do our small part to love both individuals and to fight for better systems in the ways we’re individually able to.

Thinking of it that way, I find it easier to look at and take in the human cost of unhealthy politics as something that can galvanize me into doing whatever I can where I am with what I’ve got.

The thing is that we don’t have to bind ourselves up in knots about some sort of impossible choice between loving EVERYONE and loving specific individuals—we can choose to support healthier systems and politics that chooses to treat humans with respect and solve problems for whoever real people it can without expecting either ourselves or others to be able to do everything.

And we can start by refusing to let people diminish the human cost of unhealthy politics.

What We’re Fighting For

Because yeah, that’s the same tactic we should be practicing, both for ourselves and others, to counter this dehumanizing rhetoric.

We need to be reminding people of the real human cost of unhealthy politics.

(NOTE: This doesn’t mean the unhealthy bad actors will care about any of the impacts—but others can hopefully be roused by them, if we do this in public spaces. And at the very least, we’ve raised a counter voice to those of the bullies.)

Reminding Ourselves and Others of the Helpers and the Successes

We also need to be providing a reminder of the fruit of healthier politics. Because that too has a measurable impact.

Things have been unhealthy for awhile now, after all, but many helpers have been stemming the worst and continue to do so. And they need encouragement to continue on.

Fighting for a Better Way

The latter is particularly important because in the US we have seen some wins for healthier visions. And it’s really important to recognize the wins many helpers have been working to gain. We need to own those wins and talk about them.

Both of these things—the costs of unhealthy politics and the benefits of healthier politics—are worth fighting for. Let’s go to it, friends!

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! May we all continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Want to donate to keep this work going? I finally, after 4 years of this project, have tip jars set up at Venmo and PayPal so you can help keep the lights on and such (THANK YOU for whatever you can do!). Here’s the info:

Venmo: @assertivespirituality


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The Human Cost of Un…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 7 min