The vicious cycle of killer news: American democracy is dying — and taking Americans with it

Research finds that thinking about daily political events evokes negative emotions — but increases engagement

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 25, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

United States debate (Getty Images)
United States debate (Getty Images)

American people are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

More than 1 million Americans died from the Covid pandemic. Most of these deaths were preventable and were caused by Donald Trump's willful indifference, cruelty, and incompetence. He was booted from office, but there has been no closure, reckoning or catharsis in response to this massive amount of death and suffering. Although the Biden administration has made great progress in slowing down Covid, hundreds of people continue to die each week in the United States from the disease.

America is plagued with gun violence and mass shootings.

Last Saturday, ten people were massacred by a gunman in Monterey Park, California. Two days later, seven people were killed in a series of shootings in Half Moon Bay, California. 

America's democracy is in crisis.

The Republican fascists and their forces continue to spread the Big Lie and are generally undeterred in their campaign to end multiracial democracy. Trump and other high-level Jan. 6 coup plotters in the Republican Party have not been punished for their crimes against democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, insurrectionists in the Republican Party like Speaker Kevin McCarthy are now in control of the House of Representatives. The Republican fascists and other members of the MAGA movement and the white right are continuing to both incite as well as engage in actual violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives, the LGBTQ community, Black and brown people, Muslims, Jews and other designated "un-American" enemies.

Americans are lonely and American society is atomized. 

The United States is in a new gilded age where the richest individuals and corporations are thriving while the average person is experiencing great dread and struggling to survive the vicissitudes and cruelty of economic precarity and cannibal capitalism. As documented by mental health professionals and other experts, the American people are experiencing a dangerous lack of sleep, high levels of anxiety, engaging in acts of self-harm, using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, abusing prescription drugs, and experiencing a general sense of malaise and fear that the country (and their personal lives) is going in the wrong direction. Amplified by the internet and other digital technologies, the power of cults/cultism, right-wing religious extremism, conspiracy theories, and other anti-social and anti-human behavior and beliefs is growing in America, most evidently amongst those on the right. American society is experiencing high levels of loneliness and social atomization. The problem is so severe that many American men report not having one close friend.


"When it comes to politics, there can be a trade-off between feeling good and doing good."

In a new essay, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges reflects on these questions of social disconnectedness and what was lost when his favorite local gym closed down:

These ecosystems knit the social bonds that ground us to a community. They give us a sense of place, identity and worth. The economic dislocation of the past few decades, aggravated by the pandemic, have weakened or severed these bonds, leaving us disconnected, atomized, trapped in a debilitating anomie that fosters rage, despair, loneliness and fuels the epidemic of substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation. Estranged from society, we become estranged from ourselves. This social isolation, exacerbated by social media, is a plague, leaving the vulnerable prey to groups and demagogues that promise a sense of belonging and purpose in return for loyalty to a dogmatic political or religious ideology. "The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness," Hannah Arendt writes, "but his isolation and lack of normal social relations." Social isolation is the lifeblood of totalitarian movements. There are many things I fear about the future, but this unmooring is one of the most ominous.

In total, the Age of Trump and the rise of neofascism and the larger assault on democracy and freedom and human decency has traumatized the American people by making the country's preexisting crises and other problems much worse.

We "the Americans" are very broken – and are not going to get better anytime soon.

We "the Americans" know that something is very wrong with our individual and collective minds, bodies, spirits and our overall political and societal health.

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New research by Brett Ford, Matthew Feinberg, Bethany Lassetter, Arasteh Gatchpazian and Sabrina Thai, which appears in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology provides empirical support for those feelings, intuitions, and lived experiences. A press release by the America Psychological Association (APA) describes this research and findings as detailed in the article "The Political is Personal: The Costs of Daily Politics" in the following way:

Previous research and polling data have found that politics can be a major stressor in people's lives, according to the researchers. However, most of that research has focused on major political events such as presidential elections. Ford and her colleagues wanted to explore the emotional and mental health effects of everyday political news and how people use different strategies to manage those negative emotions.

"Politics isn't just something that affects people every four years during election season -- it seems to seep into daily life. But we just don't know much about the day-to-day impact politics might have," Ford said.

The America Psychological Association continues:

To learn more, she and her colleagues began by asking a politically diverse sample of 198 Americans to answer a series of questions each night for two weeks about the political event they thought about most that day, the emotions they felt in response, how they managed those emotions, their general psychological and physical well-being that day, and how motivated they felt to engage in political action.

Overall, the researchers found that thinking about daily political events evoked negative emotions in participants -- even though the survey question had not asked participants to think of negative political events. Participants who experienced more politics-related negative emotions reported worse day-to-day psychological and physical health on average -- but they also reported greater motivation to act on political causes by doing things such as volunteering or donating money to political campaigns.

The research involved showing participants clips from two news opinion programs: Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, a liberal, and Fox News' Tucker Carlson. Participants were also shown a "neutral" non-political news clip. Predictably, the explicitly political news clips caused more negative emotions among participants as compared to the "neutral" clip. Notably, those negative emotions in turn meant that the participants reported being more likely to engage in political actions as compared to those who viewed the neutral clip.

The research also explored various coping strategies for responding to political stress and related negative feelings. Strategies that calmed people down or otherwise caused them to disengage, researchers found, meant that they would be less likely to take political action.

"When it comes to politics, there can be a trade-off between feeling good and doing good," Ford told the APA. "Protecting oneself from the stress of politics might help promote well-being but it also comes at a cost to staying engaged and active in democracy."

This story of America's political sickness is not one of "bothsides" or other false equivalencies.

It is true that the gangster capitalists and the neoliberal regime have too much influence over the Democrats. By comparison, those dark forces have near total control over the Republican Party and the "conservative" movement. The result is that across almost every public policy area the Republican Party supports (and has enacted) policies that will make the American people die sooner, be more sick and more miserable, and in general live less free and happy lives. Today's "conservatives" are masters of death, cruelty, pain and sadism – and have used those evil skills to expand and maintain their power and control over American life and society.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Crisis Health Negative Partisanship Psychology Research