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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Partisan Schadenfreude and the Demand for Candidate Cruelty

Webster, S.W., Glynn, A.N., & Motta, M. P.
Unpublished Manuscript
July 2021


We establish the prevalence of partisan schadenfreude—that is, taking “joy in the suffering” of partisan others. Analyzing attitudes on health care, taxation, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic, we find that a sizable portion of the American mass public engages in partisan schadenfreude and that these attitudes are most commonly expressed by the most ideologically extreme Americans. Additionally, we provide evidence of the demand for candidate cruelty, finding a sizable portion of the American public to be more likely than not to vote for candidates who promise to pass policies that “disproportionately harm” supporters of the opposing political party. Finally, we demonstrate that partisan schadenfreude is highly predictive of this likelihood to vote for cruel candidates and much more predictive of this likelihood than strong partisanship or ideological extremity. In sum, our results suggest that partisan schadenfreude is widespread and has disturbing implications for American political behavior.


American politics is increasingly divisive. While such a claim is relatively undisputed, few have attempted to study how those divisions psychologically motivate extreme and punitive forms of political participation. In this study we have taken an important first step in this regard. Utilizing a series of novel datasets measuring the political attitudes of thousands of Americans, we have shown that a significant portion of the mass public is prone to engaging in what we have called partisan schadenfreude, or taking “joy in the suffering” of partisan others.

We have also demonstrated that Americans express a preference for candidate cruelty. Specifically, our results suggest that a significant portion—over one-third—of the mass public is willing to vote for a candidate of unknown ideological leanings who promises to pass policies that “disproportionately harm” supporters of the opposing political party. Together, these findings help resolve uncertainty about whether the public passively accepts politicians who espouse punitive policies and rhetoric, or actively demands them. We find that Americans actively demand candidate cruelty, and that this demand is highest among those who exhibit the greatest amount of partisan schadenfreude.