The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does incivility hurt democracy? Here’s what political science can tell us.

Protesters argue in front of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., on June 26. The restaurant’s owner asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave days before. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)

Last Saturday, the owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant. Since that and other incidents, many have been debating the role civility should have in politics. The Washington Post editorial board warned that justifying certain types of incivility is a slippery slope, while Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times argued that the nation is facing not “a breakdown in civility [but] a breakdown of democracy.”

When angry, humans are inclined to act. Do nonviolent name-calling, harassment and other forms of incivility suggest that America is failing to live up to its democratic ideals?

Political science suggests incivility’s effects on democracy are mixed. Exposure to incivility can reduce trust in government, belief in institutional legitimacy and media credibility while further polarizing citizens politically. But it can also be a way to assert political rights when traditional methods are ineffective and can rally supporters to your cause. Incivility can open up political debate, even as it makes us uncomfortable.

How does incivility hurt political conversation?

Insults and outrage damage our relationships with government and each other. In her book “In-Your-Face Politics,” Diana Mutz shows incivility can lower trust in government, reduce faith in institutions and lessen respect for opposing views. Without citizens’ trust, politicians have a harder time fulfilling their policy goals.

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What’s more, it spreads. My own work finds that when people are exposed to political incivility, they’re likely to respond in kind. To test this, in July 2016 I split a nationally representative sample of 3,100 Americans recruited online through market research company GfK into four different groups. Some watched a 45-second news clip that was civil, while others saw a clip in which opponents interrupted and insulted one another. Afterward, each participant was invited to leave a comment or question about what they watched. Eight percent of participants who watched the civil clip used some form of incivility in their comment — insulting the speakers’ views and calling them names. Ten percent of those who watched the uncivil clip did the same. When we talk about politics with incivility, we perpetuate a cycle that has negative effects on our attitudes toward government.  

How can incivility help us communicate?

Political scientist Susan Herbst argues that incivility is used by political elites to rile audiences up, remind them how bad the other side is, and mobilize like-minded individuals. This strategy works. Political scientists Deborah Brooks and John Geer found uncivil campaign rhetoric can generate stronger interest in voting and in politics more generally.

Mutz also found people paid more attention to incivility, recalled more of what they had seen and were more likely to relay that information to others. I found that as well. The participants in my experiment who watched incivility were a little ruder in their responses — but also much more likely to offer opinions about the topic discussed in the clip than those who watched a more civil clip, by 33 percent to 11 percent. In other words, incivility can get people to pay attention, get involved and offer their own perspectives. 

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How does identity shape our understanding of incivility?

On Twitter, people were quick to argue that the White House and the Republican Party are supporting a double standard. How, some asked, could condoning violence against opponents be acceptable, while asking someone to leave a restaurant is uncivil?

Unsurprisingly, our reaction to uncivil language depends on our partisan perspective. As political scientist Bryan Gervais showed, people exposed to incivility from the other party were angrier and more likely to respond with similar incivility. But when their own party did the attacking, respondents felt no such rush of emotion.

Does the speaker’s identity matter to our reactions? Yes — but not as much as how they say what they say. I conducted an experiment in July 2017 with a nonrepresentative group of 805 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Each participant was randomly assigned to read different sets of comments responding to a CNN clip about white nationalist Richard Spencer’s visit to Auburn University in April 2017. These comments had varying levels of civility, and were either attributed to two white men or to an African American man and a white man — with an ostensible picture of each writer visible next to his comments. We then asked participants about a variety of attitudes, including whether the comments struck them as uncivil.

The answers did vary by the writers’ purported race, but only slightly. Participants were 12 percent more likely to think that the two white men were uncivil than when the same exchange was attributed to a black man and white man. More significant in their responses was the tone of the comments — whether it included name-calling, extreme language, and so on.

What can history tell us about civility and incivility?

On CNN, David Gergen claimed that past protest movements have been more civil than politics today. Historians quickly corrected him, with examples of how civility has ebbed and flowed throughout history.

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In their article “The Rise and Fall of Nasty Politics in America,” Daniel M. Shea and Alex Sproveri argue that politics gets especially uncivil during periods of political upheaval. For example, Alexander Hamilton once described John Adams as having “great and intrinsic defects in his character.” An opponent accused Martin Van Buren, then serving as Andrew Jackson’s vice president, of wearing a woman’s corset. During the anti-communist 1950s, a pro-McCarthy senator called Gen. George C. Marshall a “living lie” and “a frontman for traitors.” The 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam War protests included insults, building takeovers, vandalism, shootings and bombings.

By contrast, civil nonviolent protest has at times been labeled “uncivil” to diminish it. In his book on the civil rights movement in Greensboro, N.C., William H. Chafe shows that segregationists called a wide range of civil rights tactics “uncivil,” including protests, sit-ins and direct challenges to Jim Crow legislation. Similarly, Corrine McConnaughy points out woman suffragists were called uncivil and unladylike for peaceful protests.

Not all instances of incivility serve democratic ends. But civility can mask dissent and encourage people to avoid tough conversations. Agreeable speech can limit political discourse; at times, name-calling and vitriol can promote democratic discussion.

Emily Sydnor (@esydnor) is an assistant professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.