The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s how political science explains the GOP’s obsession with civility

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, walks past White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

On Wednesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the surprise Democratic primary winner from New York’s 14th Congressional District, said, “[T]he Democratic Party is a big tent and there are so many ways to be a Democrat.” In this, she is correct. Democrats have been, sometimes uncomfortably, forced to find connections and common cause with those who are racially, religiously and culturally unlike themselves. Republicans, in comparison, do not have the same degree of practice.

It turns out that the Republican Party’s homogeneity has consequences that tie into our recent political firestorms over incivility and appropriate political behavior. Much has been said about the responsibility of Democrats to be the bearers of national civility. Unfortunately, civility cannot be restored by Democrats alone. Republicans will need to come along, and that might be a challenge, partly because the party’s own makeup ensures that its members are quicker to take offense.

In my new book, “Uncivil Agreement,” I examine what causes Americans to treat their partisan opponents in uncivil ways. Spoiler alert: It isn’t just disagreement. Politically-aware partisans tend to believe that they are logical practitioners of political thinking. But there is very little evidence from the fields of political and social psychology to support this belief.

According to theories of motivated reasoning pioneered in political science by Milton Lodge and Charles Taber, people rarely think rationally and then come to reasoned political decisions. Instead, they rationalize their way into the decisions that they had already wanted to make. We are susceptible to both confirmation bias, a tendency to look only for information that we agree with, and disconfirmation bias, a tendency to dismiss information with which we disagree by counter-arguing or reframing.

Outrage works for Trump. If Democrats abandon civility, it will backfire.

Two important factors increase our vulnerability to this type of biased thinking: partisanship and political knowledge. The more strongly partisan a person is, the more motivated they will be to find a way to agree with their party. This is because, according to Social Identity Theory, their own individual identity is tied up with the status of their partisan team. And the more political information (accurate or not) a person holds, the more “intellectual ammunition” they have to counter-argue any fact or story they do not like. By way of example, in 2006, Lodge and Taber found that politically knowledgeable people spent more time reading articles they disagreed with, because they were using the extra time to come up with counterarguments.

So when we have political conversations, we are not like bankers discussing investments. We are more like screaming football fans. We have taken sides and we are not interested in sitting calmly with our opponents. Civility is not baked in to political discourse.

So why does it still feel like incivility is increasing?

Part of the reason is related to the power of identity. According to some of my own work with Leonie Huddy and Lene Aaroe, stronger partisans feel angrier when they are insulted, and happier when they are encouraged. But partisanship is not the only component of identity involved in contemporary American politics. Party identities have fallen into alignment with racial, religious, cultural, geographical, and other social forms of identification. In every election, when a party wins or loses, the groups aligned with the party are seen to win or lose, too. The more these identities are tied to party victory, the more emotionally people respond to political threats of all kinds — whether they’re electoral or just rhetorical.

The reverse is also true: The more crosscutting identities we have (many members of our in-group are also members of a separate out-group) the more calm and civil we can be in the face of threats and insults. In a 2016 paper, I asked partisans to read a blog post from a belligerent partisan opponent telling them they would lose an upcoming election. Strong partisans responded with significantly more anger than weakly identified partisans. But partisans with crosscutting racial, religious, or ideological identities responded with virtually no anger at all.

These crosscutting identities between Democrats and Republicans, however, have been disappearing for decades. The parties are more socially distinct from each other than they have been since, arguably, the Civil War. In “Uncivil Agreement,” I quote from Noel Fischer’s 1997 book “War at Every Door,” in which he describes the social context of the American Civil War in the state of Tennessee. He writes:

Dedication to the cause and party consciousness broke former bonds of friendship and kinship; there was a tendency to greet and be friendly toward members of the same group, whilst systematically avoiding the others. Quarrels, rivalry and hatred developed out of these estrangements. Each group had its cafe, its meetings and even its feastdays, religious on the one side and secular on the other.

Does this sound familiar? Strong partisanship and socially distinct parties can lead to “quarrels, rivalry, and hatred.”

Theoretically, Democrats and Republicans are equally vulnerable to this type of reasoning, and thus this inclination toward angry and uncivil interaction.

But in practice, social psychological theory would predict these effects to be worse among Republicans. This is true for two reasons. First, the GOP is more socially-homogeneous than the Democratic Party. In a recent study looking at data from the 2016 election, I found that Republicans were 85 percent white, 2 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 52 percent male. Democrats were 56 percent white, 19 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic and 42 percent male. Republicans, on average, attend religious services once or twice a month, while average Democrats attend religious services a few times a year.

Republicans, then, are far less likely to meet and spend time with those who are socially different from themselves. A white, Christian Republican is more likely than a white, Christian Democrat to find other party members who are socially similar. Even without direct social engagement, simply considering someone to be a member of your social group increases feelings of warmth toward them. Research has shown that when we lack crosscutting identities we tend to be more intolerant toward out-group members, as well as more angry at them.

Chasing White House officials out of restaurants is the right thing to do

As Matt Grossman and David Hopkins write in “Asymmetric Politics,” Democrats tend to participate in politics to acquire benefits for members of the groups that make up the party. Republicans, in contrast, tend to participate in politics to demonstrate ideological “purity,” which, confusingly, is not rooted in policy outcomes but in loyalty to the conservative label.

Indeed, the second reason Republicans may have a greater tendency toward uncivil interaction is that modern Americans, on average, prefer liberal policies, but call themselves conservatives. Even among self-described conservatives (80 percent of the GOP in 2016), there is much more variation in policy attitudes (including a healthy dose of liberal policy positions) than there is among self-described liberals (2 percent of the GOP).

This means that genuine, unbiased discussions of policy outcomes are less desirable for Republicans than for Democrats. With a generally left-leaning citizenry, Republicans do better by calling attention to identity differences, not policy differences, since the former allows them to connect more directly with the greatest number of voters. As an added bonus, socially homogeneous Republican voters are more sensitive to the effects of identity and threats to in-group status.

So, as we debate whether Democratic diners and restaurant owners should shun members of the Trump administration, we are missing a large part of the civility argument. Republicans have both policy-based and identity-based incentives to engage in politics with incivility, and to be more easily offended than Democrats. Democrats have practice engaging in political disagreement. Republicans are more accustomed to a world in which they are not confronted.

If the media and the electorate wish to request greater civility, they need to ask it of both parties. Partisans of both parties will need to sanction their own partisans. Both Democratic and Republican leaders have disciplined Democratic partisans for their incivility. But if we’re going to make real headway, we need to take a step back and think about why some of us are so quick to get worked up in the first place.