If norms are indeed shifting toward incivility, how does this affect citizens’ ability to participate in politics? Evidence from my new book, “Disrespectful Democracy,” suggests that the answer depends more on how each individual responds to conflict than on identification as Democrats or Republicans.
Have the standards for polite political conversation shifted?
A large set of characteristics falls under the umbrella of “incivility” — everything from physical attacks and racial slurs to interruption and finger-pointing. Communications scholar Ashley Muddiman distinguishes between public-level incivility — a lack of deliberation and reciprocity — and private-level incivility, or politeness. I’m focusing here on such private-level incivility as hyperbole, insults, exaggerated emotions, inflammatory language, name-calling, lying and other violations of commonly understood norms of politeness.
Of course, incivility is hardly new in politics. However, the comparative anonymity of the Internet has encouraged increased attacks on political figures and journalists online. In their book “The Outrage Industry,” political scientist Jeffery Berry and sociologist Sarah Sobieraj show that contemporary news includes more name-calling, dramatic exaggeration and character assassination than in the 1950s or 1970s.
Other research finds that the Internet is particularly conducive to incivility. In 2019, 63 percent of Americans reported that social media have a more negative effect on civility than positive. Research in political science and communication suggests that incivility varies across social media platforms and Internet sources. Women are especially likely to be targeted by rude and hateful behavior online.
How individuals feel about this varies based on their psychological tendencies to lean into or avoid conflict. Imagine witnessing a couple having a fight in a restaurant. Some people will want to know more: Why are they fighting? What’s going to happen? Others will immediately feel uncomfortable and wish they could step away. Social scientists call the tendency toward one or the other “conflict orientation,” and it shapes not only how people react to conflict in their everyday lives but also how they respond to a political environment rife with shouting, mockery and belittling.
In my book, I show that conflict orientation shapes political behavior in the face of incivility. To do so, I conducted two experiments in 2014 and 2016 with 600 nonrepresentative and 3,000 nationally representative participants, respectively. The first sample was solicited online by Survey Sampling International (now part of Dynata) and the second was an online sample collected by GfK as part of the Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences Young Investigators program.
In the first experiment, each participant watched a news clip in which cable news hosts and their guests had either an uncivil conversation or a civil conversation. The uncivil clips contained interruption, shouting and finger-pointing. In the second experiment, they were also randomly assigned to see a civil or uncivil video clip, but this time the clip was sometimes from a congressional hearing or sometimes from the cooking competition show “Master Chef.”
‘Conflict orientation’ mattered more than party affiliation
After watching the clip, participants were asked “to what extent did the clip you just watched make you feel any of the following?” They placed their feelings of anxiety, disgust, anger, enthusiasm and amusement on a 5-point scale. Across all the videos — political and nonpolitical — people who told us they tend to avoid conflict were significantly more likely to report greater disgust, anger and anxiety than those who told us they enjoy conflict. The reverse was also true: People who liked conflict reported more positive emotions when they watched incivility than did their peers who didn’t like conflict.
Those responses didn’t seem to depend on whether the participant was a Democrat or a Republican. Conflict orientation mattered more than party allegiances.
Second, conflict orientation shapes the way we talk about politics in the face of uncivil news. In the GfK experiment, before participants reported their emotional reactions, they were asked whether they would (a) share the video clip on social media and (b) what, if any, comment they would include with the post.
There was no clear pattern in who would share the video. But people did talk about it in quite different ways. People who liked conflict and who watched uncivil videos (either the political- or the cooking-themed) were slightly more likely to use incivility, particularly name-calling and aspersions, in their responses. But they were also more likely to share a relevant opinion, particularly after watching the political clip.
Regardless of whether they saw the civil or uncivil political video, participants who like conflict offered their opinion about 40 percent of the time. After watching the incivility, those who didn’t like conflict offered an opinion 10 percent of the time. Once again, this was true for both Democrats or Republicans.
What this means for the booing at the World Series
Of course, partisanship influenced how observers responded to the way fans treated Trump at Nationals Park. But my findings suggest it’s no surprise that — regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans — some people recoiled from the booing and others joined in at home or applauded the chants on Twitter. The people who celebrated the video on Twitter will also be more likely to express their opinions about the impeachment inquiry.
At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama mentioned Donald Trump in his speech — and Democrats booed. Obama famously responded, “Don’t boo, vote.” For those who like conflict, both types of political engagement come easily. Those who want to avoid it find it challenging to use their voices in today’s political climate.
Emily Sydnor (@esydnor) is an assistant professor at Southwestern University.