Incivility in American politics

When Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during his speech to Congress in 2009, many observers believed we had crossed a line of incivility in American politics.

Wilson later apologized, and Congressional leaders even humorously adopted a “seat buddy” policy, encouraging members to sit next to a colleague of the opposite party during Presidential addresses. This whole episode seems mild, though, compared to the many discourteous eruptions in the current Presidential race.

Political incivility and worse, violence, are not new; the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton” depicts his famous duel with Aaron Burr, for example. However, the growth of the 24-hour news cycle and the emergence of social media have made us more aware than ever of political incivility. Has this undermined our democracy by poisoning the well of compromise? Does incivility embolden extremist groups?

Scholars suggest increased polarization has given rise to more incivility and vice versa. Social psychologists tell us that “motivated reasoning” compels individuals to selectively seek out information that agrees with their ideological predispositions, and according to scholar Zivia Kunda, allows them to “arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at.” This tendency results in citizens’ selective exposure to political information they agree with, contributes to mis-perceptions of facts, and undermines the democratic process by creating echo chambers of like-minded citizens suspicious of those with different views.

Diana Mutz has studied the effects of uncivil discourse on television. She notes there are two generally accepted norms of regular conversation: 1) not getting too physically close to someone, and 2) being polite and respectful when interacting. When these norms are disobeyed we become agitated and uncomfortable. Contemporary talk shows, emphasizing what Mutz calls “in-your-face-politics,” often violate these norms in two ways. First, the camera frequently zooms in too close, violating the spatial proximity norm. Second, show hosts and guests are often aggressive, impolitely talking over one other, or rudely belittling each other. Mutz finds that watching uncivil political television causes us to remember more about arguments and positions we disagree with. However, those arguments are then viewed as less legitimate as a result of their contentious presentation. She also finds that viewing programming like this reduces our overall trust in government and politics.

Mutz argues politicians and pundits must become more creative at gaining attention from a distracted public and suggests the use of humor instead of invectives. This seems a promising proposal given the popularity of programs like The Daily Show. I believe meaningful reform begins with individuals, whether they’re on the national stage or staring at us in the mirror. Disagreement is central to our politics, of course, but to truly change the political culture, we need a greater commitment from each of us to practice disagreement in respectful ways. One specific action we could personally take is to refrain from posting or sharing vitriolic comments on social media. Can we debate our issues, whatever they are, with tolerance? Can we be the people we hope to elect?

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One of our regular community contributors, Rob Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of Political Science and Urban Studies at Wittenberg University.