incivility undermines the values of our democracy
Sun shines through the branches of a tree and the rails of a fence outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol. (Michael Duncan)

Those of us in academia who study American politics are watching a disturbing trend.

At virtually all levels of our country’s democracy, partisans — the most loyal Democrats and Republicans — increasingly loathe one another. Political scientists call itaffective polarization.”

Last year, the Pew Research Center reported data demonstrating, among other things, that Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike one another, distrust one another, and are more motivated by this hostility than they are by positive feelings toward their own parties. According to the study, large majorities of partisans in the sample regarded those of the other party as more “immoral” and more “dishonest” than most people.

This hostility toward one another has led us to withdraw from interacting with those of differing political views. Research has shown that Republicans and Democrats are increasingly separating from one another geographically, religiously, and economically. This seclusion from others who disagree with us about politics has also led to significant misunderstanding of our political opponents. As research by YouGov and More in Common has revealed, a “perception gap” exists between Democrats and Republicans. As their study reports, those of both parties significantly overestimate the extent to which those of the other party hold “extreme” views. 

What we think should help often does not

Our disdain for one another leads us to separate from one another, which, in turn, leads us to misunderstand one another. Worse yet, many of the social sciences’ presumed solutions to reduce this polarization might not actually work. The YouGov/More in Common research discovered that political participation does not help reduce the perception gap. Instead, they found that the more ideological and politically active one may be, the larger their misperceptions about those in the other party may become. Conversely, the politically “disengaged” had the smallest perception gap among those in the survey.

Similarly, news consumption helps reduce polarization much less than the journalism world would hope. Those who followed the news “most of the time” had a much larger misunderstanding of their political opponents than those who did not pay attention to the news, according to the study. In fact, these researchers found that only the traditional and national network television news had a positive impact on how accurately partisans viewed one another. When one considers the ideological segmentation of the news media and its subsequent reinforcement of political polarization of the public, this finding may not be surprising, but it is nonetheless depressing.

Another surprise from the YouGov/More in Common study was that education does not help reduce the perception gap either. These researchers discovered that while increased educational attainment among Republicans did not reveal a difference in how they perceived Democrats, tiers of Democrats with higher education levels showed significantly increased misunderstanding of their Republican counterparts.

“This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree,” the study’s authors wrote. In examining the data, they speculated that this outcome was due, in part, to highly educated Democrats reporting less ideologically diverse friendship networks than more educated Republicans.

This disdain for, withdrawal from and misunderstanding of one another has led to a rise in incivility in our public conversations. Unfortunately, the rapid spread of social media seems connected to the deterioration of the quality of our communication with one another regarding important issues. Especially in digital spaces, most of us no longer talk with one another. Instead, we tend to talk over each other. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook incentivize us not to gain understanding and find common ground among people in our communities, but rather to win the argument and to use the political system to dominate our opponents in an online environment where bots run rampant and we may never encounter an argumentative commenter in real life.

Civility is needed

If political engagement, news consumption and education do not actually help us better understand one another, how do we bridge this divide and find common ground? The answer may lie in how we treat one another in our disagreements and conversations about important topics. In short, we need to reinstate civility in our civil discourse. In many cases, we need to relearn how to converse with others who disagree with us without immediately assuming the worst in each other, ascribing perceived motivations or failing to listen to one another’s concerns.

There are people and organizations attempting to help us engage in better conversations and constructive disagreement. The Heterodox Academy is one organization that helps foster viewpoint diversity, open inquiry and constructive disagreement in higher education. This organization of academics has developed the “Heterodox Way of approaching difficult conversations — a set of “norms and values” to be used in all such conversations. The approach includes intentionally:

  • Making your case with evidence — Citing or describing sources of information;
  • Being intellectually charitable — Assume that reasonable, informed and intelligent people may disagree with you;
  • Being intellectually humble — Be open to changing your mind should the facts warrant it;
  • Being constructive — Focus on gaining a deeper understanding of our world, not just on winning an argument;
  • Being yourself Use your social capital to push back against adverse trends and lead by example.

These guidelines are not only beneficial in an academic setting, they are also helpful in the common discussions and disputes we have over a variety of issues and policies on a regular basis. They create an environment of mutual respect, an agreed upon approach to the conversation and boundaries to keep a conversation from devolving into personal attacks.

Rachel Kleinfeld and Aaron Sobel of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offer some helpful suggestions as well, such as: 

  • Call out your own party – Stand up to those “on your side” when they use polarizing or hateful language;
  • Downplay the fringes and highlight the median — Focus on the similarities rather than the extremes of our positions on policy issues;
  • Emphasize disagreement within parties – Recognize that even those within the same political party have a range of positions on issues;
  • Avoid repeating misinformation — Even when attempting to debunk misinformation, stake your arguments in truth. Rather than repeating the erroneous information, provide more factual information in a straightforward manner.

Civil discourse improves support for democratic decision making

This disdain, separation and misunderstanding for those who disagree with us has reached a level that it is undermining the social capital and social trust necessary to sustain a commitment to democratic governance. Without these values, the civil society needed to foster social cooperation outside the coercion of the state or the purely transactional interactions that dominate market activity cannot sustain itself. The result becomes a view that considers democracy as merely another mechanism for dominance rather than a means of peaceful coexistence and accepted decision making. If we are not careful, America’s growing incivility will eventually erode our commitment to civil liberties and civil rights for our fellow citizens.

We all have an interest in — and perhaps an obligation to — fostering productive civil discourse. We must all promote the development of a civil society that supports our democratic institutions and commitments to our rights and liberties. As Jorge Aragón Trelles reminds us, support for the political community and the “principles, norms and procedures” of the system are essential to creating legitimacy in democratic governments.

We can each contribute to that by ensuring our involvement in the public discourse seeks common ground, understands why certain differences are hard to resolve, and fosters constructive disagreement that builds rather than destroys the social trust and capital needed to sustain our system of government.