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In 2010, Lanny Davis, founder of the Civility Project and former White House Counsel to President Clinton, commented that the level of vitriol in Washington was the worst he’d seen in forty years (“Uncivil War,” 2010). If anything, it has only gotten worse. Researchers have documented incivility across a range of media (Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, Xenos, & Ladwig, 2013; Berry & Sobeiraj, 2014; Papacharissi, 2004; Sobeiraj & Berry, 2011). In addition, incivility has been shown to affect a range of political attitudes and behaviors, including perceptions of legitimacy, trust in government, and participation (Brooks & Geer, 2007; Geer & Lau, 2006; Kahn & Kenney, 1999; Mutz & Reeves, 2005).
Hearing someone say, “I disagree, and here is why” is a very different experience than “You idiot! I can’t believe you think something so stupid.” While most people will react more negatively to the second comment than the first, their reactions will also depend on how comfortable they are with conflict. Some people are generally conflict-avoidant and are uncomfortable with more uncivil ways of disagreeing (Goldstein, 1999; Testa, Hibbing, & Ritchie, 2014). Others are conflict-approaching and may be drawn to the debate because they find conflict and confrontation exciting. This research demonstrates that individuals’ predisposition towards conflict affects their response to incivility in political discourse. More broadly, it speaks to the ways in which incivility can push difficult subjects to the forefront of the national political conversation and increase the amount of citizen political engagement while simultaneously diminishing its quality.
I argue that mediated incivility—that is, incivility experienced through some type of media such as television or internet news sites—elicits different physiological effects on individuals, and that this difference is based on the individuals’ conflict orientation. Conflict avoidant individuals, who don’t feel comfortable in argumentative situations, react more negatively to incivility in the news media. This negative reaction can be seen in participants’ self-reported emotional reactions but also in their unconscious physiological response to uncivil media. This paper builds on previous research demonstrating that conflict orientation and incivility interact to produce divergent emotional responses in the conflict approaching and avoidant, using measures of physiological arousal that are relatively new to political science research. Differences in affective reactions to incivility have serious implications for democracy because they impact individuals’ willingness to engage in political activities.
I use a lab-based survey experiment to demonstrate that incivility has an impact not only on individuals’ psychological experience of politics but also on their participation in the political activities that sustain a healthy democracy. As part of the experiment, undergraduate students at a liberal arts school in the southwest were asked to watch a CNN clip about white supremacist Richard Spencer’s lecture at Auburn University in April 2017. After watching the video and reading a series of civil or uncivil “online comments” about the speech, students were told that Spencer would be speaking their university (an artifact of the experiment about which they were later debriefed) and were encouraged to talk about and engage in activism around his visit. The laboratory environment and the “Spencer visit” lets us test actual participatory outcomes, rather than hypothetical ones. While a survey experiment might ask participants if they would comment on the CNN clip or participate in a political discussion surrounding the issue, the laboratory setting facilitates the recording of actual conversations in response to political incivility and of actual political engagement—signing petitions, taking political buttons, and requesting additional information.
Ultimately, this research offers insight into the physiological impact of mediated political incivility and creates a causal link between the emotional arousal generated by that incivility and individual political participation. It complicates the normative assumption that incivility is inherently bad for democracy by helping us understand when and under what conditions it can mobilize citizens.