From ‘clown’ to ‘community’: the democratic potential of civility and incivility

Dr Emily Sydnor

Assistant professor of political science at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Her research focuses on political communication and psychology, and her book, Disrespectful Democracy: The Psychology of Political Incivility, explores how individual level predispositions towards conflict and an uncivil media environment interact to shape political behavior.

Twitter: @esydnor

Section 7: Democracy in crisis

In late October 2020, the Democratic and Republican Party candidates for Utah governor made a public service announcement that went viral on Twitter, attracting over 74 thousand likes and 26 thousand retweets. In the 30-second video, the two candidates swap lines, explaining that while each hoped the audience would vote for them, “we can debate issues without degrading each other’s character. We can disagree without hating each other. And win or lose, in Utah, we work together.” The ad stood in direct contrast to the first presidential debate a little less than a month earlier, in which both Donald Trump and Joe Biden used interruption, insults, and name-calling to derail any discussion of policy positions and issues.

Most Americans see the sort of incivility present in the first presidential debate as a problem for American society, and they fear it will only get worse moving forward. That is likely part of what made the Utah gubernatorial candidates’ ad go viral—it seemed a stark contrast to the expectations of the average American. We claim to want more exchanges like that in the Utahan PSA but find ourselves getting more involved and fired up when our candidate of choice fires off a particularly good zinger. Civility cultivates mutual respect and decency while incivility prompts political engagement; all are necessary for a functioning polity. In the end, we need to stop thinking about civility as the universal good to aspire to and incivility as a universal approach to be ignored. Both can be transformative for democracy.

Take, for example, Biden’s primetime address on Friday, November 6. In it, he made a pitch for moving past the vitriol that characterized the campaign (and much of Trump’s time in office), saying “We’re certainly not going to agree on a lot of the issues, but we can at least agree to be civil to one another. Let’s put the anger and the demonization behind us.” Calls for civility are popular in the wake of campaigns, as candidates shift their rhetoric to appeal to the nation as a whole rather than their own partisan supporters. But is civility—at least the civility-as-politeness that Biden is referring to—really what can improve Americans’ trust in and support of U.S. institutions and elected leaders? Probably not.

Civility is, after all, the shiny veneer that masked the very real divisions around race, gender and socioeconomic status in the mid-1900s, as Biden himself was reminded during his primary campaign. One can be polite and still be racist, can avoid calling names and shouting insults and still support policies and programs that are exclusionary and unequal. Making democracy more accessible, more pluralistic, and more inclusive is necessarily going to mean more language that makes us uncomfortable and that forces us to reflect on our personal biases and the inequities that have been incorporated into American institutional design since the Founding.

Don’t get me wrong, incivility, particularly incivility by elected officials, damages our trust in government. President Trump’s rhetoric, combined with the rise of cable news outrage and vitriolic echo chambers found on social media, have undoubtedly shifted norms about acceptable political and public speech in ways that feel counterproductive for governance. But in some situations, uncivil expression, difficult as it can be for some of us to stomach, is vitally important to our nation’s healing and to putting our national anger behind us. Bottling up our anger and frustration in the pretty packaging of civility won’t change the underlying affective polarization and sectarianism that are shaping contemporary American politics.

The 2020 election did not end with the strong moral repudiation of President Trump that many Democrats had hoped for, suggesting that there is still much work to be done for each party to understand and collaborate with the other effectively. Biden is right to encourage Americans and elected officials in particular to treat each other more warmly and behave in a nonpartisan manner; evidence suggests that this can reduce polarization. But calls for a return to civility–rather than decency, empathy and openness to other perspectives—mask the very real divisions and inequalities laid bare by coronavirus, the movement for black lives, and the 2020 election.