Incivility in Mass Political Discourse: The Causes and Consequences of an Uncivil Public

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






In this dissertation project, I explore the effect that exposure to uncivil political talk has on deliberative attitudes and behavior. I hypothesize that incivility in political discourse can induce anti-deliberative attitudes among the public, and increases the use of incivility in political talk. I argue that an anti-deliberative spirit among the public helps fuel mass partisan polarization, and limits the positive effects that come from public deliberation.

Using survey data, I find that use of incivility by the public when talking politics has increased. This trend has come alongside changes in partisan polarization and media over the last few decades. A separate analysis confirms the tie between exposure to partisan, uncivil media and uncivil political talk; using panel data, I find that exposure to political talk radio and pundit-based television programming leads audience members with like-minded political views to mimic uncivil language and tactics when expressing their own political opinions.

I use experimental methods to explore incivility's effects more in-depth. Drawing from affective intelligence theory, I hypothesize that political incivility has the ability to induce anger, which in turn reduces deliberative attitudes. In one experiment, I manipulate the amount of incivility in an online message board. I find that uncivil political talk induced feelings of anger in individuals when one's partisan in-group was targeted, and led to an increased use of incivility when the partisan out-group was targeted. When feelings of anger are stimulated in people, they reprimand the uncivil "perpetrator" on the message board, and display anti-deliberative attitudes--including a reduced propensity to consider alternative views and lower levels of satisfaction with interactive online communication.

A second experiment, embedded in a national survey, confirms that disagreeable incivility and like-minded incivility have different effects. Uncivil messages that are disagreeable induce feelings of anger, decrease willingness to compromise, and boost use of incivility. While the connection between like-minded incivility, anger, and anti-deliberative attitudes is less clear, uncivil messages lead like-minded messages to mimic uncivil and anti-deliberative behavior.

My findings show that incivility limits political deliberation. I conclude by noting the consequences of this, as well as directions for future research.