Politics in places like the US has become increasingly hostile and uncivil, say scholars. Language often vilifies citizens and lawmakers. But people overwhelmingly dislike the incivility and have expressed shame at its effect on policy debates. What are the effects of incivility and vilification in a democratic society? Do they have real effects on public policy? Does it affect political participation or the psychology of the citizens? Maria Armoudian speaks to Robert Entman, Steven Heyman, and Michael Wagner.

Robert Entman is a Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is an expert in political communication and is the author of Democracy without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics.

Steven Heyman is a Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. He is an expert in constitutional and free speech law and is the author of Free Speech and Human Dignity.

Michael Wagner is an Associate Professor in Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He is an expert in political communication and is the co-author of Political Behavior of the American Electorate.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Let us start with the old idea of deliberation. Michael Wagner in your work you have reminded us about the benefits of real deliberation on political issues and how all sides come out ahead. Give us the overview about what democratic deliberation offers when people communicate about their disagreements?

Michael Wagner: Democratic theorists have long extolled the need for quality debate and compromise among lawmakers. And so governance requires at least political elites to deliberate and work together in order to come to some kind of a consensus. The question, of course, is what is the quality of that deliberation? And is there something about what happens when the quality of that deliberation changes that can affect basic democratic processes like compromise or support for compromise or the willingness for people to civically engage? I think there is, and I think when rhetoric is particularly nasty… it affects people’s willingness to compromise both in terms of individual citizens willingness to accept compromise and possibly even lawmakers willingness to compromise across partisan lines. And so that is where I begin my analysis.

MA: Is that just an ideal that we have never had, Robert Entman?

Robert Entman: Well it may well be that our image of the past tends to be golden and unrealistic, so I am not sure for how many generations we had that we would now call civil, as opposed to uncivil, discourse. But I would say that probably the era that much of political science and democratic theory is based in is the 50s and 60s and that was a time when there was a different tone in Washington, but not just a different tone, a respect for certain rules of the game which includes pretty much telling the truth, pretty much actually desiring to solve policy problems, and those are two things that have gone by the wayside.

MA: So you would say that it has deteriorated, that it has become more uncivil and it is not something that historically has always been there?

RE: Correct.

Steve Heyman?

Steve Heyman: There is a deep ambivalence in our First Amendment on this. There is a very strong theme in the Supreme Court’s decision about the First Amendment protecting a meaningful dialogue of ideas – a give and take between citizens where each of us has the right and duty to express their own views, to listen to the views of other people, to try to understand where they are coming from. So that is one central image of the First Amendment, but at the same time there is also sort of a different view that the First Amendment is meant to protect speech that may be abrasive, that may be sharply critical of other public officials or of other groups within society, and that the First Amendment almost exists to protect a sense of speech because it is uncivil or because it challenges existing conventions.

MA: I definitely want to get into the legal issues, perhaps we should discuss the concepts of what it means to have incivility. Bob Entman you say there are two kinds of incivility, what do you mean?

RE: The kind of incivility we always talk about tends to be the impoliteness and nasty rhetoric and personal, and that is important and it is troubling when we have that kind of incivility. But the Oxford English Dictionary has a second definition and I think that is a bigger problem. The second definition is “orderly state of a country, social order as distinct from anarchy and disorder.” Now what I believe is that we are not in a state of anarchy but that we are in a state in which we have disordered politics and disordered governance and that is the real problem. And this comes down to the tendency of certain political actors to disregard what had been a long-standing norm of telling the truth and not deliberately making things up and sticking to those points if they win you political power.

MA: You have said that this is a party strategy to keep winning. Can you explain how you find this strategy and what the reaction has been from the other party?

RE: The strategy is actually to create this disorder and to create bad governance, because that is a way to discourage people from believing that the government can solve problems, and to encourage them to support so-called smaller government. And if you do that, in some senses it doesn’t really matter if that is your real goal, that is keeping power and shrinking the size of government and shrinking what government does, then it doesn’t really matter what you are saying specifically because that is the simple goal and that is the simple target. And from the point of view of the other party it becomes very difficult to conduct a civilised dialogue from either side if one of the sides is refusing to acknowledge some facts of which most everyone who is intellectually honest would agree they are indeed factual.

MA: This is one form of incivility. Michael Wagner you study political vilification of the other side, how do you distinguish this vilification from these other kinds of incivility?

MW: I think Robert did a good job defining the kinds of incivility that he wishes we would focus less on when he was describing things like impoliteness, name-calling, derision of the opponent, those sorts of things as being something that is uncivil with respect to discourse in politics. Incivility has some effects on how people respond to political debate when they see it among political elites. What my colleagues and I want to argue is that there is something that we call vilification which is different to incivility. And so our argument is that incivility compromises name calling, derision of the opponent, impoliteness you know things of that nature, and vilification calls the other side evil, malevolent, ingenuine, bent on destroying the country, so they describe a particular motive. It is not just that the other side are jerks, it is not just that the other side will disagree on the facts, it is that they are evil, that they are dangerous. And our argument is that when people are exposed to that kind of rhetoric it makes some people way less likely to want to compromise and it makes others way more likely to want to compromise. We make the argument that left and right parties and the electorate respond different to vilification. So for example when Republicans see their party vilified we find that they know who the enemy is and there is no way they are going to compromise with them. If they come out and call us evil and dangerous we are never going to make a political agreement with those folks and we wouldn’t support our leaders if they did. We found that Democrats in the electorate, when they see their party vilified, when they see their party evil and dangerous they become much more supportive of compromise, they want the fighting to stop, they want to come to some kind of solution as compared to keeping the attacks going. And so this has real implications for how governance works because if you were the Democratic party you might not get much purchase out of attacking the other side in this particular way because it is going to entrench your opponents and it is going to make your side want to compromise.

And so, there are some linkages with what Bob is talking about, in terms of why the politics of today are the way that they are. What we don’t know is how this has really varied over time and so that is something that we are trying to investigate. That takes a really long time, and so I can’t speak to whether the language is specifically worse now than it used to be, but I think our data does suggest that people in the electorate respond differently to vilifying attacks and that they don’t respond that way just when the attacks are uncivil or when the attacks are based on factual disputes, people don’t have the same reaction in terms of their support of compromise or supporting other kinds of democratic principles.

MA: I think I want to talk about one more layer. There is one more level of this incivility and vilification and that is hate speech and harmful speech that is actually a legal issue. And Steve Heyman this is where we bring you in, what distinguishes harmful speech and hate speech from other kinds of political speech?

SH: You could view hate speech as being the most extreme form of the kind of speech that Bob and Mike were just talking about. If you go one step even beyond vilification, beyond accusing your opponents of being evil, if you go so far as to actually dehumanise them, to treat them as though they are subhuman, as though they are not entitled to the respect that you would give to other human beings and citizens and in particular if you abuse and degrade other people on the basis of their race, their ethnicity, or their religion, or their gender, or their sexual orientation, that is what I would regard as being hate speech.

MA: What if they were degraded with regard to their political ideology? Now so far we don’t have that as a legal category but one of the things that we have seen change in political discourse as the alt-right airwaves have emerged is that liberals have been called all of these dehumanised names, but we haven’t seen that emerge yet in the legal world.

SH: That’s right, and I think the reason for that is that the Supreme Court regards the right to sharply disagree about political issues to be right at the core of the First Amendment. And so to the extent that people are attacking other members of the polity on the basis of their political views, I think the tendency is more to view that as being a vigorous or sharp political disagreement rather than an actual denigration of the very humanity of the people that you’re disagreeing with.

MA: Some of the dialogue does get to the level of calling liberals the scourge of society.

SH: I agree with you that it is possible through political rhetoric to become so extreme to amount to a sort of hate speech against your political opponent. And I think that we should try to avoid that to the greatest extent possible and to condemn it when people do engage in that kind of speech. I should add that existing First Amendment jurisprudence treats even racist hate speech as generally being protected by the First Amendment, all the more so I think the court would regard the political hate speech that you are talking about is protected.

MA: There is a wide range of potential consequences. Robert Entman, you have pointed out that there are some serious policy implications. One you mentioned was climate change…

RE: In the case of climate change, you have a situation where all but one of the Republican candidates for the US Senate in 2010 denied that climate change is a problem and doesn’t want to do anything about it. So we are talking about a situation not contemplated by democratic theories as far as I know in the American context, where one party for whatever reason is unified around something that is clearly not factual. I mean clearly there is climate change and no reputable scientists dispute that to any substantial degree. And if you have that situation you have a paralysed policy process because America’s particular political process is one that gives minorities such as the then Republican minority in the Senate an opportunity to veto pretty much anything that they don’t like, and that is what happened. So think of it like this: we really didn’t have much of the way in any discussion at all about climate change during the Obama Administration. There was a little bit around the Copenhagen Conference but that is it and this is a huge issue facing the whole world, so now we are talking about our incivility actually effecting not just America but the globe.

MA: And there was an additional incivility which was after they hacked into the scientists’ email accounts they really vilified the scientists which turned a lot of the public against the science itself.

SH: I think that is right, and I think that can have a chilling effect on how scientists think about reporting their results which is something we have to worry about I think as a democratic society. For example, thinking about climate change, another reason that this kind of rhetoric is allowed to exist is because the news media don’t tend to act as an appropriate watchdog, which is to say it is kind of an accepted practice in journalism regardless of whether a story has one, two, or twelve sides to report two sides of a story. And so Scientist X says that there is climate change, Scientist Y says there isn’t – you decide. And if I report a story that way then you can’t call me biased. If I report almost all scientists who study weather and geography and climate conclude that climate change is occurring, that it has accelerated since humans have developed particular technologies and a couple of folks say that it hasn’t occurred, then they open themselves up to charges of being biased while at the same time it would open them up to charges of telling the precise truth. Reporters do not like to adjudicate between competing opinions. It is difficult to disabuse people of beliefs that people have that are false, I think that is all tied up into the style of rhetoric that we have been discussing.

MA: Media have become very bifurcated where you still have the media that try to do this “objective” reporting with two sides, but we have also seen this emergence of a very one-sided, vilified kind of media that has added to all this. Canada and other countries have come restrictions on lying on the air, how is this addressed and how should it be addressed?

MW: The American Supreme Court has taken a much more absolutist approach to the protection of free speech than many other liberal democratic countries do, and that is true with regard to hate speech, defamation, and forms of lying. And I think that in part is because the First Amendment sounds more absolutist than the corresponding protections of the freedom of expression in many other countries. In many other countries there are explicit constitutional provisions that say that all of the rights that are guaranteed by the constitution are subject to such limits that are justified in a democratic society, and in general there is a much greater tendency in these other legal systems to strike a balance between freedom of expression on the one hand and other strong public values on the other side.

MA: One of your papers argues that there are other competing rights, such as rights of citizenship, rights of intellectual freedom, rights of equality that actually clash with this kind of public discourse. How would you express these nuances?

MW: On the racist hate speech that we touched on before: I have a right to freedom of speech that right is grounded in a respect for human dignity and autonomy, and those same values give rise to other kinds of rights. These include a right to be free from violence, a right to citizenship and equality, and reputation and so forth. In fact, if you go back to the original understanding of the First Amendment, the view was that the right to free speech was an inherent natural right but it was limited by the rights of other people. I think that the modern Supreme Court has very much lost sight of that view, but it would very much improve the quality of our public discourse if we were to go back to a view that sees free speech as limited by the rights of other people.

RE: Here is an irony: the uncivil politics of Supreme Court nominations directly affects the ability of the Supreme Court or the inclination of the Supreme Court to take a more nuanced view of the First Amendment. We used to have a view on the Supreme Court that was a more balanced view between rights of free speech and rights of citizens and so forth. And that view has been pushed aside to a small minority now and an absolutist version of the First Amendment ensconced precisely because the Republican Party absolutely refuses to consider liberal justices. So all we have had is very conservative justices nominated by Republican presidents and very moderate centrist justices nominated by Democratic presidents because those are the only ones that Republicans would allow to go through. So I think it is very important for people to understand that the First Amendment, the meaning of it has changed in practise over time and that is very much dependent on the identity of the Supreme Court, and because the parties are so polarised that it actually affects the way the First Amendment operates in the US at any given time.

MA: Steve Heyman would you like to add to that?

SH: It has changed, and one very interesting and dramatic change that has taken place over the past thirty or forty years is that freedom of speech that used to be primarily viewed as a liberal or a progressive value has come to be appropriated by the right. So it is now conservatives who tend to be much more absolutist, at least within the Supreme Court on first amendment issues than liberals do. And I think there is a view on the part of conservative justices that any sort of reasonable or moderate restrictions on hate speech or on corporate speech is some sort of effort on the part of the left to suppress conservatives. So that helps to explain why it is the conservatives who have been most absolutist in the protection of hate speech and the conservatives who were responsible for the Citizens United decision.

MA: Where could this go from here into a more civilised discourse. Bob Entman what are your thoughts how do we move towards more constructive dialogue?

RE: That is an enormously important question. It may sound hard to believe but it seems to me that we are reaching a point in places like the US where we need to start thinking of ourselves as having a form of civil conflict. There are a lot of similarities between now and the pre-Civil War US of the 1850s. We do know a lot more, I think, than we did then about how to bring groups that are opposed together and actually try to gain some common ground on the basis of mutual respect and understanding. So I would propose that we actually have a series of conferences where the two sides sit down, and they are not just politicians but maybe professors for example, and try to hammer this out in a way that recognises that this is a little bit verging on going towards the edge of the situation like Northern Ireland, or we could name many other civil conflicts. So we really need to take it very seriously. I do think there is a little tendency on the part of Republicans, in particular, to see this kind of as a game and some point this game becomes pretty dangerous and that’s why I think we ought to name this problem and take it seriously and really try to get both parties to understand that ultimately the stakes are the future of the US.

MA: Steve Heyman?

SH: I would love to see an effort to develop common ground. I may be a little bit more pessimistic about the abilities to do that. My sense is that a lot of the source of the incivility in our common politics comes from the refusal of a certain group of white conservative Americans to accept the very legitimacy of people who are not like them, racial minorities in particular. And that a lot of the incivility in the recent years has resulted from a very powerful backlash against the very idea of having someone like Barack Obama in the White House, which goes along with the vilification of liberals that we have been talking about. Obama did everything he could to try to develop some sort of common ground and civil discourse and it really didn’t succeed. So I guess my sense is that the first thing that we may have to do is actually to be a little bit more uncivil on the left, in the sense of coming out and very strongly condemning the kind of rejectionist views that we sometimes hear from the right, and that ultimately the best hope for establishing some kind of broader civility is when people who don’t fall within the demographic that the Republican Party is appealing to can actually assert enough majority control over society. The white conservative group recognises itself as being part of a multicultural and pluralistic and ideologically diverse country rather than taking the view that their country is being stolen from them and that they essentially do need to start a civil war against their opponent.

MW: I think a couple of things are going on here and I think one, just thinking about the public, one thing that is important to realise is that people are different, individuals vary and they do so systematically, and in some cases intractably. And so, to know that some people, honest to goodness no matter what you tell them you believe that smaller government is good and others believe that a more activist government is good, folks are not likely to change their views on that in a lot of cases. One way we can promote tolerance is to accept that people do have different views, and one problem with Americans is they drastically overestimate the degree that people agree with them. There is actually quite a bit of ideological diversity in the US. And so I think recognising that and promoting those differences would go some way toward improving tolerance, which I think could help the problem of uncivility.

The second thing suggests that a great strategy at the elite level and at the public level to get people to believe things that are true when they don’t want to, is a strategy of naming and shaming. Political leaders and the media need to say this person said something it wasn’t true and every time they say it they need to say it was not true. And so we need more things such as Politifact, which won a Pulitzer Prize for rating the truthfulness of what our lawmakers say. While Politifact is an imperfect tool it is the kind of tool that I think can promote the other kind of incivility that Bob was talking – the right to accept things that are true when they are true and the ability to believe them as fact and to stop rejecting facts for ideological reasons rather than empirically scientific ones.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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