Fighting Words and Fiery Tone: The Interaction of Political Incivility and Psychological Conflict Orientation

Sydnor, Emily, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Winter, Nicholas, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Freedman, Paul, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Sanders, Lynn, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Nosek, Brian, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

The majority of Americans think that politics has an “incivility problem,” and that the problem has grown in the past few decades. They wouldn’t be wrong—research demonstrates that negativity and incivility have been increasing since the 1980s (J. G. Geer, 2012; Weber Shandwick, KRC Research, & Powell Tate, 2013). Citizens underestimate, however, the impact that this uncivil tide has on their reactions to political media coverage and to their political behavior. While political scientists have pointed to both positive and negative outcomes of uncivil political communication, for the most part they assume that these behaviors are similar across all individuals.

This dissertation complicates the relationship between incivility and behavior by introducing a key individual predisposition—conflict orientation—into the equation. I first grapple with the challenge of defining incivility, concluding that it should be understood as a synonym for politeness and tying it to linguistic characteristics rather than the substantive message being communicated. I then introduce the notion of conflict orientation. I argue that individuals all experience conflict in different ways; some people enjoy arguments and are perfectly comfortable entering a shouting match in a public place while others become uncomfortable at the sight of an argument and avoid face-to-face confrontation whenever possible. Using six different surveys and survey experiments, I examine the effects of the interaction between conflict orientation and incivility on perceptions of incivility, emotional reactions to political media coverage and political engagement. These tendencies to be conflict-approaching or conflict-avoidant do not make individuals any more or less likely to see media messages as uncivil, but they do produce divergent emotional responses in the face of civil or uncivil messages. The conflict-avoidant recoil from incivility, reporting feelings of disgust and anxiety. The conflict-approaching relish it, reporting greater feelings of enthusiasm and amusement when watching uncivil news clips.

The interaction of conflict orientation and incivility also produces different patterns of media consumption and political participation across Americans. Citizens try to ensure congruence between their predispositions and their environment, preferring media outlets and political activities that will provide a level of conflict and incivility that is tolerable given their conflict orientation. The conflict-approaching will turn towards talk radio, cable news channels and blogs while the conflict-avoidant report preferences for social media and network television. When making decisions about how to engage in politics, conflict-approaching individuals are more likely to report participation in communicative activities that raise the risk of exposure to incivility, activities like commenting on a blog, attending a protest, or persuading others to vote.

These findings raise several important questions about the nature of American politics, particularly whether individuals’ conflict orientation has the potential to exacerbate existing participatory inequalities and what role incivility should play in our democracy. Those who are conflict-avoidant are also likely to be members of minority groups that struggle to find equal political voice—women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor—and an increasingly uncivil media environment could widen the gap between those who can get involved and those who cannot even further. However, I caution against cries for greater civility, as it can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When anti-democratic messages are conveyed using incivility, citizens recognize their anti-democratic nature. It remains to be seen if they can similarly identify anti-democratic sentiments conveyed in the cloak of civility.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
political communication, political psychology, incivility, politics, American politics, political behavior
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