Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New study with lessons for Boehner et al.: Talking about our disagreements makes for better politics

A week before the 2010 midterm elections, House majority leader John Boehner announced that "this is not a time for compromise." And during the recent budget crisis, House Republicans have been following Boehner's doctrine almost religiously.  They have walked out on budget discussions, given separate televised statements and avoided talking to Democrats face-to-face whenever possible.

In some respects, Republicans are simply mirroring the broader political culture in this country.  Our politics seem to get more polarized, but as findings show, we're reluctant to talk to those who disagree with us in order to sort out our differences.  And a new study we just published in Mass Communication & Society suggests that this may be a huge missed opportunity.

Our national survey data show a significantly stronger positive link between hearing different views and being willing to participate in political processes for people who were willing to speak out in these encounters. In other words, disagreement in discussions about politics can be a good thing.  But it does depend on citizens' willingness to actively participate in these discussions and actually talk about their disagreements.

I wrote up a few paragraphs about what this may mean for our political system more broadly for a report that the Foley Institute at Washington State University is preparing on a conference on "Civility & Democracy in America" they held out in Spokane earlier this year.
"Political discussions ... may be a little bit like sports.  The payoff from sitting passively in our recliners, holding a can of beer and watching March Madness is probably minimal. Watching sports on TV does not get us in shape.  In fact, it may make us slightly obese and even more apathetic.  But actively participating in a team sport is a different story.  Going out on the basketball court and playing against another team may leave us bruised and sore the next morning, but – in the long run – it is what keeps us in shape.
The parallels between sports and civil or uncivil exchanges among citizens go even further than that.  Similar to watching a basketball game on TV, passive, armchair disagreement does not strengthen our "democratic" muscle. In fact, some research suggests that it may have negative effects, and that exposure to uncivil discourse in talk shows can have detrimental effects on people’s trust in various aspects of the political system.
The positive effects of disagreement and maybe even incivility may therefore come from entering the fray and actively participating in the game, to stay in the basketball analogy. This would certainly be consistent with the significantly stronger positive link between exposure to heterogeneous views and political participation we found for active participants in political discussions than for those who spoke up.
Like many commentators, I continue to be unconvinced that the political climate in the U.S. is characterized or even threatened by an increasingly uncivil discourse.  More importantly, even if there is a trend toward less civility, the tone of public discourse in itself may not be a problem.  Instead, many of the studies outlined in this essay point to a slightly more complex diagnosis.
In particular, the U.S. may have reached a point where our discourse is both uncivil and non-participatory. And it is really the combination of both of these characteristics that is the problem, not the lack of civility by itself.  Spirited discussions among politically active citizens, even if they are not perfectly civil at times, are a prerequisite of any functioning democracy.  A political environment in which chronically apathetic voters see themselves as disconnected observers of hyperpartisan and often uncivil exchanges among pundits and politicians, on the other hand, is equally unhealthy for individual citizens and for the political system, more broadly."