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Uncivil Behavior May Hurt Politicians—Even With Their Base

Is incivility “red meat” for supporters? New evidence suggests otherwise.

Is it true, as the 18th-century poet Mary Wortley Montagu once wrote, that “civility costs nothing and buys everything”? The benefits of behaving civilly might appear to be self-evident—and a significant body of research has indeed shown that experiencing politeness can boost affect, reduce stress, and improve work performance across the board. Conversely, incivility has been found to trigger negative emotions in targets and witnesses alike and can cause reputational damage to the person acting rudely.

Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock
Source: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

But in our increasingly toxic and partisan political landscape, is it possible that incivility could paradoxically boost a politician’s approval—especially among one’s most ardent supporters? Psychologists led by Jeremy Frimer, of the University of Winnipeg, decided to put what they dubbed “the Montagu Principle” to the test. They found that across six studies, it appeared to hold: Civility tended to boost politicians’ reputations and approval ratings, even with members of their hyper-partisan base, while incivility only harmed them.

“I was expecting to see the opposite, to be honest,” Frimer says. “When you watch a Trump rally, and you see him attack a political opponent, the crowd goes wild.” This observed effect—of using insults and negatively charged statements about opponents to induce enthusiasm in supporters—has been referred to by some pundits as “throwing red meat” to one’s political base. Frimer and his co-author, Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois, posited that this so-called “red meat hypothesis” could be the possible exception to the Montagu Principle, but failed to find sufficient evidence that “throwing red meat” had the desired effect, even among those who described themselves as extremely partisan.

Of the six studies, published in August in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one looked at incivility in Congress, four looked at the impact of real tweets sent by Donald Trump, and one examined responses to a speech by a fictitious politician. The first of the four Trump-related studies tracked how Trump’s overall approval rating across the political spectrum rose and fell after he sent civil or uncivil tweets. In support of the Montagu Principle, the study found that, according to Ipsos polls (which record respondents’ political affiliations), Trump’s insulting or attacking tweets predicted decreases in his approval across the political spectrum—even among those who self-identified as “very conservative.”

“The more insults today, the lower the approval with his base a few days later,” Frimer says—appearing to contradict the “red meat hypothesis,” he adds.

The next three studies were experimental, rather than observational, and tracked how participants perceived Trump after reading his civil or uncivil tweets. Overall, they found that Trump’s approval was higher among every group except “diehard” supporters after reading civil tweets than after reading uncivil tweets. And while uncivil tweets tended not to decrease his approval rating with those who identified as “diehard” supporters, they didn’t improve it, either.

“It’s hard for me to give up the ‘red meat hypothesis,’” Frimer says, so he was surprised to see that even with partisans, “the institution [of civility] is holding strong.”

Trump, who has a tendency to disparage opponents and allies alike, could be a special case, Frimer says. But is our current political era more uncivil than any other time in history? Frimer and Skitka’s first study of the paper, which was an analysis of Congressional incivility, seems to support that viewpoint, they write. The study looked for a connection between incivility in Congress and the body’s public approval rating, using text analysis software to examine the transcripts of all floor debates in Congress between 1996 and 2015 for civil or uncivil language. (Their definition of civil language was based off the findings of a 2000 study and involved the use of honorifics, “hedging” words like perhaps or somewhat, and impersonal language—we or us as opposed to you or I—all of which had been found to correspond to civility). They tracked the body’s overall “civility score” over time and matched it with the corresponding approval ratings of Congress as a whole.

The study showed that civil language in the legislative branch declined sharply around 2007, and has remained at similar or lower levels ever since. Congress’ approval rating has been consistently low over that same period, never breaking 40 percent and hovering most often between 10 and 20. The data appeared to show a cyclical connection between civility and approval, Frimer says; as civility went up, approval ratings rose, but as civility decreased, approval ratings took a hit.

Despite the results of that study, however, some experts disagree that the incivility demonstrated by U.S. politicians in the current era, Trump included, is anywhere close to unprecedented.

“There have been horrible periods of incivility in our history,” says Chance York, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at Kent State University, who has conducted research on political incivility and its presentation in the media. He referred to the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate Floor by Representative Preston Brooks in 1856, in response to a speech Sumner gave decrying slavery.

“A caning is much different than a ‘Lyin’ Ted,’” York says, referencing an insult lobbed by Trump against Senator Ted Cruz. Though Frimer and Skitka identified a sharp increase in incivility starting around 2007—and while Donald Trump might appear to be an outlier on the incivility scale, York says—“I’m not seeing any uptick in the data I’m looking at,” he adds (which includes, among other sources, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s analysis of political rhetoric).

Bryan Gervais, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Texas who studies our emotional responses to political incivility, worries that the study didn’t engage enough with past research on the subject—particularly that of Diana Mutz, who, he says, “has looked into many of the things [the authors] argue no one has tested,” like how incivility impacts a politician’s approval rating (generally negatively, at least when it comes to candidates we oppose) and our overall trust in governmental institutions (also negatively, even when those institutions are controlled by our own parties). He also was skeptical of their claim that that incivility during Congressional floor debates—which are “not relevant” to how a lot of people engage with politics, he says—could have had any measurable impact on Congress’ approval rating during that time frame. He also posits that there could be “differential” responses to incivility—some members of Trump’s base might enjoy it, while others may find it anxiety-inducing—that weren’t fully captured here.

Still, according to Emily Sydnor, an assistant professor of political science at Southwestern University, the study’s results are “consistent with a lot of the work on political science on how people respond to incivility,” which have found that uncivil behavior by politicians lowers public trust in the government and weakens perceptions of its legitimacy. “Given the number of studies they have [in the current paper] that are pointing in the same direction, and given that we know that incivility lowers trust in government, it makes sense that it would lower approval, too.”

But how much that actually matters, she says, remains to be seen.

“Is [this effect] translating into a likelihood to not vote for that candidate?” she says. The evidence suggests that “incivility is hurting President Trump—but are people still going to vote for him?”