Does Obama Demonstrate that Civility is Suicide?

The text below is an email exchange among some of the contributors to in the wake of the 2010 election, as many commentators were beginning to say that civility and bipartisanship are suicidal strategies when pursued by one side more than the other. (This exchange occurred before Frank Rich’s diatribe against civility, which we will respond to shortly). We struggled to clarify what exactly we mean by “civility,” and when and how it should be pursued. We do not normally believe that our email exchanges are important to preserve for posterity, but this is one of the best discussions we’ve had, and the many contributors each added useful links and ideas from their own expertise. Jon Haidt has lightly edited the text, mostly to remove asides and clarify a few references.
The conversation began with a lament from Sena Koleva:
What annoys me the most [about Obama] is that he continues to cling to what has now clearly been shown to be an unattainable ideal of moderation, civility and compromise. I wish someone would tell him "You have principles, we get it, now can we start dealing with reality?"

Jon Haidt responded:
Obama is a great lesson, and I hope people don't take away the lesson that intransigence and demonizing are the way to win, whereas civility is the way to lose. 

The conversation continued as follows:
I struggle every day with my commitment to civil politics.  It can't mean not disagreeing or honestly arguing based on principles and evidence.  It can't always mean splitting the difference or that both sides are equally right (or wrong)– or then it degenerates into the he said/she said banality that Jon Stewart so effectively condemned in his classic appearance that brought down CNN's Crossfire: 

Joe Sestak talks about the idea of “principled compromise” but not compromising one’s principles.  Vague — but there is something to this.

Here's a rant by Bill Maher about the Stewart/Colbert rally that I think is right on:
This I think is very much in line with Hal Movius's point [in a different thread; Movius is an expert on negotiation]  that from a negotiation standpoint, Dems should not be reflexively seeking civil politics when the Reps repeatedly betray it. So Jon are you now thinking that civil politics is more a long-term ideal than a near-future prescription? Do you think that efforts like civil, need to be aimed more at right-wingers (appealing to their senses of decency and manners) than at left-wingers? I'm curious how your thinking on this has changed.


Personally, I think civility is as much a tactic as it is a value.  So Bill Maher may be entirely correct, but I don't think it will get him anything he wants to point that out. Rather, I disagree on tactics (e.g. creating mayhem at the WTO talks just makes pro-business people dismiss their arguments and become reflexively more conservative).  That doesn't mean compromising on policy.  Ghandi and MLK didn't compromise on policy (I should read more on that to be sure).  It also doesn't necessarily mean being unwilling to call out specific injustice (e.g. the $200 million/day comment), but perhaps avoiding the generalizations that follow (e.g. therefore Fox News is evil).  I think part of the appeal of non-violence movements is the universal appeal of their consistent positive framing, that makes them hard to dismiss.  In contrast, consistent negative frames like MSNBC & Fox are easy to dismiss by the opposite side.  If you commit violence (even psychological violence) in the service of your cause, you lose the moral high ground.
Part of the idea of researching civil politics, IMHO, is to clarify this question of exactly what civil politics means and when/why it might be useful, in addition to being the right thing to do….but I do think there is a utilitarian argument to be made for civility, rather than thinking of it as a compromise between winning and doing the right thing.  The question of how and when to do it is ripe with possibilities for social psychologists.
In response to Jesse's question and doubts:
I have substantially changed my thinking about what civil politics means, in response to a lunch with the political psychology group at UVA, where they pressed me on why civility was the opposite of polarization, and also in response to how Obama has aimed for civility as niceness and compromise, and it seems to have hurt him in many ways.
I personally have abandoned the idea that civility means niceness, politeness, or bipartisanship. I think we should retreat to the one thing we as social psychologists can say is really bad: demonization. That's the opposite of civility. It has so many bad effects, e.g., it makes it impossible for congress to adopt the recommendations of bipartisan panels that try to solve major problems. I also have rejected the idea that we are calling on people to nice and polite. We are just calling on people to stop demonizing. But more imporantly, i think our work at CP is to show why calling on people to do anything is largely a waste of time. Our goal is to suggest changes and tweaks that would change the system so that there was less demonization, less incivility, without asking anyone to make a civility pledge. I agree with Ravi that civility is a choice, a strategy. With some changes to the way primaries are run, we'd end up with more people making the civil choice, and fewer people winning nominations who claim that Obama is not a citizen and wants to destroy America. 
Please do see the new home page text on I think it is now a much clearer concept. If we can find ways to promote this limited kind of civility, then as a downstream effect, i think there will be more niceness and politeness and more room for compromise and bipartisanship. But we don't want to aim for that directly. I think Jesse's concerns here are valid: the Republicans really are worse on these measures. We don't want to have to preach to them, or urge them to play nice if nastiness is working for them. Rather, we want to figure out how to change the field so that politicians in 10 years will find that nastiness doesn't work so well for them. Indirect methods. Change the path, not the elephant, and for god's sake don't waste your breath appealing to the rider. [Rider and Elephant refer to the controlled/conscious versus automatic/unconscious aspects of cognition, described in my book “The Happiness Hypothesis”]


Hi Jon, I like the new text and definition of civility a lot. In many
ways, the point seems to be figuring out ways to remove moralization
from the process.
That will strike many people as counter-intuitive,
since moral conviction's always supposed to be a good thing, but this
site will do a great thing if it makes people aware of the drawbacks
moralization can have for a productive democratic process. (I also
think there will be a big ideological difference in people's reception
to this: utilitarian liberals will have an easier time accepting that
we need to stop being so absolute and black/white and Manichean,
whereas conservatives will be more likely to see it as a compromising
of one's values.)

I still wonder, though, if it's always best for me to respect the
sincerity and decency of the other side while disagreeing with it. I'm
often very convinced that Republican appeals are not sincere, or
morally motivated, or even decent, and are instead cynical,
fear-mongering, designed to obscure and cover up, lying liars, etc.
etc. Sometimes I'm right that they aren't sincere and decent, but
sometimes I'm blinded by my own ideology and moral convictions and
Manicheism, and miss the sincerity and decency that's actually there.
So how can I figure out when to be civility-minded and when to call


A bunch of the political science and sociology scholars argue that incivility is not necessarily a bad thing. Some go so far as to suggest that incivility, from time to time, is a positive thing necessary to change a system that is doing something contrary to the masses' moral convictions. American history is rife with instances of interest groups rising up against behaviors / laws that were immoral in their minds. One could argue that America exists because of incivility… after all, we did stage a number of uncivil protests (like the tea party in Boston harbor–not the one led by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann) which culminated in a violent overthrow of a government that colonists didn't like. Some of these scholars point to similar examples within the abolition movement and protesting Vietnam. It fits in with the tone of what conservative icon Barry Goldwater famously said, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." It's not inherently bad to be uncivil, but it is problematic if it diminishing the government's ability to get things done (although, I suppose conservatives might argue that they don't want the government to do many of the things it is trying, which makes this definition problematic).
It's hard to imagine removing the moralization process from our current electoral/political system. At an individual level, I think we are making some good initial in-roads into understanding how political identifications and beliefs affect people's tendencies to moralize and view the world as Manichean. Is it possible to have a polarized electorate that doesn't demonize the other side? Polarization is largely viewed in a positive light among political scientists because it makes it easier for low attention, low sophistication voters to participate in a consistent way. The demonization is painted as more negative, but some others (e.g., Diana Mutz) argue that it may actually increase political participation by driving up interest in politics (although some research suggests that that effect is a wash because it also decreases participation among some people turned off by the vitriol). This is going to be one of our big contributions with… ultimately, though, we need to think about how tweaking current institutions (the elephant and the path) will nudge people away from hypermoralizing issues and demonizing one another. Are there certain primary electoral systems that increase turnout so that the 10% of the most extreme partisans who participate in caucuses aren't choosing extremist candidates? Are websites that monitor the negativity of campaigns effective (or could they be, if given more publicity)? Do TV shows (Colbert, Stewart) that poke fun at uncivil demonizers reduce support for demonizers?


I would just add that there is plenty of evidence that better, more productive conversations – ones that lead to understanding interests rather than positions; to clarifying facts through joint fact-finding, etc – lead to more valuable, efficient, durable agreements.  Seems as if one could make a moral argument for civility, as a generally good thing for society.  But more powerful to me is that civility is more likely to produce better outcomes in the great majority of situations.  I've never found that people are willing to be civil when they are pissed off UNTIL they see that a fair, well-run conversation can be managed, and they see that an outcome that meets their interests is possible.  That's when demonizing stops.
At some point I also think it is important to understand the role of the new media in disinhibiting people, encouraging attention-getting 'journalism' and so forth.  The press used to be a venue where civility was promoted/created and now it's anything but.  In recent genocides and other civil conflicts media have been a central catalyst toward demonization and violence.  So maybe what I am saying is that there are both civil EXCHANGES or conversations and civil MESSAGES or stories that are told.  The latter are becoming far, far less civil.



The idea of avoiding demonization is a great one — but what does it mean?  Rhetorically it is a great term, but psychologically perhaps the better term is intentionalization.  The key problem to me is our tendency to attribute bad intentions to people we either don’t like or don’t agree with.  So Republicans question Obama’s intentions — does he really want to help the economy with this stimulus plan or take it over?  Does Al Gore really want to save the world from global warming, or is he just trying to ruin the American economy?  Did Bush invade Iraq in a genuine attempt to bring stability to the Middle East or did he do it for oil (to enrich his already rich friends)?

This tendency seems rampant in contemporary politics — we just don’t seem to trust the other side’s intentions — or at least the rhetoric of political elites is framed that way to motivate the base.

Intentionalization is also part of what Jesse refers to as moralization of issues.  Hard to cleanly sort out cause and effect here — but things don’t become moral unless some intentional agent is involved.  A tsunami that wipes out several hundred thousand people isn’t “evil” to us because we don’t see an active agent.  If you saw it as caused by some supernatural being, however, it would be.  So if I think that Republicans have the same policy goals as I do (the same intentions) then if we disagree on the means to achieve it (e.g., we both want to help the economy but I think the best way to do that is thru stimulus they think it is tax cuts) it is just a dispute about effectiveness — which I may have strong feelings about (in terms of competence) but is less likely to produce hate (as opposed to if I think the other side has a different intention).  Of course, it could also be that issues get moralized — and thus invested with emotion — and then this leads me to be particularly likely to question your intentions if you disagree with me.  Both likely occur — but attributions of intentions are a lynch pin in both.

The other idea implicit in the struggle to figure out when incivility is appropriate or not has to do with the “accuracy” of our perceptions.  When I think about incivility and hyperpartisanship — I see it as emerging from misperceptions of the other group.  Our biases can lead us to see the other side as more negative (extreme in their views, ill-intentioned) than they really are.  And incivility that springs from this kind of misperception really is bad.  Hence my interests in the kinds of misperceptions that Douthat talks about — as I see these are fueling both hyperpartisanship and a tendency for some good people to opt out of political involvement completely.

But what if a group really is nasty and ill-intentioned?  Then it makes sense to “demonize” them — or at least to vigorously challenge their ideas and even their intensions in public discourse.  I think this is the debate many liberals often get into.  Am I demonizing the current conservative movement — or are they really that bad?  See this response to the Douthat column by James Fallows:

This is exactly the same sentiment you saw in Olbermann’s and Maher’s reactions to the Jon Stewart thing — don’t put a fake moral equivalence on the two sides — republicans (and Fox news in particular) are worse than we are!  We are logical and reasonable, they are not.  Our “facts” are true, theirs are not.

I find this really fascinating as a philosophical enterprise — when is incivility wrong and when is it justified?  Without meaning to play the Hitler card — I have often thought about a novel or short story on how our current media would treat a nouveau-Hitler.  Would they try to unbiasedly air his or her views without taking sides?  At what point would Brian Williams have to just stand up, abandon impartiality, and say — this political movement is evil?  Would they do it before it was too late?

More concretely, it  raises the question of whether it is possible to develop an adequate and compelling empirical test of whether one side is more biased than the other.  Figuring out whose facts are right (e.g., about global warming) is not our business — but looking at whether one side reveals more partisan bias than the other is potentially doable.  I have wanted to try to do this for some time — thru meta-analysis of past biased assimilation type studies and new studies comparing the magnitude of different kinds of bias across the ideological spectrum.  There are some difficult empirical challenges to overcome in terms of equating materials — but it would be pretty powerful to be able to say that, perhaps, conservatives show more partisan bias than liberals — or even that both groups do it to the same degree.

Finally, this focus on perception and misperception makes suggestions for civility fixes.  Perhaps we should just be trying to get people to avoid falling prey to some of these biases.  To consider their attributions of intention, to consider whether they are selectively/hypocritically applying standards (ala Douthat).  To ask themselves the “shoe on the other foot question” — that is, would I have felt the same way if a politician in my party did the same thing?


If you’ve read to this point, and you have ideas about how best to define civility, and when/whether/how to promote it, please join the discussion! Sign up to be a commenter, and add your thoughts.
–Jon Haidt