Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Politics is fundamentally a group phenomenon that should be examined in relation to person’s identification with a particular group label (see Allport, 1954). When a person identifies as a “conservative” or “liberal” it means that he or she not only assumes a particular set of political positions but also identifies with other partisans as well as the shared sense of reality implied therein (Devine, 2014; see also Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). To define oneself in this way often implies the identification of opponents, rivals or even enemies (cf. Edelman, 1988) that, at increasing levels, becomes a means of further clarifying what it means to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

“Civility,” which is the concern of this group, should therefore be examined as an intergroup, rather than interpersonal matter. What, then, does research on intergroup relations have to say about increasing civility among political partisans? I would argue that the greatest threat to political civility within a stable democracy is the “moralizing” of political discourse as it pertains to political groups. Namely, it is one thing to view your political opponent as misguided or simply wrong; it is another thing entirely to view him/her and the group that he/she represents as immoral, transgressive, or just plain evil. When placed in the latter realm, political discourse becomes decidedly less civil as the concept of “loyal opposition” becomes not only oxymoronic, but tantamount to treason.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Why must we as social scientists, practitioners, and scholars be wary when political discourse becomes moralized? The simple answer is that morality is powerful. The capacity for moral judgment and moral action may be encoded into our very fiber as a species and may have been the building blocks upon which human civilization was founded (Haidt, 2007, 2012; Greene, 2013). Putting aside the ontology of human morality, a much more parsimonious reason, at least for my purposes, for why morality is powerful is that people tend to view moral values as being objectively true (Goodwin & Darley, 2008). That is, a moral statement (e.g., “It is wrong to kill.”) is perceived to be more like an empirically verifiable fact (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”) and less like a statement of social convention (e.g., “An appropriate tip for your server is 15 to 20 percent of the bill.”).

And there’s the rub, so to speak. A person’s morality is rooted in beliefs that are perceived to be as true as the Earth revolves around the Sun and which also imply a proscriptive element: not only is it wrong to kill, but one ought not to kill. A person’s moral worldview not only describes social reality but also guides future behavior as well as how future behavior is to be evaluated. One only needs to consult the work of Linda Skitka on moral conviction (see Skitka, 2010) or Jeremy Ginges’ work on sacred values (e.g., Atran & Ginges, 2012; Ginges & Atran, 2011) to see how these aspects of morality function in politics. What their work demonstrates is that we often judge the actions of others in relation to whether they reflect or confirm our moral values, even if violates considerations of procedural justice (Skitka & Houston, 2001) or our own utilitarian benefit (Ginges & Atran, 2011).

The “moralizing” of intergroup relations is often reflected in the attribution of moral or immoral qualities to other groups. I am currently examining the consequences of this process as part of my dissertation. In my preliminary findings (see Pilecki et al., 2013), I have found that when people perceive that members of another group (e.g., liberals, conservatives, feminists, evangelicals, etc.) as being typically less moral than most other people they are more likely to view violence or acts of political repression towards that group as being appropriate. These findings reinforce previous empirical and theoretical work by Susan Opotow (1990, 1993, 1994) and others (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1990) on the “scope of justice,” which refers to the distinction that people make between those considered worthy of moral treatment and those considered unworthy of moral treatment. When a social group is imbued with immoral qualities by political leaders, pundits, or other “entrepreneurs of identity” (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001) that group is effectively set apart from others and, in effect, becomes a legitimate and morally justifiable target of harm rather than civil discussion.

When people moralize intergroup relations they limit the potential for civil discourse to emerge as they frame political issues within the realm of sacred values, thereby making trade-offs and compromises less likely (Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green & Lerner, 2000). The words and labels we use to describe the social groups with which we identify and those that we oppose shape how we think about us, them and how we relate to one another (see Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). In other words, language matters and it is therefore incumbent for social scientists and practitioners to hold political leaders, media figures and other influential people accountable for their use of moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support, gain more viewers, and/or delegitimize criticism.

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Ornstein’s simple fix for some of the Senate’s dysfunction

The very day that I wrote about George Packer’s New Yorker article detailing the depths of the Senate’s dysfunction, an op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times suggesting a simple solution. Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track. In his op-ed piece, Ornstein notes:

The Senate, once the place for slow and careful deliberation, has been overtaken by a culture of obstructionism. The filibuster, once rare, is now so common that it has inverted majority rule, allowing the minority party to block, or at least delay, whatever legislation it wants to oppose. Without reform, the filibuster threatens to bring the Senate to a halt.

The problem has many causes, but Ornstein identifies three in particular that interact to cause the paralysis:

Part of the problem lies with today’s partisan culture, in which blocking the other party takes priority over passing legislation or confirming candidates to key positions. And part of the problem lies with changes in Senate practices during the 1970s, which allowed the minority to filibuster a piece of legislation without holding up other items of business. But the biggest factor is the nature of the filibuster itself. Senate rules put the onus on the majority for ending a debate, regardless of how frivolous the filibuster might be.

Ornstein then proposes a simple fix that would remove the silliness and obstructionism while still allowing the minority party to block or delay the few pieces of legislation about which it cares most.

An even better step would be to return to the old “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” model — in which a filibuster means that the Senate has to stop everything and debate around the clock — by allowing a motion requiring 40 votes to continue debate every three hours while the chamber is in continuous session. That way it is the minority that has to grab cots and mattresses and be prepared to take to the floor night and day to keep their filibuster alive. Under such a rule, a sufficiently passionate minority could still preserve the Senate’s traditions and force an extended debate on legislation. But frivolous and obstructionist misuse of the filibuster would be a thing of the past.

This is exactly the sort of simple fix that we at CivilPolitics.org advocate. It does no good to simply call for politicians to be more civil, or to put the needs of the country before those of their parties. But anything that changes the weapons available for partisan warfare, and that raises the costs of using those weapons, is likely to have immediate payoffs for civility in American politics. Bravo Mr. Ornstein!

–Jonathan Haidt

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George Packer Explains why the Senate is Broken

There are a few political scientists who question whether the American people have become more polarized in the last ten years. (They have.) But there is no doubt that our political institutions and elites have become more polarized and uncivil in the last 2-3 decades. George Packer recently painted a grim but insightful portrait of the US Senate in a New Yorker essay, The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate? In the rest of this blog post, I’ll draw out the lessons for civil politics contained in this extraordinary essay. Packer emphasizes many of the themes we have been discussing at CivilPolitics.org, particularly the importance of personal relationships as a precursor for civil interaction, as well as the generational and macro-level trends that have made a decline of civility almost inevitable as the “greatest generation” gave way to the baby boom generation.

Packer begins the essay by discussing the arcane and absurd rules of the Senate, which make it easy for any single senator to obstruct the rest of the chamber. For example, many rules of the senate require unanimous consent. Other rules allow any senator to place a “secret hold” on any appointee that the senate is asked to vote on. That is, any one senator can object, in secret, to a presidential appointee, which prevents that appointee from ever coming up for a vote. In 2007 the rules were changed so that such holds can last only 6 days, but now any pair of senators can just alternate placing 6 day secret holds and achieve the same purpose, without risking condemnation from the press or the people because their names are kept secret. As Packer says:

Like investment bankers on Wall Street, senators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.

Packer notes that the Senate used to engage in deliberation, debate, and argument. Its civility and thoughtfulness had impressed Alexis de Tocqueville. Those days are long gone:

The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat…  Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “

Packer describes many factors that have led to the dysfunctional, petty, and nasty institution that the Senate is today. After describing the superb talent and bipartisan cooperation of senators in the 1960s and 1970s, Packer says:

The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today.”

In addition…

Both [Republican Lamar] Alexander and [Republican Judd] Gregg said that the Senate had been further polarized by the rising number of senators—now nearly fifty—who come from the House, rather than from governorships or other positions where bipartisan coöperation is still permissible. “A lot of senators don’t understand the history or tradition of the institution,” Gregg said. “Substantive, thoughtful, moderate discussion is pushed aside.”

A further cause is the extraordinary time pressure of modern political life, which makes it even harder to meet members of the other party socially:

Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party. Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator. (Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”)

Illustrating the extraordinary difficulty of civil politics, reforms that you might think of as advances sometimes made things worse:

After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing. “So Damn Much Money,” a recent book by the Washington Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser, traces the spectacular rise of Washington lobbying to the same period. Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished. The institutionalist gave way to the free agent, who controlled his own fund-raising apparatus and media presence, and whose electoral base was a patchwork of single-issue groups. Members of both parties—Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat; Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican—took to regularly using the Senate’s rules to tie up business for narrowly ideological reasons. … The weakened institution could no longer withstand pressures from outside its walls; as money and cameras rushed in, independent minds fell more and more in line with the partisans…. Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the Senate has increasingly become populated by “ideologues and charlatans.”

It should be noted, of course, that whether you think efficiency is a virtue depends on whether you’re in the majority:

None of the Republicans I spoke to agreed with the contention that the Senate is “broken.” Alexander claimed that he and other Republicans were exercising the moderating, thoughtful influence on legislation that the founders wanted in the Senate.

Our view at CivilPolitics, however, is that the Senate is broken. It cannot serve the interests of the nation to give every single senator the ability to derail legislation, which gives every single senator the ability to ask for special benefits in exchange for letting go of the brake. It also cannot serve the interests of the nation for the Senate to have essentially ceased to deliberate, and to have degenerated into a simple power struggle between two teams. We suspect that there are some simple rule changes that could improve the functioning of the senate, in addition to the changes to primaries and general elections that we discuss elsewhere on this site.

Jon Haidt

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Is Politics Hopelessly Partisan?: Perceptions of “The Other Side”

How do Democrats and Republicans view their political opponents?  Ken Berwitz and Barry Sinrod investigate this question in The Hopelessly Partisan Guide to American Politics:  An Irreverent Look at the Private Lives of Republicans and Democrats, a lighthearted publication examining Democrat and Republicans’ answers to surveys discussing everything from their favorite type of movies to whether they organize the bills in their wallet.  The survey reflected that people generally believe the differences between Democrats and Republicans extend beyond their political opinions (for example, most agree that Democrats are more likely to go out on the town on the weekend, and Republicans are more likely to stay in).  In fact, previous psychology research has indicated that meaningful and stable disparities in personality do exist across party lines.  Conservatives, for instance, tend to score higher on the “conscientiousness” factor of the “Big Five” personality traits (items concerned with self-discipline, organization, and planning), and liberals tend to score higher on “openness to experience” (items indicating an interest in art, emotion, curiosity, and imagination).

             A More “Liberal” Room                                            A More “Conservative” Room
 
These differences have been explored in research by psychologists Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008), who examined the offices and bedrooms of liberals and conservatives for cues to their personality, and found that liberals were indeed more likely to have items in their room indicating an interest in novel experiences and creativity (e.g., books about travel and music, art supplies, international maps), and conservatives items indicating organization and cleanliness (e.g., calendars, laundry baskets, ironing boards).  Liberals and conservatives seem to be correct in recognizing that their political counterparts have distinct interests and personality traits.  While these perceived differences are relatively innocuous, liberals and conservatives frequently see members of "the other side" as dissimilar in a very negative light.  TheHopelessly Partisan survey takes a more somber turn when the authors asked respondents to describe the characteristics of members of the opposite party.  The findings, while perhaps not surprising, shed light on challenges to positive bipartisan interaction.
 
First and foremost, we see that people are rather unwilling to accept their political opponents as well-meaning individuals with cogent beliefs.  Out of all of the insults hurled at members of the opposite political party (for instance, Republican “warmongers” and Democratic “freeloaders”), one of the most frequent epithets was “liar.”  Dishonesty was heavily attributed to those who disagreed with one's political opinions. Opponents were continually ranked as having suspect motives – for example, they were more likely to be suspected of taking bribes or accepting money from lobbyists.
 

In these examples, we see further evidence of the “mirror image perception” phenomenon, in which opposing ideologues have nearly identical stereotypes of one another.  Corrupt motives are attributed to the side that opposes us; our ideological peers are seen as upright and virtuous.
 
 Why are we so inclined to distrust our political opponents?  Individuals are highly motivated to defend important, self-related beliefs.  Previous research on the “belief bias” has illustrated the conflict between logic and belief in deductive reasoning: individuals tend to reject arguments that are logical, but with which they disagree, and accept arguments that, albeit flawed, are consonant with their personal beliefs.  Through rationalization, people then justify overlooking potentially logical arguments that don’t match one’s own ideas.  Furthermore, a source credibility bias can influence our decision making.  While we are readily willing to accept an opinion asserted by someone we like and admire, we refute those issued by people or groups we dislike.  We can, perhaps, readily justify ignoring an argument by attending instead to the character of the person delivering it.  By viewing those who contradict us as unreliable sources, we quell any chance of having to seriously consider their arguments.  Discrediting the proponent of undesirable viewpoints could be accomplished quite easily by asserting that the person is deceptive – thus the frequency of “liar” in heated political discourse.
 
Research on motivated reasoning reveals just how adept people are at dismantling undesirable beliefs as irrational and unreasonable.  When information is pertinent to our personal life, it becomes difficult to view it objectively.  For example, women who were heavy caffeine drinkers were less likely to be convinced by an article linking caffeine consumption and breast cancer than low caffeine drinkers; in another study, researchers found that these “threatened” individuals described studies showing the dangers of caffeine as less methodologically sound.  So, when a highly religious individual encounters statements from someone such as Richard Dawkins, they might be tempted to react violently to invalidate his arugments, dubbing him “two faced,” “fork-tongued,” and a “spineless hypocrite.”
 
Furthermore, people seek out evidence that confirms what they want to believe rather than rationally assessing all of the available information.  When told that extraversion was an especially desirable trait, people generated more memories of instances in their lives where they were extroverted; when told that introversion is preferable, the effect flipped, demonstrating a clear confirmation bias in individuals’ thought processes.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses how this occurs:  When evaluating a statement congruent with our beliefs, we ask ourselves, “Can we believe it?” and require only a minimal amount of plausibility before we accept the argument as valid.  On the other hand, when encountering an assertion that challenges our beliefs, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” and need devise only a single crack in its foundation in order to cast it aside.  For example,  a person inclined to dislike Obama hears that people have had trouble tracking down his birth certificate.  They ask, can I believe that Obama is not a natural born citizen?, and see the alleged missing birth certificate as sufficient evidence.  On the other hand, when the birth certificate is posted online, potentially refuting these arguments, the person asks, must I believe it?, and instead labels the birth certificate a forgery, as a "short-form" and invalid certificate, and so on.  People tend to search for information that supports important, self-referential beliefs, disregarding information that contradicts them.  And in the information age, the Internet is ready to provide dozens of “sources” that can offer evidence for any number of theories, from those insisting that planted bombs caused 9/11 to those claiming Obama is the Anti-Christ.
 
Fortunately, research has indicated that motivated reasoning has its limits.  When presented with conflicting information about a candidate in a mock presidential primary that they originally supported (e.g., a pro-choice individual discovered that the candidate was pro-life), people initially responded along the lines of motivated reasoning, increasing their positive attitude towards the candidate and ignoring the contradictory information.  On the other hand, as the amount of incongruent information learned grew, people began making adjustments to their evaluations of the candidates, appraising the situation more accurately and taking more time to review the information they were given.  Although people are initially predisposed to excuse their politician of choice's faults, they don't appear able to gloss over everything.  See, for example, this quote from a once-ardent Obama supporter: "Now after over 6 months in power, after the novelty has worn off, after months of 'Yes We Can!' should have become 'Yes Let's Do It!', we all realize that the person that we supported is really a centrist who plays a Progressive on TV."  People can reevaluate and re-frame their beliefs.
 
However, as illustrated in The Hopelessly Partisan Guide,aspersions about “the other side” reached far beyond a political context.  Democrats and Republicans were willing to attribute all sorts of vices to the others and, in turn, claimed the moral high ground for themselves.  For example, Democrats and Republicans asserted that they drink less, enjoy gambling less, and are more tolerant of minorities (Democrats demonstrated an especially marked bias in this case) than their counterparts. In a reverse halo-like effect, partisans attributed all kinds of immoral characteristics beyond mendacity to their opponents.

With this thorough “de-moralification” of our political opponents, it’s not surprising that politicos can hurl such insults at one another, and, in an extreme case, profess not to care if their opponent died in front of them. 95.4% of Americans recently polled asserted that civility is important for a healthy democracy – and many aver that problems of incivility might be solved by cross-party interaction.  For example, 85% of Americans surveyed believe that politicians should work to cultivate friendships with members of the opposite party.  
 
However, it seems some are disinclined to freely associate with political others – Hopelessly Partisan data indicated that people tend to think political kin make better friends. 




Psychological research has long validated the notion that “birds of a feather flock together” – rather than opposites attracting, people like those who are attitudinally similar to themselves, and even deem them more moral individuals.  Since people might be less inclined to form bipartisan friendships on their own, some assert that the workplace might actually be the best place for cross-cutting political discourse.  Self-selection has begun to occur in neighborhoods, churches, and community organizations, as people group themselves with people who are ideologically similar; however, this self-selection generally cannot occur at work.  Political scientists Mutz and Mondak (2006) found that dialogue between ideological opponents increased at work, resulted in a greater awareness of rationales for viewpoints other than one’s own, and that there was an association between political tolerance and the number of political discussion partners one had at work.  Perhaps, then, public places like the workplace and schools could be used to foster civil interaction.  Many Americans echoed this sentiment in a recent survey, with 77% stating that schools should teach respect in politics, and selecting local schools as the best way to promote civil politics.

Is politics hopelessly partisan? Sometimes it might seem so, when even the most well-educated and intellectual individuals instantly label members of the opposite political party as insane and idiotic.  However, considering that motivated reasoning doesn't appear to persist in the face of everything, there is hope that judgments of our ideological opponents could also be corrected.  Most of the research on reduction of bias and prejudice has focused on race and sexual orientation, but perhaps some of the same techniques could be implemented to assuage cross-party polemics.  Given enough examples of well-meaning and reasonable individuals with whom one disagrees, one might be able to view "the other side" with less hostility. 

Author Info 

Conservative Ken Berwitz is a native New Yorker and the President of Ken Berwitz Marketing Research (KBMR) and National Qualitative Centers, Inc. (NQC).  He has been involved in executing, writing, and speaking about qualitative and quantitative research for over 35 years.  Liberal Barry Sinrod has conducted surveys in the marketing and research community for nearly 40 years and writes for the Boca Raton News on a weekly basis.

- Lauren Howe
 

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.