How Moral Value Commitments Shape Responses to Political Civility and Incivility

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(4) 359 –367
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211004137
Political incivility is on the rise in the United States and the
public has noticed. A December 2018 poll found that 70% of
Americans believe that the, “overall tone and level of civil-
ity” in politics has gotten worse since the November 2016
election.1 There is ample evidence to back up all of these
observations. Scholars have noted the increase in incivility
during electoral campaigns and in floor debates in Congress
(Stryker et al. 2016). The consequences of this rise in incivil-
ity are bleak. Research has found that when elites use uncivil
political discourse, the public follows (Gervais, 2014, 2017).
It can also create a disdain for opposing views and reduce
political trust (Mutz 2007).2 Thus, although there might be
some contexts in which incivility is politically useful, most
research suggests it degrades democracy.
These concerns about political incivility have compelled
researchers to begin investigating how individuals respond
to it and what might explain heterogeneity in their responses.
Why does incivility anger some people while it leaves other
unmoved? Many studies show that people vary in how they
respond to negative or aversive stimuli in general so it is no
surprise that there is considerable variation in responses to
political incivility (Canli et al., 2001; Soroka, 2014). Several
studies have found that male conservatives are more tolerant
of it (Mutz, 2015; Stryker et al., 2016; Fridkin & Kenney,
2011). Others have found that strength of partisanship, politi-
cal interest, and having less education increase this tolerance
(Mutz, 2015; Fridkin & Kenney, 2011) but these effects are
found less consistently. Media consumption also appears to
be related to tolerating incivility, with those watching Fox
News and The Daily Show having a particularly high toler-
ance (Styker et al., 2016). This study tries to uncover some of
the deeper, psychological foundations that affect responses
to incivility. In particular, we draw on Moral Foundations
Theory (MFT) to determine how respondent preferences for
certain systems of moral regulation shape emotional
responses to incivility and civility.
Using a representative, online sample of 1,789 respon-
dents from the United States, this study uses a survey-
embedded vignette experiment, which describes interactions
between two Senate candidates during a debate, to assess
how moral value commitments affect emotional responses to
political civility and incivility. We manipulate the nature of
the debate fragment (civil, neutral, uncivil) and find that
those who have a stronger commitment to an individualizing
system of moral regulation have a stronger emotional
1004137APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211004137American Politics ResearchWalter and Lipsitz
1University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
2Saxion University of Applied Sciences, Enschede, NL
3Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York,
New York, USA
The author order is random and both authors contributed equally to the
Corresponding Author:
Keena Lipsitz, Department of Political Science, Queens College and The
Graduate Center, CUNY, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY 11367, USA.
How Moral Value Commitments Shape
Responses to Political Civility and
Annemarie Walter1,2 and Keena Lipsitz3
Citizen exposure to political incivility is increasing. Studies have found heterogeneous responses to incivility, but we know
little about what drives this variation. This study investigates whether emotional responses to both civility and incivility are
driven by moral value commitments. Drawing on Moral Foundations Theory, we argue that incivility should pose more of a
threat to people who embrace an individualizing system of moral regulation than a binding system. To test this, we conduct a
3 × 3 between-subjects survey-embedded vignette experiment with a representative sample of 1,789 U.S. respondents. The
vignettes describe interactions between two candidates in a debate. The findings show that respondents clearly distinguish
between civil, neutral, and uncivil debate and that these conditions yield distinct emotional responses. Moreover, we show
“individualizers” have a stronger emotional response to incivility than “binders.” Responses to civility, however, appear to be
unaffected by moral value commitments.
political incivility, moral foundations theory

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