Incivility in Congressional Tweets

AuthorAndrew Ballard,Ryan DeTamble,Spencer Dorsey,Michael Heseltine,Marcus Johnson
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(6) 769780
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221109516
Incivility in Congressional Tweets
Andrew Ballard
, Ryan DeTamble
, Spencer Dorsey
Michael Heseltine
, and Marcus Johnson
Civility in political discourse is often thought to be necessary for deliberation and a healthy democracy. However, incivility is on
the rise in political discourse in the United Stateseven from members of Congresssuggesting that political incivility may in
fact be a tool to be used strategically. When and why, then, do members of Congress use incivility in their rhetoric? We develop
and test expectations for the usage of political incivility by members of Congress on Twitter, using every tweet sent by a
member of Congress from 20092020 coded for the presence of uncivil rhetoric via a novel application of transformer models
for natural language processing. We f‌ind that more ideologically extreme members, those in safer electoral situations, and those
who are in a position of political opposition are more likely to use incivility in their tweets, and that uncivil tweets increase
engagement with membersmessages.
political communication, congress, social media
Civility in political discourse is often thought to be necessary
for deliberation and a healthy democracy (e.g., Burger, 1975),
and research has found that political incivility can reduce both
trust in government and respect for opposing viewpoints
(Mutz, 2016), as well as act as a means to suppress criticisms
of injustices (Jamieson et al., 2017;Vrooman, 2002). Further,
two-thirds of Americans believe that incivility is a major
problem in todays society (Civility in America, 2019). Calls
for decorum and civility in politics from political elites are
thus commonplace, such as the many pledges of civility made
by members of Congress following the shooting of House
Majority Whip Steve Scalise at a practice for the annual
congressional baseball game in 2017.
This coincided with a
Summer of Civilityinitiative launched by the Bipartisan
Policy Center.
Yet incivility in political messaging is on the rise, often
from members of Congress (see Figure 1), implying that
members have incentives to send uncivil messages in certain
situations. Consider an exchange between Sen. John Cornyn
(R-TX) and his challenger MJ Hegar in August 2020: in
response to a tweet where Hegar characterized their race as
one between an ass-kicker and a boot-licker, Cornyn
tweeted Classy.
Rather than say Cornyn or Hegar acted out
of some adherence to or disdain for democratic deliberation,
we instead argue Hegar employed political incivility and
Cornyn called out Hegars use of political incivility because
each thought it was advantageous to do so. Indeed, both the
use of political incivility and calls for decorum may be
Scholars have recently devoted substantial attention to
researching the dynamics of incivility (e.g., Mutz, 2016;
Sydnor, 2019), even on Twitter (e.g., Theocharis et al., 2020),
but we have reason to believe that the incentives for elected
off‌icials are different from those of citizens (Zeitzoff, 2020),
and our understanding of uncivil communications from
legislators is lacking. We develop expectations about which
members should be more likely to use political incivility, and
when, based on strategic service of their goals. We argue that
the primary benef‌it to employing uncivil rhetoric is increased
attention and engagement with membersmessages, partic-
ularly among core supporters. There are certainly risks to
uncivil rhetoric, such as lower candidate evaluations and trust
in government. But certain members, for example those not in
the presidents party, those in the minority party in their
chamber, those in safer electoral situations, and ideological
extremists, have incentive to use incivility in their messages
because the potential benef‌its outweigh the costs.
While arguments that uncivil messagesand negative
messages more broadlyincrease engagement and are more
American University, Washington, DC, USA
Unaff‌iliated Researcher
Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew Ballard, Government, American University, 4400 Massachusetts
Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016-8007, USA.

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