Online Incivility in the 2020 Congressional Elections

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterMini-Symposium: America in the 2020 Elections
Mini-Symposium: America in the 2020 Elections
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(2) 512526
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221078863
Online Incivility in the 2020 Congressional
Michael Heseltine
and Spencer Dorsey
This paper explores the prevalence and correlates of political incivility among Congressional candidates in the 2020
election cycle, focusing specif‌ically on which types of candidates were most likely to use uncivil language in their online
communications and the self-reinforcing nature of incivility between candidates. Based on a comprehensive analysis of
more than two million tweets sent by major party candidates in the 2020 House and Sen ate races, we conclude that
several individual and electoral factors were inf‌luential in driving candidate incivility. Specif‌ically, Republicans, challengers,
and candidates in less competitive races were more likely to use uncivil rhetoric. Women , racial minorities, and
candidates running in open seat races were less prone to incivility. We also f‌ind that incivility begets incivility, with
candidates whose opponents used higher rates of incivility also being more likely to use incivility themselves. Uncivil
tweets were also found to generate signif‌icantly more likes and retweets, suggesting that incivility is a viable means of
driving engagement for candidates. These results shed light on the factors behind incivility among political elites, as well as
highlight the feedback effects which contribute to a self-reinforcing rise in political incivility.
incivility, congress, Twitter, elections, 2020
On the night of 3 November 2020, as votes were being
tallied and winners called in the 2020 Congressional and
Senate races, Madison Cawthorne, Congressman-elect for
North Carolinas11
Congressional district, taunted his
opponents online by tweeting Cry more, lib.A week
earlier, both Cawthorne and his opponent, Moe Davis,
engaged in a heated exchange on Twitter, with Davis
calling his opponent a dolt and each referring to the other
as a simp.
Separately, f‌ive weeks earlier, in reaction to
the much bemoaned f‌irst Presidential debate, Senator Ed
Markey tweeted simply Donald Trump is racist scum.
Clearly, not all Congressional candidates felt bound by
standard norms of civility in the 2020 elections, and many
were more than happy to use the immediacy of online
platforms to send out pithy, uncivil soundbites in real
time. Indeed, the 2020 Congressional elections were
concurrently the most online and the most uncivil elec-
tions in the social media era (see Figure 1), both in terms
of the number of tweets sent by candidates and the per-
centage of tweets that used incivility.
This approach ref‌lects a growing trend toward inci-
vility in political communications in recent years (Sydnor
2019), with online platforms being a particularly fertile
breeding ground for uncivil rhetoric (Groshek and Cutino
2016;Oz, Zeng, and Chen 2018), both from the mass
public (Jaidka, Zhou, and Lelkes 2019;Theocharis et al.
2016) and from political elites (Berry and Sobieraj 2013;
Herbst 2010). In particular, the rise of Donald Trump into
the political arena has led to an increased acceptance of
negative and prejudiced rhetoric in the mass public
(Newman et al. 2021;Schaffner 2020), further legiti-
mizing negativity and incivility as acceptable political
This use and acceptance of incivility has had major
implications for both the day-to-day operations of Con-
gress as well as for wider political discourse. Even in the
contemporary Congress, bipartisan cooperation is still key
for successful and effective lawmaking (Curry and Lee
2020). Yet rising levels of incivility and animosity be-
tween congressional elites continues to sever social ties
American University, Washington, DC, USA
Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael Heseltine, American University, 1600 Massachusetts Ave.,
Washington, DC 20016-8007, USA.

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