Political civility is respect accorded others in communication about public affairs. Political civility serves the same function in these public interactions as politeness does in interpersonal interactions, which is to minimize the effect of conflicts on potential opponents' willingness or ability to interact with one another. Hence both public political civility and private interpersonal politeness fulfill an important and similar role. They allow people who disagree with one another to maintain ongoing productive relationships ( Brown and Levinson 1987; Strachan and Wolf 2012 ).


Civil interactions are purposefully intended to facilitate collaboration, and are thus characterized by communication styles that invite others to share and explain their preferences. Uncivil or rude interactions, on the other hand, are characterized by rhetorical moves (such as ad hominem attacks, name calling, overt challenges, and interruptions) that diminish opportunities for future cooperation. Given this outcome, advocates of deliberative democracy place high value on civility because it enables citizens and public officials to find consensus whenever possible, even if they must “agree to disagree” on a smaller subset of intractable issues ( Gutmann and Thompson 2006 ). From this perspective, the ongoing work of democratic governance requires mutual respect, which is undermined by public displays of incivility.

Shea and Sproveri 2012 ).

A 1798 cartoon depicting a brawl on the floor of the Congress Hall in Philadelphia that began with Representative Roger Griswold attacking Representative Matthew Lyon.

A 1798 cartoon depicting a brawl on the floor of the Congress Hall in Philadelphia that began with Representative Roger Griswold attacking Representative Matthew Lyon.

Pundits and political scientists fear that the American political system is currently experiencing a prolonged and unprecedented era of political incivility ( Maisel 2012 ). While brokering solutions across partisan and regional differences has typically been a sign of political leadership in the United States, many candidates and elected officials now demonstrate their prowess by standing firm on issues that their core supporters associate with protecting individual rights or upholding moral values. Hence their incivility is a purposeful, strategic move that publicly signals unwillingness to compromise with political opponents on these issues. This tactic simultaneously reassures the intense, readily mobilized ideologues constituting each party's base voters and earns higher amounts of free media coverage on the twentyfour-hour news cycle of cable television and talk radio.

Measuring and comparing levels of civility across different eras is difficult because civility is based on a particular society's accepted norms of appropriate behavior. The types of behaviors considered rude and polite are not static over time or across cultures. The practice of nose tweaking, for example, was common in the early American republic, but went out of fashion as an acceptable form of rudeness in the nineteenth century. Even so, concerns about contemporary politics raise legitimate questions about whether Americans believe they have enough in common to work together to solve public problems, and whether levels of political civility will remain high enough to sustain effective democratic governance in the future.


Brown and Levinson 1987 ). For precisely these reasons, John Stuart Mill ( 1806–1873 ), in On Liberty ( 1859 ), rejected the tradition of aristocratic manners in a democratic society. He argued that conforming to such deferential customs would prevent average people from effectively identifying and expressing legitimate political demands and would reinforce inequality in the status quo. Indeed, when people step outside of established, subordinate roles, their efforts to participate in political decision making are at best perceived as rude and met with social sanction or are at worst perceived as unacceptable and met with violence. Purposefully disruptive violations of expected, deferential manners often characterize protest politics and social movements, which are undertaken to call the status quo into question and to gain the sympathies of a broader audience, thus widening the scope of political conflict.

Both women and minorities, who gained the rights of citizenship in the United States through protest politics, are still held to higher standards of politeness in personal interactions and of civility in political interactions. Both are also less apt to report participating in political acts that require them to engage in persuasion and deliberation. Critics of deliberative democracy, who are sensitive to these patterns, specifically argue that such processes will undermine the political power of marginalized groups and recommend that members of such groups seek influence through other forms of political activism, ranging from voting to collective action ( Sanders 1997; Young 2000 ).


Concerns for appropriate levels of political civility, however, must also be tempered by recognition that political institutions and processes provide the legitimate means for resolving genuine conflicts in a democratic society. If people agreed with one another, their preferences would be perceived as widely shared cultural norms rather than hotly contested political issues. As a result, democratic politics requires a relatively thick skin, because negativity, which is inevitably accompanied by at least some incivility, cannot be entirely avoided. Negativity, for example, plays an implicit role in political party theorists' model of responsible government, as well as in theories of realigning elections and retrospective voting. Negativity also figures prominently into campaign advertising. Although many observers criticize negative ads, voters cannot hold elected officials accountable or realign around a critical issue unless politicians criticize the performance of sitting incumbents, have sharp disagreements about public policies, and are able to communicate their concerns and preferences to members of the electorate ( Geer 2006 ).

Americans appear to anticipate this type of political negativity and take it in stride, especially when politicians' criticisms are launched at legitimate targets, such as one another's policy preferences or professional competence, rather than personal traits and choices. This ability to tolerate negativity, however, does not mean that Americans are entirely immune to the effects of incivility. Political rhetoric that shifts from pointing out differences into caustic vitriol serves to mobilize the most intense, ideologically partisan activists, while suppressing average voters' interests in politics.

A similar pattern occurs in citizens' direct experiences with political disagreement. Disagreement in interpersonal networks, for example, has the potential to increase tolerance for political opponents, as understanding of their reasoning increases. Yet tolerance and understanding cannot occur unless people are willing to listen to one another in the first place, which requires that disagreement be combined with civility. People learn twice the amount of information from exposure to political disagreement when their friends and acquaintances are perceived as civil. Meanwhile, those with the highest levels of political disagreement within their interpersonal networks are the least likely to participate in politics at all. Most dramatically affected are those who claim to especially dislike face-to-face conflict ( Mutz 2006 ).

Civility performs an essential political role by enabling Americans to manage the negativity and conflict that are inherently part of political discussion and decision making. Purposefully violating norms of civility can also serve strategic political functions, and may be deemed necessary to gain civil rights or to force new, critical issues onto the political agenda. Yet some are concerned that contemporary politics is characterized by heightened levels of incivility and intransigence, which may undermine public officials' abilities to engage in meaningful deliberation and effective democratic governance.

SEE ALSO Civic Discourse ; Civil Community ; Civil Society ; Deliberative Democracy .


Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Geer, John G. In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. Why Deliberative Democracy? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Maisel, L. Sandy. “The Negative Consequences of Uncivil Political Discourse.” PS: Political Science & Politics 45, no. 3 (2012): 405–11.

Mutz, Diana C. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Sanders, Lynn M. “Against Deliberation.” Political Theory 25, no. 3 (1997): 347–76.

Shea, Daniel M., and Alex Sproveri. “The Rise and Fall of Nasty Politics in America.” PS: Political Science and Politics 45, no. 3 (2012): 416–21.

Strachan, J. Cherie, and Michael R. Wolf. “Introduction to Political Civility.” PS: Political Science & Politics 45, no. 3 (2012): 401–04.

Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

J. Cherie Strachan
Central Michigan University