Can Incivility help Congress?

In the wake of Tucson, political rhetoric and incivility has taken on a new focus. John Sides at the Monkey Cage has a great post on the effect of incivility on citizens. In theory, Congress is intended to mute political vitriol to find common solutions. While it is often lost in institutional theory and rules predicating outcomes, one of Congress’s fundamental purposes is to mediate societal conflict. The pluralistic ideal sought to create a sounding board for conflicting ideas and solutions. Again, in reality all ideas are not equal. More often than not, good ideas never make it to the floor. Regardless, Congress’s charge remains. So how does incivility affect Congress? Normally we associate incivility with a breakdown in negotiations. As talks get more contentious, less common ground is available. The underlying premise assumes that mature debate is the only thing that leads to responsible legislation. However, this isn’t always the case. While people may not like it, incivility has a place in congressional politics.

Larry Dodd and Scot Schraufnagel are exploring the effect of incivility in Congress (link to 2007 APSA paper). Incivility isn’t a primary determinant for political health but does have an effect on legislation and congressional output. In other words, incivility alone cannot explain Congress’s legislative output. But, it does play an important role when considered with other factors. Dodd and Schraufnagel's paper incorporates party polarization, congressional structure, and examines the context in which those features are placed (i.e. civil v. uncivil politics). Using a content analysis of Washington Post and New York Times articles, they searched for terms like “raucous,” “hot-headed,” “insolent,” “contempt,” among many others. They pit this and party polarization against their measure of landmark legislation per Congress.

Their findings are complex but interesting. In brief, incivility has a countervailing effect on landmark legislative output. Too much incivility can paralyze the legislative process; however, not enough incivility can also hurt landmark legislative capacity. Dodd and Schraufnagel find that polarization and incivility have a curvilinear relationship with landmark legislation. In polarized eras, inter-party incivility stymies legislative output. In these eras, less polarized Congresses with less inter-party incivility produces a magnified increase in landmark legislative activity. They also find that the opposite is true. In depolarized eras (textbook Congresses), as party polarization increases along with intra-party incivility, legislative output is increased.

In other words, there is a zone of polarization and incivility that creates a sweet spot for landmark legislation. Too much polarization and incivility paralyzes Congress. At this point bargaining breaks down and little room for compromise exists. On the other hand, too little incivility creates complacency. Without some intra-party conflict, important policy matters never enter the legislative process. Members’ complacency transforms into a lackluster and ineffective legislating body. In order to pass landmark legislation Congress needs moderate conflict. Conflict is necessary to spur debate but it needs moderation to uncover common ground.

So what do we make of the 111th Congress in light of this paper (it's not this kind of theory but speculation is fun anyway)? It was certainly polarized and unquestionably had uncivil moments. However, I think it’s a tribute to the massive Democratic majorities that led to some slim, but very important, victories. Health care, finance reform, among others were important contributions of the 111th. However, it’s also worth noting that the lame duck session, where debate was more civil and less nuts, was a hotbed of productivity. Republicans were willing to jump on the repeal of DADT, the tax deal, the food-safety bill, 9/11 first responders medical benefits, and the START treaty. On the other end, we all know that congressional Democrats were not one big happy family. In these terms, less polarization and plenty of intra-party conflict assisted the 111th's landmark efficiency.

Obviously, not all incivility is good. The kind of uncivil discussion that possibly had an indirect effect on the shootings in Tucson extends discourse into dangerous areas. However, the broad lesson drawn from Dodd and Schraufnagel is that unappealing discourse has a place in congressional politics. Rather than acting as a purely negative force on policy, incivility serves to jump-start an otherwise complacent Congress. In current polarized setting we find ourselves echoing platitudes like, “let’s all get along.” Regardless, at different points in history incivility has moved important and contentious policy concerns into the congressional agenda. It’s an ugly business, but somebody’s got to legislate.