Civil Discourse in Public Policy

For as laws are necessary that good manners may be preserved, so there is need of good manners that laws may be maintained. 

– Machiavelli

Several years ago, political scientists at Washington State University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Arkansas conducted a study to determine the relationship, if any, between “legislative civility and legislative productivity.” They looked at state legislatures. Their results were meaningful:

Model 1 reveals a significant relationship between civility index scores and the number of laws adopted by states. Specifically, as one moves from the state with the lowest civility score (-0.97) to a state at the mean civility score value (0.0), one moves roughly 1 unit on the civility index. This one unit of change is thus reflected in a 3-fold increase in the number of laws, ceteris paribus, passed by state legislatures in 2017. Interestingly, none of the other variables in the model are statistically significant.

In the abovementioned model, the “most civil legislature passed more than 5 times the amount of legislation than the least civil one in 2017.” Another model in this study, which examined legislation over multiple years, found that during a five-year period the most civil legislature passed over 60 percent more legislation than the least civil one.

These findings are crucial. They give quantitative backing to what is usually presented as a qualitative idea: that civil discourse is key to creating a successful public policy environment. Civil discourse is not simply a virtue in the abstract; it actually facilitates public-policy accomplishment. 

Public policy, broadly understood, is the system of laws, regulations, and actions—and, indeed, the ideas behind them—that shape the public domain. In a democracy, public policy is famously messy; agreement on means is sporadic, to say nothing of ends, and clear-cut solutions or processes are anomalies. Public policy is inherently collaborative and competitive; it is circuitous; and though it can be zero-sum in the short term, with temporary winners and losers, it is endless. It is, in other words, an ongoing conversation. As Mark Kingwell (a Canadian philosopher) writes in his lively book Unruly Voices, “Parliamentary democracy is nothing more or less than a conversation among citizens . . . Here, and only here, can our interests and desires be made into law.” 

And so in this realm, where interests differ and pursuits are unsystematic, productive communication becomes critical. “Truth,” John Locke, the Enlightement philosopher who had arguably the strongest influence on the Founding Fathers, writes in his A Letter Concerning Toleration, “has no such way of prevailing as when strong arguments and good reason are joined with the softness of civility and good usage.” In seeking truth, our public-policy conversation is encouraged through civil discourse. And by engaging in civil discourse, our political representatives implicitly acknowledge that those with whom they converse are entities whose interests are worthy of consideration. Civil discourse is more than politeness—it is constructive dialogue. This is, so to speak, the name of the game.

Another way to demonstrate the significance of civil discourse in public policy is to investigate the origins and nature of its opposite, incivility (Kingwell takes this route). Consider the following analysis, in which civil discourse is a public good that facilitates a conversation in which various ideas and perspectives compete and which creates the conditions for public policy success. Why would someone in this scenario act uncivilly? The reason would seem to be that the party in question feels an inability to benefit by following the rules that civil discourse sets out; thus, this party turns to incivility to gain an advantage. In this way does incivility become a collective action problem. By engaging in incivility, a participant in the public-policy conversation changes the rules of the game and, thus, changes the game itself; more often than not this party also incentivizes other participants to return the rudeness. But this new, uncivil game is not one in which discourtesies of matching degrees are simply traded—no, in this game the impertinences escalate in severity, for through such escalation advantage is supposedly gained. It is a race to the bottom.  

But things gets worse. For once the rules of this new game have been accepted, and once it has been demonstrated that incivility does not come with consquences, then the rational decision for a participant is to in fact forgo the escalation and simply enter the game at the maximum level of acceptable incivility. This is how one wins the sprint to the pit. But upon finding oneself there, what has been won? The public policy game has been ruined. What has replaced it? The commons has been destroyed. (And yet, before the destruction is complete, what profit can accrue to a handful of individuals who eagerly join the downward spiral! Some of them may land in an abyss, sure, but the abyss is also full of money. It is up to the rest of us to reject these people and their tumbling trajectory, to deny them the attention and profit they so desire and, in so doing, to help reclaim the game.)   

That incivility is unproductive both generally and personally is supported by the evidence. Even those politicians concerned only with short-term personal political advantage should avoid incivility. Consider these results from a 2020 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that evaluated interactions between politicians and/or political candidates:

Civility helped or did not affect—but never harmed—the reputation of the speaker . . . Uncivil remarks uniquely diminished the speaker’s reputation, and had little impact on the reputation of the targets of the attack, the perceived winner of the verbal exchange, the reputation of the speaker’s party, or the sense that the country is moving in the right direction. Incivility made the speaker seem less warm and did less to affect perceptions of dominance or honesty. This warmth deficit explained the reputational costs of incivility.

In public policy, as in just about every other pursuit, incivility is self-defeating. Public policy is advanced through competitive cooperation through civil discourse. This generates positive results for individuals and for societies. We’ve known this since ancient times. Let us not fail to act on this knowledge