PS: Political Science & Politics


Incivility and Standing Firm: A Second Layer of Partisan Division

Michael R. Wolfa1, J. Cherie Strachana2 and Daniel M. Sheaa3

a1 Indiana University – Purdue University, Fort Wayne

a2 Central Michigan University

a3 Colby College

Political observers have detected a noticeable uptick in American political incivility in recent years, culminating with several moderate senators recently citing the rise of hard-core partisanship as the reason for their retirement. Supporting these accusations of unprecedented incivility with empirical evidence can be difficult, as notions of what constitutes appropriate, civil behavior are subjective and can vary across the political context of different eras. Was it more uncivil, for example, for William Jennings Bryan to accuse his political opponents of crucifying other Americans on a cross of gold than it was for a member of Congress to yell “You lie!” at the president in the nation's Capitol? Assessing the incivility of these statements requires determining the effect each had on political opponents' abilities to maintain a functional relationship despite their disagreement over policy outcomes. Nevertheless, many politicians, political observers, and scholars are truly concerned that current levels of incivility are indeed worse, not only damaging the ability to resolve complex public problems, but threatening the long-term stability of America's governing institutions. Largely focusing on changes in institutional structures and elite behavior, scholars identify numerous explanations for this trend.

Michael R. Wolf is associate professor Indiana University, Purdue University, Fort Wayne. He co-edited (with Laura Morales and Ken'ichi Ikeda) Political Discussion in Modern Democracies: A Comparative Perspective, and has authored or coauthored numerous articles and book chapters on American and comparative public opinion and voting behavior. He can be reached at

J. Cherie Strachan is director of the Women and Gender Studies Program, as well as associate professor of political science at Central Michigan University. She is the author of High-Tech Grassroots: The Professionalization of Local Elections, as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Her recent publications focus on the role of civility in a democratic society, as well as on college-level civic education interventions intended to enhance students' civic skills and identities. Her applied research, which focuses on facilitating student-led deliberative discussions sessions and on enhancing campus civil society, has resulted in an affiliation with the Kettering Foundation. She can be reached at

Daniel M. Shea is professor of government and director of the Goldfarb Center of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College. He has authored, coauthored, or edited more nearly 15 books on American political process and nearly 100 articles, chapters, and essays. His recent publications include Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management, Living Democracy, Campaign Mode: Strategy and Leadership in Congressional Elections, Teaching Matters: Engaging Students in the Study of American Government, and Let's Vote: The Essentials of the American Electoral Process. He can be reached at