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How Incivility on Partisan Media (De-)Polarizes the Electorate (WP-17-07)

James Druckman, S.R. Gubitz, Matthew Levendusky, Ashley Lloyd

Partisan media—typically characterized by incivility—has become a defining element of the American political communication environment. While scholars have explored the consequences of partisan media for political attitudes and behaviors, past work cannot disentangle the distinct consequences of incivility from other features of partisan media, such as slant. The researchers outline a theory about why incivility on partisan outlets shapes attitudes, and how those effects depend on both the source and the audience. They test their argument using a population-based survey experiment and find support for their expectations. The researchers show that incivility depolarizes partisans when it comes from a same-party source (e.g., MSNBC for Democrats, Fox News for Republicans). When it comes from the other-party source, however, it polarizes. They find these effects, albeit to a smaller extent, even among those inclined to enjoy conflict. The results raise intriguing normative questions about the tradeoffs between polarization and incivility.

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

S.R. Gubitz, PhD candidate, Northwestern University

Matthew Levendusky, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

Ashley Lloyd, Undergraduate, Northwestern University

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