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Uncivil Congress: Testing Selection and Influence Effects Contributing to Legislative Culture

posted on 2023-06-28, 00:00 authored by Jennifer S.K. Dudley

The purpose of this dissertation is to examine possible sources of incivility in the U.S. Congress. Increasing political incivility in the United States Congress has devastating consequences for democracy. By bringing sociological theories of incivility, style, and acculturation into conversation with political science scholarship on political elites, I determine whether Congressional incivility is increasing because of selection effects (via the pool of candidates or voter preferences) or through influence effects (via acculturation after election).

The main body of the dissertation is three chapters designed as stand-alone academic articles. The three main chapters are ordered in a quasi-chronology of the lifecycle of a politician. It starts with the pool of potential candidates, then moves to elections, and finally examines the legislature. I do not claim that these are the only points at which incivility can be introduced into American politics, but rather three important potential sources of incivility.

Focusing on the first potential source of incivility by selection, Chapter 2 uses existing survey data from the Cooperative Election Study to measure the association between various uncivil behaviors and having ever run for elected office. I demonstrate that no significant association exists between uncivil behavior and running for office. This negative finding is important because it demonstrates that the people who run for office are no more uncivil than the general population. Therefore, I do not find that uncivil individuals select into political office through the pool of candidates.

Looking at the second source of incivility by selection, Chapter 3 uses data from a conjoint experiment to test the conditions under which American voters would choose an uncivil candidate. I find that partisanship, the setting where uncivil statements take place, and previous political experience are powerful determinants of voter choice. Based on my findings, I argue that Americans still want to vote for civil candidates. However, if civility is not an option, Americans prefer the most confrontational form of incivility: face-to-face insults. This has detrimental consequences for democratic discourse. It also has implications for studies at the intersection of incivility and power, suggesting expectations for powerful people are different from expectations for the general public. Furthermore, this finding means that elections are one mechanism by which uncivil individuals select into political office.

Focusing on the potential source of incivility by influence, Chapter 4 uses data generated from automated text analysis methods applied to more than 2.5 million instances of speech by nearly 2,000 Congressional representatives over 35 years of Congressional transcripts. I argue that research that measures civility as polite language use fails to grapple with the theoretical implications at the intersection of political power and civil discourse. Rather than focusing only on polite behavior, I measure Congress members’ use of both polite and prosocial language use. I find that members are using less polite and more prosocial language over time. These trends are happening primarily by a replacement mechanism (by less polite, more prosocial cohorts replacing more polite, less prosocial cohorts). I also find evidence of members changing their speech patterns after joining Congress – with men and women changing their speech at different rates.

Overall, I find that incivility in Congress is likely increasing not through who runs for office, but via which candidates are elected and within-person changes after taking a seat in congress, but not because the pool of potential candidates is more uncivil than the general population. Understanding the sources of uncivil behavior in Congress, and U.S. politics in general, is important for battling the detrimental effects of political incivility. Awareness of these processes can help promote strategies for ensuring the free and fair exchange of ideas in the political sphere.


Alt Title

Uncivil Congress

Date Modified


Defense Date


CIP Code

  • 16.0905

Research Director(s)

Erin McDonnell

Committee Members

Simone Zhang David Gibson Kraig Beyerlein Jeff Harden


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation

Alternate Identifier


OCLC Number


Program Name

  • Sociology

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