The electoral implications of uncivil and intolerant rhetoric in American politics




Gervais, Bryan T.

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SAGE Publications


Can political incivility bolster support for American candidates? Conventional wisdom holds that it does and Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victories demonstrate the power of uncivil rhetoric—particularly, when it is paired with racially intolerant rhetoric. However, recent studies have demonstrated that leveraging political incivility can backfire on elites. As such, it is unclear whether uncivil rhetoric has electoral value, or if its utility is bolstered when it is joined by intolerant rhetoric. Leveraging a survey experiment, I find that both political incivility and racial intolerance induce feelings of disgust. The presence of intolerance in a message weakens the effects of incivility on disgust for out-group elites, suggesting that multiple rhetorical norm violations result in diminishing (negative) returns. Moreover, the effects of intolerance on disgust are moderated by a subject’s level of racial resentment. These aversive reactions to incivility and intolerance reduce electoral support for the elite sponsoring the message. In-group candidates pay a larger electoral penalty, although the penalty for intolerance is moderated by subject racial resentment. I conclude that, contra claims that political incivility works, uncivil messaging serves as a strategic liability for candidates.



political incivility, explicit racial appeals, vote choice, affect, candidate appeals


Gervais, B. T. (2021). The electoral implications of uncivil and intolerant rhetoric in American politics. Research & Politics, 8(2), 20531680211050778. doi:10.1177/20531680211050778


Political Science and Geography