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Destructive or Deliberative? An Investigation of the Evolution, Determinants, and Effects of the Quality of Political Debate

Publication date: 2021-10-15


Goovaerts, Ine
Marien, Sofie ; Kern, Anna




In recent years, concerns have been raised repeatedly about the poor quality of the political debate. Particularly the uncivil and ill-justified ways in which politicians regularly seem to express their views and standpoints raise scholarly and public concern (e.g. Dryzek et al., 2019). Yet despite severe concerns, surprisingly often statements such as "we are currently living in an era of incivility" or "soundbite culture" are based on anecdotes and assumptions rather than systematically driven research. This dissertation contributes to filling this gap and specifically advances our knowledge of the evolution, the determinants, and the effects of politicians' use of uncivil (i.e. disrespectful) and ill-justified (i.e. poorly reasoned) arguments in mediated political debates. Accordingly, three research questions guide this dissertation: (1) Did politicians' use of incivility and ill-justified arguments increase over time (1985-2019)?; (2) Which determinants influence politicians' use of incivility and ill-justified arguments? For instance, how do populism, media characteristics and country-specific characteristics influence it?; and (3) How are citizens' attitudes, specifically their trust attitudes towards politics and towards the news media, affected by incivility and ill-justified arguments? By studying these questions in the western European context, novel insights are brought to the predominantly U.S.-focused literature on mediated debate quality. To address these three questions, I connect the field of political communication to the theory of deliberative democracy. Within deliberative democratic theory, civility and well-justified arguments are two of the key ideals that define a high-quality political debate (e.g. Bächtiger et al., 2018; Wessler, 2008). These normative ideals can therefore serve as conceptual and methodological benchmarks to investigate causes and consequences of deviations from it (Steiner et al., 2004). Hence, I innovatively use the deliberative benchmark as a systematic, empirical tool to study (1) to what degree politicians deviate from this benchmark over time; (2) which determinants influence deviations from this benchmark; (3) how deviations from this benchmark influence citizens' trust attitudes. Furthermore, I study these questions in the venue of political debates in the media (e.g. televised election debates). The deliberative quality of political debates is largely underexplored in mediated debate venues (as compared to parliamentary debates, for instance). Given the mass media's vital role in society to politically inform citizens and to connect politicians and the citizenry to each other, it is of utmost importance to theorize about and empirically study debate quality there (Habermas, 1996). Through a combination of quantitative content analyses and experiments, several original data sets were collected. To investigate the evolution (RQ1) and determinants (RQ2) of politicians' use of incivility and ill-justified arguments, a large-scale dataset of Belgian televised election debates (1985-2019) was collected, as well as a dataset of election debates from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands (2009-2015). To study the effects of incivility and ill-justified arguments on citizens' trust attitudes (RQ3), four survey experiments were designed and conducted among Belgian citizens. Contrary to concerns and expectations, the results from a systematic content analysis of 35 years of Belgian election debates reveal no evidence of a rise in politicians' use of incivility nor of an upsurge in their use of ill-justified arguments (RQ1). Rather than systematically increasing or decreasing over time, debate quality is shown to be highly context-dependent (RQ2). For instance, the findings reveal that populist politicians, male politicians and politicians in opposition have lower debate quality than non-populist, female and incumbent politicians, and that a higher number of debaters - particularly more than three - and discussion of moral topics, decrease debate quality. Moreover, this dissertation shows that citizens' exposure to uncivil, ill-justified debate could harm their trust attitudes (RQ3). Politicians' use of uncivil, ill-justified statements is shown to decrease their perceived trustworthiness, and the news media's emphasis on political incivility in post-debate news coverage moreover decreases the news media's own credibility. Interestingly, however, the results also show that politicians' use of uncivil, ill-justified statements does not affect all citizens similarly. Some type of citizens, such as the politically cynical, accept uncivil, ill-justified discourse more than other citizens, such as the less politically cynical. Connecting this result to the results from the content analyses, this dissertation points towards a "competitive advantage" for populist politicians. Not only do populist politicians use uncivil, ill-justified discourse more than non-populist politicians, their generally more politically cynical voter base also seems to accept this type of discourse more. From a normative point of view, these findings may be worrisome. Given populist parties' growing success worldwide, it seems that certain parts of the citizenry do not care that much about the uncivil, ill-justified discourse that is more often adopted by those parties, and will elect populist leaders in spite of their norm-violating discourse. Besides this potential populist challenge, there is also another final finding worth emphasizing. This dissertation reveals that politicians do regularly justify their policy positions and are most of the time civil when discussing politics in the media. Hence, and contrary to the argument that the mass media are no place to look for deliberative communication, I conclude from this dissertation that political debates in the media have the potential to contribute to a more deliberative debate sphere. In other words, I conclude that mediated political debates are, at least to a certain extent, deliberative, rather than purely destructive. Taken together, this dissertation builds on insights from both the field of deliberative democracy and the field of political communication and explicitly connects them by using deliberative democratic theory as a benchmark to study political communication phenomena, namely politicians' use of uncivil communication and ill-justified argumentation in mediated political debates. By connecting these fields, this dissertation makes significant novel contributions to both fields, at a theoretical, an empirical and a societal level.