Introducing the Pledge of Civility: An Audited Pledge from Future Elected Officials

The Polarization Research Lab has launched the Pledge of Civility, a new initiative aimed at lowering political hostility in America with an audited pledge from our future elected officials and staffers. The need for such an effort is clear: researchers at the Lab have shown that partisan animosity and affective polarization–the difference between feelings toward the in-party versus the out-party– have increased steadily in the last 30 years, seeped in areas of life outside of politics, and show little signs of change since the Lab began collecting data (see America’s Political Pulse). 

One of the goals of the Polarization Research Lab is to bring together academic research and real-time interventions to help ameliorate partisan animosity in America. The Pledge of Civility is the first such effort that merges an evidence-based, elite-level intervention to counter partisan animosity with an auditing mechanism. 

The simple pledge focuses on positivity and avoiding language that polarizes citizens: 

“I pledge to choose civility when campaigning,

  • I will focus on issues and civil debate.
  • I will not engage in name calling or personal attacks on the candidate or their family.  
  • I will avoid attack ads whenever possible.”

Our target audience for the Pledge is anyone running or planning to run for office at any level—local, state, national—in the next decade.  We hope to reach candidates early in their political careers to invite credible commitments to civility and positivity in campaigns. The Polarization Research Lab and the Pledge of Civility are nonpartisan; we are an academic research Lab interested in understanding partisan animosity and how and why interventions may affect political polarization. 

We believe that two key aspects of our pledge set us apart. First, we are targeting the future political elites of America at the local, state, and national level, rather than citizens. Our focus on elites is founded on our academic research demonstrating elite rhetoric shapes citizen attitudes. We need to capture candidates early, typically before they have run for office, for candidates to credibly commit to civility.  

Targeting those who hold or will hold political power–known as “political elites”–for the Pledge of Civility stems from years of academic work in political science from PIs at the Lab showing that elite hostility and negative campaigning increase the likelihood that citizens also become more negative. Most alarmingly, political conflict among elected officials not only causes average citizens to dislike the other side, but it skews behavior in entirely apolitical realms (dating, hiring, medical care, etc.). By running a civil campaign, candidates signal to voters that the out-party is not deserving of hate and candidates can focus on political issues.

Our second key contribution is that we are providing what we believe is the first audited pledge of this kind. Most pledges have no way of showing effectiveness or credible commitment by signatories because they do not track and measure elite language. The Polarization Research Lab uses machine learning techniques to collect and code elite rhetoric. We currently capture elite language through tweets, floor speeches, press releases, and newsletters and this language is then coded for the presence of polarizing and depolarizing language. All of our data is publicly available on our website, and we will provide data about the use of polarizing rhetoric for both elites who sign the pledge and those who do not. We expect this data to be very useful for the media and any organization or individual hoping to track and hold accountable elites for their commitment to civility and depolarization. 

We invite candidates over the age of 18 to sign the Pledge of Civility. To disseminate information about the Pledge, we hope to collaborate with public policy and law schools, where many of the next generation of political elites are currently studying. In addition, we plan to build relationships with the vast network of nonprofit and professional organizations that find and train future elected officials, particularly at the local and state level. We see this as a unique opportunity to bridge the academic-community divide and truly test and measure an intervention founded in science and put into practice everyday by educators, practitioners, and political activists. 

To learn more about partnership and how to share information about the Pledge of Civility, please contact Emma Cutrufello at References for the research cited above are available on the Pledge of Civility webpage.

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