Theiss-Morse's book explores role of respect in politics

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Theiss-Morse’s book explores role of respect in politics

Two boxing gloves inscribed with political symbols is a metaphor for political battles.
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By any measure, the 2016 general election campaigns got ugly, with rhetorical mudslinging from both sides.

But it was a conversation after the election that spurred new research questions for University of Nebraska–Lincoln political scientist Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and her University of North Carolina colleague, Jeff Spinner-Halev.

“I can’t respect anyone who voted for…” was a common refrain, and it gave the researchers pause. Did Americans really not respect almost 50% of the voting public, and what does that mean for democracy?


Through four years of qualitative and quantitative research, Theiss-Morse and Spinner-Halev set out to explore the role of respect — or the lack thereof — in U.S. politics. In the culminating book, “Respect and Loathing in American Democracy: Polarization, Moralization and the Undermining of Equality,” the co-authors explain how Americans hold respect as a necessary virtue, but struggle to extend it to those on the other side of the aisle.

The book was published by the University of Chicago Press on March 29, and Theiss-Morse will give a talk about the book at 5 p.m. April 25 in Nebraska Union’s Swanson Auditorium.

“Respect and Loathing” covers new ground in the field of political science, Theiss-Morse, Willa Cather professor of political science, said, and combines the lenses of political psychology and political theory.

“When Jeff called me after the 2016 election to talk about political psychologists’ research on respect, I said, ‘They haven’t looked at it,’ and we both got quiet,” she said. “And then it was, ‘OK, we’re writing a book.’ Political psychologists have studied tolerance. They’ve studied civility, but they haven’t studied respect, and I think it is an incredibly important concept in a democratic political system.”

The researchers held 27 focus groups for liberal and conservative voters, and deployed a nationwide survey in 2018, 2019 and 2020, followed by a subsection of questions on one additional survey in 2021 when the Office of the President transitioned from Republican to Democrat.

“The main thing to take away from this book is that granting respect to opposing partisans is extremely difficult,” Theiss-Morse said. “People really struggle with it because they know that they should respect their fellow Americans, but they just can’t.

“The second thing I learned is that respect is essential to democracy. We saw that it’s extremely difficult, and yet it is so essential to the functioning of a democratic political system.”

In one survey experiment, the researchers asked some respondents to read an opinion they disagreed with, and a large majority would not engage.

“Civic respect just disappears when you’re talking about an issue that you disagree with a lot,” Theiss-Morse said. “Less than a quarter of people would talk to someone or read anything about the other side’s position.”

The research also illuminated where some core ideological differences lie, and how those differences are impacting the ability to extend respect. Liberals and conservatives moralize different issues. Liberals moralize social justice, while conservative champion national solidarity. But Theiss-Morse said the danger to democracy is the stereotyping and hyperbole we attach to the opposing party, which became evident in the focus group research.

“There are assumptions that opposing partisans are all at the extreme end of the political spectrum, and they aren’t,” she said.

The co-authors argue that civic respect is central to a functioning democracy.

“Having diverse ideas out there is a better thing for us as a democratic society,” Theiss-Morse said. “With different ideas, we can figure out what’s bad and what doesn’t work, and we can figure out what is good and what does work.

“The only way to have that happen is if we are willing to think outside our box, and the only way to do that, I think, is to be willing to respect other people and listen to them.”

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