Traditionally, congressional communications have focused on educating voters on policy issues, but the current era of political polarization has brought a shift towards uncivil appeals to social identity. Assistant Professor of Government Mia Costa discussed this shift, and the implications it holds for political representation, at her Rocky Watch lecture, “Identity, Incivility, and Policy Issues in Congressional Communication.”
In an interview after the event, Professor Costa explained that her broader research interests center around “how well people are represented by government, and what people think about that representation.” She emphasized that determining what counts as “good” or “bad” representation is an interpretive normative question with no real answer. She likes to take a bottom-up approach to that question, focusing on public opinion data. Do people feel represented? Do they have confidence in their representatives? In exploring these more practical questions, she can circumvent sticky meta-theoretical philosophizing about the foundational purpose of political representation.
Thanks to the internet, there are many ways we can engage with our representatives. Costa is “trying to use a wide net to catch all these different ways that we hear from our political leaders,” from newsletters to campaign ads to twitter posts. A wide variety of communication platforms allows for targeted, audience-based messaging; Costa is also looking into the ways that messaging varies across platforms.
Though she is not finished sifting through her data, one thing is clear: there is a lot of polarizing language, directed not just across party lines or ethnic groups but also across finer-grain social groups like parents or schoolteachers. She is concerned that polarizing, divisive language might be damaging to civil society, creating a rift between communities and between the people and the government. And, contrary to the belief of elected officials, “voters actually aren’t motivated” by these negative plays to identity.
She called on political leaders to redirect the conversation towards policy, rather than social identity. “People adopt values from their leaders, or people who they respect,” she explained, adding that polarization is “pushed along by people in power reinforcing that division.” For that reason, she believes that a renewed focus on policy issues would have to come from the ruling class, not from the people.
And her advice for students? “Dial back the tendency to overachieve all of the time. Focus on learning and education and not grades. Take time to take care of yourself and to pursue outside interests and hobbies.”
Costa urged students to identify the things that “make you, you,” beyond just academics. Now, in the throes of social distancing, is the perfect time to do so. When she’s not unpacking shifting trends in congressional communications and political representation, she likes to watercolor.
-Written by Eliza Jane Schaeffer ’20, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs
Rocky Talk Podcast w/ Professor Mia Costa: Apple Podcasts and Spotify.