Nearly two decades ago, just as war grabbed the world by the throat following the September 11th terrorist attacks, I was serving in the military with a white guy from the Deep South named Rob. He would come to be one of my closest shipmates, and we’ve stayed connected over the years. He’s the same guy today that he was then — light-hearted, pragmatic, facts-driven, sees the best in others. 

But a few weeks back, he reached out to me with an uncharacteristically gloomy message: “I am really concerned with everything that’s going on,” he wrote. “We are being torn apart, and race seems to be the main reason. How have we — a black guy and a white guy with different worldviews — managed to keep our friendship alive? Maybe there’s a lesson in it?”

My friend is not alone in his malaise. Many of us feel it. Slightly more than three in four Americans believe the country is not headed in the right direction. Nearly 75 percent say race relations are bad. Over 60 percent say economic inequality is a problem, and national pride has fallen to a record low. An overwhelming majority disapproves of the job our government and elected officials are doing. And perhaps most telling, we see declining trust in each other as the root of the major challenges plaguing the nation.

These sobering figures seem to describe a society whose structural supports have grown rickety. They suggest that we’ve passed some point of no return. Perhaps most of all, they beg the question facing democracies around the world, especially those that are increasingly multiracial and multiethnic: What do we have left that still binds us together?

The answer, from my perspective, is a civil religion.

The concept of civil religion dates back hundreds of years. Every nation has one. Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau conceptualized civil religion as a set of beliefs that define what it means to be a virtuous citizen. But sociologist Robert Bellah gave the thing teeth when he conceived of an American iteration of it in 1967.

Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr

What do we have left that still binds us together? The answer, from my perspective, is a civil religion.

The American civil religion is a sociological theory that suggests there’s a semi-religious dimension to civic and public life. Like most religions, it’s a faith expressed through a set of beliefs, symbols, sacraments and rituals that bind unlike people together. The high-minded ideals of equality, liberty, justice and opportunity become the basis for a shared identity consecrated in American cultural cornerstones — in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; in rhetoric like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; in observances like Independence Day and Memorial Day; in symbols like the flag and the Statue of Liberty; and in rituals like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day.

An appropriately conceived civil religion establishes the duties of citizenship, provides a transcendent national identity, is accommodating of social diversity and provides a point of allegiance. In effect, by each of us agreeing to become parishioners of sorts of the American civil religion, we have agreed to fight for a common vision of the future and defend each other’s access to the full rights, privileges and protections of citizenship.

But civil religion is not without its risks. Its power has caused many political figures to hijack it, translating it into a tool for exclusion that proclaims that its principles belong only to some. The corrupted version weaponizes things like the flag and national anthem and demands an unquestioning and uncritical fealty. It is why kneeling during the national anthem divides us instead of inspiring a national conversation about race. It is why the wearing of masks becomes a debate about freedom instead of a common sense measure to protect public health. And it is why elections are filled with politicians demonizing one another by claiming their opponents hate America.

Conflicts like these have caused some to wonder whether it’s even possible to establish effective bonds between citizens in large, diverse democracies. It’s certainly trickier. The ancient Greek philosophers thought cities were the ideal size for societies — the word “citizen” is derived from this idea. Perhaps a nation is just too big to govern.

Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr

By each of us agreeing to become parishioners of sorts of the American civil religion, we have agreed to fight for a common vision of the future and defend each other’s access to the full rights, privileges and protections of citizenship.

Consider the United States, the world’s third-largest nation. It just isn’t possible for each American to know and feel connected to 330 million others. At times, we’ve tried to deny this obvious fact with misguided claims of a single national identity. One of the country’s founding documents argued as much, declaring that Americans “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.”

Those words were untrue in 1787, and are even more untrue today. In the United States, Native Americans, the descendants of enslaved Black Africans and immigrants from all corners of the world have contributed a multitude of origins, languages and cultures to help fashion a new nation. Today, one’s American experience remains heavily influenced by race, ethnicity, class and immigration status. Even the coronavirus pandemic has not spurred a sense of national solidarity, and people of color are dying from it at disproportionately high rates.

And yet, my buddy’s question seemed to suggest we had defied the odds: How did we — a black guy and a white guy with different worldviews — manage to form and maintain a friendship that has lasted decades? I think ours is what you would call a civic friendship. A civic friendship is civil religion scaled down to the level of the individual; civic friends, in multitudes, are a civil religion’s flock.

The concept of civic friendship dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It’s grounded in a shared sense of morality, common values and compassion for one another. It is infused with the understanding that civic friendships — and the collective civil religion they comprise — underpin the strength and integrity of society to the benefit of all. The concept is vital. As Princeton professor Robert George puts it, “Civic friendship is an absolutely indispensable condition of self-government… If you don’t have civic friendship, disagreements turn us into enemies, and you cannot sustain a republic among people who regard themselves as each other’s enemies.”

Being civic friends is hard work. It requires a commitment from the citizenry to do for each other so that all of us can access the full rights and privileges of citizenship. There have always been — and will always be — well-resourced efforts to prevent this from happening by those who hold onto power by undermining a solidarity that crosses lines of race, class, ethnicity, region and religion. But if we are to leave a functioning, stable and just democracy to future generations, establishing and maintaining these civic friendships is our only option.

The task may not be as daunting as it sounds. Even amid all the division broadcast across traditional and social media, most of us want similar things from our society. We want to be treated equally. We want to be included and respected. We want access to opportunities and to feel safe in our communities. We want our institutions and systems to be fair and just. And if government derives its power from our consent, then we have the ability to make our country more unified if we are willing to focus on what we have in common so we can work through the areas where we differ.

I had no epiphanies for Rob. But I did have some reasons to be hopeful to share with him. I told him that as disconnected as people may feel from one another, more than half of us are optimistic about the future. We agree on what it means to be a good citizen and the democratic values that should define our nation. I told him that if we had a lesson for others, it is the central role that a kind of friendship plays in ensuring we see each other’s better angels.

“Take heart, my friend,” I concluded. “If we’re willing to do the hard work of introspection, it’ll be clear that we are not divided.”

This story was produced by Freakonomics Radio, a We Are Not Divided collaborator.

You probably hold certain beliefs that you think no one could ever change your mind about. Well, humor us, because in this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we’re pretty sure that we can change your mind about that

The truth is, our minds are pretty changeable. Under the right conditions, even the concepts, ideologies and general truths that we hold to be sacrosanct are often prone to alteration. We showed you some examples of how this works in our story “Are You Liberal? Are You Sure?” And we’ll offer even more examples in the coming weeks.

For now, however, tune in to this episode of Freakonomics Radio: “How to Change Your Mind.” It kicks off with a conversation between host Stephen Dubner and Reasons to be Cheerful editors Christine McLaren and Will Doig.



Politics can be a brutish place, full of low-blows and Twitter attacks. But nearly lost in all this mudslinging is a critical question: Are these tactics effective? 

Jeremy Frimer doesn’t think so. In fact, Frimer thinks the incivility that politicians increasingly flaunt along hyper-partisan lines is actually costing them — and, by proxy, all of us. 

In the latest in our series of conversations with researchers from Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, Frimer reveals the counterintuitive findings of his studies on civility in politics: namely, that the public is turned off by negative campaigning, which ultimately ends up hurting the image of the attacking politician more than the one being attacked. He spoke to us about the methods used to evaluate responses to incivility, the ramifications of their surprising conclusions, the pitfalls of politics built only on tone — and where to go from here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your central area of research?

I study American politics, political polarization, and how people feel about each other on the other side and within the same side. The central finding in my research is things are not as bad as they seem.

You have a paper called “The Montagu Principle: Incivility decreases politicians’ public approval even with their political base.” What is the Montagu Principle?

Mary Wortley Montagu was an 18th century author, and she once said “civility costs nothing and buys everything.” For someone to come along and make such a strong claim like that, I think it’s provocative and it’s counter to a lot of our intuitions. Yet the evidence seems to support it.

How does this square with the fact that incivility seems to be really popular, and really effective? 

So the manifestation of this, if you can envision it, is a Trump rally. So you can just picture Donald Trump standing up at a rally and ripping and tearing into whoever his perceived political opponent is, and the crowd going absolutely wild when he says something particularly provocative and inflammatory and uncivil about the other side. And so commentators, a number of commentators, pundits and journalists have even Nancy Pelosi has used the term “throwing red meat to the base” to capture that phenomenon. 

The robust finding is that if one politician attacks the other, the attacker takes a bigger hit to their reputation than the person who’s attacked.

[This idea] leads to a testable hypothesis: when a politician attacks the other side with incivility, will that boost that politician’s approval with their most diehard supporters? That was an idea floating around in the media and popular culture that as far as we knew had not ever been tested. The point of our paper was to test that and see, is that the case? Do people generally receive incivility from their cherished leader positively? 

How did your study work and what did you find?

We focused on President Trump, although it’s important to note that these effects are not limited to President Trump. We gathered together President Trump’s daily approval ratings from publicly available polling data over the first year of his presidency. We also gathered information about the number of insults he issued on Twitter, which is sort of a level of incivility. The New York Times documents every single insult he’s ever issued on Twitter. If the insults were well received, then we should expect that more insults equals greater approval. But we find the opposite. The more insults, the lower his approval. We broke it down by the political identity of respondents and found the same effect. We’re still finding negative associations between approval and insults. More insults, lower approval — even among conservatives.

You did another longitudinal study analyzing over 200 million words from the Congressional Record. How did you do that?

We looked at all of the words spoken on the floor of the U.S. Congress since the mid ’90s. There are ways to code incivility in text using computers. We use a basic software called Linguistic Inquiry and word count, which starts with a preset dictionary. It looks at a text and asks how many words in that text match any of those words in the dictionary. Then you divide by the total number of words to get a density of that topic. 

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    One way you can tell someone’s being civil is that they’re using honorifics, which would be calling someone by their title like “President,” “Mister,” “Mayor” or “Congresswoman.” To ramp up your civility, one would generally want to use tentative language like “I suggest” or “it might happen,” as opposed to language like “it definitely is.” 

    We also looked at first-person and second-person. Civility theory suggests that one should use impersonal language like “we” and even passive voice to communicate, as opposed to the more direct and clear “I” and “you.” So “I want this” as opposed to, “you know, this might be helpful.” It’s subtle, but it actually does work. We analyzed the civility of what members of Congress had to say and found that they were again correlated and longitudinally predictive of lower approval: more civility, higher approval.

    How do you control for outside variables that might also have an effect on approval ratings?

    We try to measure other factors that we think might explain the correlation between two variables — in this case, incivility and approval. We use a statistical program to essentially hold those constant hypothetically to ask: What if this weren’t changing, would we still see a relationship between incivility? We did control for political polarization of Congress, so the degree to which the two sides were really far away from each other on policy, which could obviously cause incivility to go up, and also approval to go down because people want Congress to work together. Indicators of economic strength, violence and military might are possible factors that could potentially partly explain why we might observe a correlation between civility and approval. Yet even holding those fixed, we still see that incivility and approval go together, which implies that there might be a direct relationship between approval and incivility.

    In addition to studying the president’s tweets and words in the Congressional Record, you conducted some experimental tests, as well. Can you tell us about those? 

    An experiment requires that we manipulate a variable that we care about. In this case, we think that incivility causes approval to go up or down. Therefore, we randomly assigned people to experience either something civil or uncivil. Then we ask them about how they feel about it. 

    Study Three was called “President Trump attacks” using a website called Amazon Mechanical Turk, where people basically sign up to do studies and get paid a bit of money to do each one. They’re reasonably representative of the American population and include people on the left,  the center and the right. They’re a pretty decent representation amongst different racial and ethnic groups and the genders and education. 

    We showed half of [the participants] three or four of President Trump’s most egregious, uncivil tweets and then we asked people, “How do you feel about President Trump?” We also asked them their political identity, ranging from a diehard Trump opponent to a regular Trump opponent to being on the fence about President Trump, being a supporter, or even a diehard supporter. 

    And what were the results?

    jeremy frimer
    Jeremy Frimer

    What we found is that for every group, except for diehard Trump supporters, approval was higher after reading the civil tweets. Uncivil tweets caused approval to decrease among die-hard Trump opponents, Trump opponents, people who are on the fence, and even people who generally support him — but diehard supporters didn’t move. There was no change. 

    But if the “red meat” hypothesis is right, then we should see an uptick in approval among die-hard fans. We did not see that. It’s always tricky to interpret a null finding because it could be explained by not a big enough sample. But in spite of an honest and well-designed effort to try to find evidence of red meat, of “I love Trump even more because he attacked the other side,” we didn’t find it when we thought we would.

    If there’s evidence that being civil is popular, even in a hyper-partisan environment, then why aren’t people and politicians cultivating this behavior? 

    There are some strong beliefs in the public, and especially among political operatives, about how attacking and incivility actually work. Political operatives say attack ads work. That’s why we go low, why we punch the other side, because it works. It drives people away from the other side and they’re not interested in going to vote. They don’t like them anymore or they’re just not sure about them anymore. But the literature suggests the opposite. The robust finding is that if one politician attacks the other, the attacker takes a bigger hit to their reputation than the person who’s attacked.

    And what are the pitfalls to civility? 

    Other researchers have found that incivility can be a really strong signal to other people about who you are, who you’re loyal to and who’s your tribe. And if you want to be accepted within a particular group, attacking the other side might signal your fidelity and your loyalty to a particular tribe and gain you entry in a way. 

    Research from William Brady has shown that language expressing outrage — which I think is related to uncivil language — gets a lot more retweets on Twitter. So incivility might get people’s attention and draw attention to something that one sees as problematic. 

    And what are the consequences of incivility?

    There’s a robust literature showing that when politicians are uncivil, it turns people off the system and makes people distrust politicians and have less faith in the government. It doesn’t seem to mobilize the electorate one way or the other, doesn’t change voter turnout, but it does seem to get people’s attention. 

    Incivility takes up all the oxygen in the room. It causes people to ruminate and be distracted and then not be good at whatever else they’re trying to.

    Another negative effect of incivility is that it takes up all the oxygen in the room, so it causes people to ruminate and be distracted and then not be good at whatever else they’re trying to. My favorite study on this is that pediatricians were exposed to incivility from their colleagues and it caused them to do a less good job at taking care of infants. This is clearly not retaliation. They’re not taking out their frustration on infants. But incivility caused them to ruminate and be distracted. 

    From your perspective, what’s the big takeaway from all this research?

    I think it would be a mistake to suggest that it’s always worth offending the other side. Americans are not nearly as divided as they seem. There’s really great polling results out there showing that even on policy issues, we think of the other side as being way on one extreme and we’re way on this extreme. And that’s not the case. There’s almost overlap on things like borders and gun control, and people are actually not that far apart on policy. It’s the feeling between the two sides that has grown more and more negative. And feelings can be managed. As Mister Rogers said, anything that’s mentionable is manageable.