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Could the ‘Dignity Index’ Help Make Our Politics More Civil?

The incentives in our political culture don’t give a lot of reason to be optimistic.
January 26, 2023
Could the ‘Dignity Index’ Help Make Our Politics More Civil?
The Dignity Index eight-point scale overlaid a presidential debate still (Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a young Republican from Wisconsin, sought to make a name for himself by weaponizing conspiracy theories about Communist infiltration of the U.S. government and other American institutions. In hearings and public pronouncements, McCarthy accused people in politics, Hollywood, universities, and nonprofit organizations of working to subvert the United States—often with no evidence, as when he falsely claimed to have “here in my hand” a list of names of Communists in the State Department. Former President Harry Truman, in a television address ten months after he left office, described this practice of leveling cynical, politically motivated bad-faith accusations:

the corruption of truth . . . the use of the Big Lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society.

McCarthyism brought about lamentable outcomes: People were “canceled,” books were banned, gay Americans were subjected to “sexual perversion” inquiries, frivolous congressional investigations were opened, and military leaders were accused of being insufficiently patriotic. Sound familiar?

Many things helped bring about the demise of McCarthyism, but the finishing blow landed unexpectedly during a nationally televised Senate hearing on the U.S. Army. McCarthy was doing his normal routine, bringing up doctored photos and fake memos while making veiled allegations—for example, about homosexuality being a national security threat that had taken root in the Army. As McCarthy’s rhetoric grew vile, exasperated Army chief counsel Joseph Welch posed a sharp question: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

While we should take care to avoid mythologizing this exchange, it’s worth thinking about its use of shame to put uncivil and anti-democratic behaviors in check. Democracy is an instrument, and in the hands of unprincipled officials in positions of power, it can be co-opted as a tool to oppress the governed. Public shaming made McCarthyism—and its attempt to stigmatize and demonize certain Americans—possible. Yet public shaming also played a part in deflating and ending McCarthyism: The Wisconsin senator was roundly shamed for his demagoguery once Americans were given the language, by Welch’s outburst, to express their indignation. Perhaps there is something instructive in this for our present political moment.

Could a new social scientific tool help us to publicly shame acts of incivility—and publicly praise acts of civility—in a way that ultimately improves American political and civic life? Tami Pyfer, a former local official in Utah, thinks so. The Dignity Index was developed with a national nonprofit, and Pyfer and a bipartisan team deployed it in Utah during the midterm elections. Amanda Ripley recently discussed the project in a fascinating essay in Politico, and while the reception by the public thus far leaves a lot to be desired, the concept is worthy of deeper consideration.

Concisely, the Dignity Index scores politicians’ public remarks on a scale of 1 to 8 based on how “dignified or contemptuous” they are, with 1 being the most derisive and 8 being the most civil and decent. Every comment is assessed by a team and peer-reviewed by a diverse group to help root out any biases. The results are then published, partially in the hopes that a low score would disincentivize—or shame—politicians from using contemptuous language.

Perhaps in a better nation, one where we listened a bit more to the better angels of our natures, politicians engaging in hateful and dehumanizing speech would be rejected by the public and compelled to adjust both tone and rhetoric. But our current political landscape rewards contemptuous speech from politicians on both sides of the aisle. The more sensational and insulting the remarks, the more news coverage and support from the most ideologically polarized parts of the country they receive. This tendency has worsened over the last seven years, as Trumpism has ushered in a politics of spite and grievance such that vilifying people because of their partisan affiliation or race/ethnicity has sometimes resulted in electoral success.

As such, it’s likely that Dignity Index will join the collection of tools and projects that, however wise in conception and admirable in execution, cannot break through the hyperpartisan calluses formed on our democracy.

Remember the efficiency gap? First proposed in 2014, it measures the number of wasted votes in a congressional district to determine if it’s a partisan gerrymander. The Supreme Court had a chance to adopt the tool in 2018’s Gill v. Whitford but punted on the issue until 2019’s Rucho v. Common Cause, when it decided that partisan gerrymandering should be resolved by voters and not the courts.

There’s PolitiFact, founded in 2007, which checks the veracity of politicians’ statements. It was an undertaking in objectivity, looking to provide accurate information to the public to help them make informed decisions, thereby strengthening our democratic culture. It is a difficult exercise, the sort of undertaking in which lapses are inevitable but it’s still worth doing. And yet, when politicians were shown that their statements were found to be untrue, they showed no shame and attacked and repurposed the fact-checking itself. Not only was there little penalty to be paid for lying, the tool itself was commandeered by partisan forces.

There’s the Congressional Budget Office, founded in 1974 to serve as a credible, nonpartisan source of information for the legislative branch, and charged with determining the cost of proposed laws. But politicians remain undeterred by the assessments, trumpeting the results when politically useful and pillorying CBO when they’re not. CBO’s creators expected its rigorous analysis would have a moderating and deliberative effect on lawmaking; it’s hard to see any evidence that they were right.

Without respected arbiters, everything is fair game to be hijacked and weaponized. The truth is fungible with whatever politicians want it to be, from climate change to kindergartners learning critical race theory. Democratic institutions are transformed into partisan tools that lead to the questioning of their legitimacy. Any attempt to develop new ways to identify agreed-upon facts, which are considered essential to liberal democracy, is immediately attacked as a tool of illiberalism.

This is exactly what happened with the Dignity Index—Utah voters accused the developers of having unspoken goals, like “neutering conservatives,” and reacted more positively to the contemptuous speech by their preferred party’s politicians. Indeed, many tried to use shame to discredit the index instead of being ashamed that they supported politicians who labeled their opponents as immoral and existential threats to America.

And yet, even if the Dignity Index cannot ultimately deliver on its potential, it is worth having. Like the other tools mentioned above, it can provide useful insights even if it doesn’t lead to better behavior by politicians.

Americans routinely say they are sick of things like incivility, misinformation, and lack of compromise in our politics. When policy practitioners devise tools to help address these things and help deliver the nation we say we want, the tools themselves become the subject of partisan conflict. Whether a scholarly effort like the efficiency gap or a democratic process like investigating a riot at the Capitol, all falls victim to alternative truths and partisan weaponeering.

As the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives sets out on its two-year voyage of investigations and impeachments and the seating of representatives of dubious talents and questionable aims on powerful committees, it remains to be seen if Trumpism in practice and the progressive response will reach the ignominious heights of McCarthyism 2.0. But at the moment, it’s hard to believe that any watershed “have you no decency?” moment is in the near future.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.