A Sit-Down With Sydnor: Political Communication, Voter Registration, and the November Election
Professor, political scientist, researcher, data analyst—Dr. Emily Sydnor wears many hats on campus. Nevertheless, despite her busy schedule, she agreed to answer some questions I had about voting, civility—or lack thereof—in political communications, and the November election. She had a lot to say about why we should get to the polls this year, how to communicate with each other about tough topics, and, of course, most importantly, what she’s been streaming on Netflix during quarantine.
Eugenia Agobe: For those who don’t know, can you start off by telling us a little bit about your research interests and area(s) of specialization?
Dr. Sydnor: I study political communication and psychology, particularly our understanding of and reaction to incivility as portrayed in the media.
EA: Given that you have such a keen focus on political communication and incivility in politics, how are you feeling in a time where political incivility is on the forefront of everyone’s minds?
DS: Like a lot of people, I am a bit anxious about the state of American democracy at this moment in time. I am inherently an optimist with a lot of faith in America—I don’t think you could teach American politics without it. But elected officials from both parties are violating unwritten norms around governance and failing to recognize their opponents’ legitimate positions at the same time that an increasing number of Americans are skeptical of the benefits of democracy. All of these behaviors simultaneously make it hard to stay optimistic that things are going to get better, even after the election.
EA: Do you feel like political incivility can be useful—Audre Lorde did write that anger is often productive—in small doses? Or even vital in moments where civility doesn’t get the job done, like in this year’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests?
DS: Absolutely. The use of civility and incivility is strategic—in certain contexts and with certain people, research has shown that incivility can lead to greater mobilization and political participation. The trick, and this is something I’m increasingly interested in in my own research, is to figure out when and under what conditions incivility may help you achieve an outcome that civil discourse would not. Protest is an area in which strategic incivility can be particularly useful—it draws attention to your cause in ways that civility likely would not.
EA: Do you think that we’ve moved past a point of civility altogether? Or perhaps that we might redefine our understanding of it? I wonder if you might speak on differing standards of civility/rationality for politicians as it relates to race and gender; we do seem to require a certain sort of composure from female politicians that we don’t from male politicians, for instance.
DS: The first challenge here is to ask ourselves what we really mean by civility. Is civility just the absence of name-calling, insults, and other impolite language, or is it the presence of language that indicates mutual respect? Increasingly, I like to think of it as the presence of mutual respect, conveyed through not only the use of language but also signals that you are listening and trying to understand another person’s perspective.
I hope we haven’t moved past a point of civility altogether, because there are any number of occasions where civility is still the best approach in the quest for a political outcome, both from a ethical and strategic perspective. Not only should we strive to respect the common humanity of every person, even if they disagree with us, but we are more likely to reach common ground and build trust across differences if we approach one another with civility.
That being said, research demonstrates that civility is in the eye of the beholder—we perceive the same language as more or less civil when it comes from students versus elected officials, members of our own party versus our opponents, whites and people of color, and women and men. Our interpretation of what is civil is shaped by our own personalities, identities, experiences and by societal norms around acceptable speech. If we all disagree on what even counts as civil or uncivil, it can be that much harder to have a productive conversation.
EA: Do you have any recommendations for developing civility and/or productive dialogue in our own everyday political landscape, both here on campus and at home? Has your research taught you anything in particular about how to communicate the importance of difficult issues like climate change and racial justice without igniting—or perhaps while mitigating—conflict?
DS: I think my first recommendation is to recognize that there is going to be conflict. There’s no way to talk about major issues like climate change and racial justice without conflict. But you can think about what kinds of conflict you’re comfortable experiencing and at what point you might walk away. I can totally understand why someone might avoid certain topics or discussions with certain people. But so many of us are just afraid to have any political conversations, and that’s not helping anyone. I’ve had to push myself to have some tough conversations—I’ve cried or felt angry, or like I was running repeatedly into a brick wall—but even in the face of those emotions I’ve learned new ways of thinking about the world and grown as a person in really positive ways.
My second recommendation is just to listen. It can be hard because we’re motivated to reject information we disagree with and accept information that fits with previously held beliefs. But you have to quiet the voice in your head that immediately starts shouting “how can they possibly believe that, it’s so absurd!” and tell yourself “OK, I may not agree, and I’m not listening to change my mind, but I want to understand where this person is coming from so I can identify common bonds and values underneath what feel like very different ways of seeing the world.”
EA: I want to ask you one last thing about political communications, and that is about messaging. What kind of messages do you think are most important to get to young voters? What is the best way to communicate the importance of voting in a way that builds bridges and makes potential voters feel connected?
DS: Don’t be afraid to vote because you feel you don’t know enough about the system. Your role as a voter is to pick the person who best reflects your policy preferences, values and identities and who will be a leader who is also accountable to you as a voter. Think about what the three to five most important things are that you care about—they can be expressly political or not—and then try to figure out how they connect to candidates at various levels of government. One way to do this is to check out vote411.org. It will list all the races on your ballot and offer statements from each of the candidates running in each race—it’s a great way to learn more about candidates and what they stand for.
EA: So now that you’ve given us a frame of reference for political dialogue, I would love to hear more from you about political action. I think there are some young voters who are disaffected or discouraged by electoral politics. Can you talk to us about the necessity of voting in this upcoming election?
DS: Voting in the upcoming election is important, but I don’t want to limit us to the necessity of voting in just the upcoming election. Voting is the easiest and most accessible way to express your political preferences and to hold your elected leaders accountable. Yes, the system has some pretty major flaws—the Electoral College, winner-take-all rules that prevent the growth of third parties, a primary system that produces extreme candidates that don’t reflect the average citizen’s beliefs, media outlets that thrive on drama, conflict, and the horse race between candidates. But it has also improved in so many ways in a relatively short amount of time because people like all of you protested, argued, voted, and expressed support for policies that shifted the country in a better direction.
EA: What do you think tends to drive voter turnout in general elections? Are there any candidates on the state and local level that you’re excited about?
DS: Voter turnout is a combination of a variety of factors—how competitive we perceive the election to be, how much we’ve been mobilized and targeted by the political parties, specific candidates, or other political organizations, how interested we are in the election…the list could go on for a while!
EA: What are some things that people can do to get involved beyond the ballot box? Are there any forms of virtual engagement that you’re particularly excited about?
DS: In the COVID-19 era, several organizations have been setting up “couch parties”—events where you make calls or texts on behalf of nonpartisan voter registration or education organizations, political parties, or candidates. I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in one, but I love that they are trying to create the communal, fun atmosphere that can develop in a campaign office or at a political event during a time that we have to operate at a distance from one another.
More generally, there are tons of ways to get involved beyond just voting. You can offer to drive your friends to the polls, or sign up to be a poll worker (it’s a paid position!). You can phone bank for a candidate, attend a city council meeting, or host a virtual debate watch party for your student organization. Talk to your friends and family about how you’re planning to vote, and encourage them to make a plan as well. Get trained as a volunteer deputy registrar and help us continue to register people to vote on campus and across Williamson County! I could go on…
EA: Are there any questions about politics that you wish you got asked more often? That you feel are particularly important for politically engaged students to know about?
DS: I read a book this summer called “Politics is for Power,” by Eitan Hersh, and it really struck a chord with me. He argues that there’s a whole set of Americans who are “political hobbyists”—they treat politics like sports, or knitting, or playing video games. They are highly interested in politics, love discussing political events, follow each move made by politicians on Twitter and elsewhere…and do almost no actual work to try and acquire political power with the intent of changing the system. When I read the book, my immediate reaction was “oh my goodness, this is me.” And when I asked my students in American Politics to read an excerpt of Hersh’s argument, some of them had similar experiences. This is all to say that I think many of us think of ourselves as politically engaged, but we see the idea of actively pursuing power as distasteful. But voting is a means of exercising power. Learning about candidates and issues is a means of exercising power. We should be pushing ourselves to seek out power, because that’s the only way that we can make real change—even though that change will most often come at a much slower pace than we might want.
EA: If you could tell one thing to every potential voter, registered or unregistered, what would it be?
DS: Believe in the power of your voice. Even when you’re in the minority—when you don’t vote for the winning candidate, or you march in a demonstration that doesn’t seem to produce a clear and immediate change in policy—expressing your opinion and standing in solidarity with others can shift the narrative and create incremental movement towards your goals.
EA: I want to make space as our interview concludes for hope and a little bit of levity. So, can you tell me two things—what’s giving you hope right now, and what shows are you streaming on Netflix to distract you?
DS: Honestly, I’m getting a lot of hope from you all right now. I’ve been so impressed by how Southwestern students have risen to the occasion in the past few weeks—adapting to new technologies, new rules about how to operate on campus, and new expectations about how college works. Keep it up! Also my best friend’s two year old recently learned how to say “cat,” and every time I FaceTime with them she sees one of my cats on screen and points at it and says “cat.” Not only is this adorable and endlessly entertaining for me, but watching her learn about the world around her gives me hope that we can all continue to adapt and grow as well.
As for what I’m streaming on Netflix, I have a friend who works at Fordham, in New York City, and we started a quarantine trend of watching tv together once a week…we’ve made it through a lot of political shows—Ms. America and the Hillary Clinton documentary on Hulu, for example—but also Netflix reality shows like Indian Matchmaker and Love Is Blind.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been fortunate enough to work with the brilliant Dr. Sydnor and other students on the SU Votes! Committee, trying to fuel voter registration and student voter turnout on campus! To learn more about registering to vote and getting involved, you can visit our SU-specific voter site here.