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NIU political scientist Scot Schraufnagel says politics today, from the national stage to grassroots government, is in a state of hyper-conflict.
Intense debate over policy issues is common. And few people are surprised when disagreements degenerate into personal attacks.
“It’s not all healthy,” Schraufnagel says. “President Trump has sort of normalized this acid political discourse, so people aren’t as hesitant to use harsh language or belittle a political opponent. This has happened in politics probably since Roman Senate times, but it’s gotten worse across our country since 2016.”
In a new study, Schraufnagel looks at conflict on city councils and village boards, which hold heavy sway over local quality-of-life considerations. Some disagreement among local officials might actually make your town leaders more productive and your community healthier, the study finds.
But it depends very specifically on the type of conflict, according to the study.
Schraufnagel and co-author Meng Yuan, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at NIU, analyzed survey responses from city or village council members in 31 medium-sized northern Illinois communities to tease out two specific types of disagreement: policy versus relational conflict.
Policy conflict arises from differences of opinion on issues. Relational conflict is defined by annoyances and grievances over matters such as beliefs, values, habits and personalities. Each type of conflict has unique implications for the effectiveness of a governing body, Schraufnagel says.
The study found higher levels of policy conflict associate with a host of good governance outcomes, such as productivity, positive teamwork and innovation. The researchers also found positive correlations between their measure of policy conflict and indicators of healthier or more progressive cities.
“People assume that if you disagree on policy, it’s going to create a meltdown,” Schraufnagel says. “But there’s nothing wrong with policy disagreements. In so much that it can bring about further exploration of all possible options, policy debate stokes the fire and creates new ideas and solutions. Anytime we can debate policy in a healthy and civil way, it should lead to better policy outcomes.”
Personality differences that spill into public discourse present problems, however.
“Relational conflict does not help at all and tends to move the arrow in the other direction,” Schraufnagel says. “When people disagree based on personality or pure partisanship, it becomes something akin to ‘win at all costs.’ That sort of mentality is problematic as it relates to the legislative process.”
Other research studies examining business organizations and Congress have produced similar findings, but little attention has been focused on local government. Yet, Schraufnagel notes, existing research suggests many city councils across the country are so conflicted that civility in public debate is compromised and public trust in local government is affected.
Schraufnagel and Yuan used responses to surveys conducted in 2008 and 2010 to isolate and measure the two types of conflict. They then tested for correlations with real-world measures of governing board effectiveness and community well-being, such as high school graduation rates and the likelihood that women and minorities are sufficiently empowered to realize business ownership.
“The results speak to the necessity of recruiting and electing city legislators who have their own views and a willingness to critique the views of others,” says Schraufnagel, who chairs NIU’s Department of Political Science. “But it’s also important that these same individuals own their views while maintaining a certain civility that avoids personalities or relational conflict.”
Media Contact: Tom Parisi
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