Group calls for re­turn to ci­vil­ity

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Katie Zez­ima

WASH­ING­TON — A pres­i­dent slams a ta­ble and walks out of a meet­ing. A long­time Con­gress­man con­sis­tently makes racist com­ments. A gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date threat­ens to stomp on his op­po­nent’s face with golf spikes. Fam­ily mem­bers no longer speak be­cause of po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences. Twit­ter fights. Ca­ble news pan­els filled with shout­ing.

While it might seem that ci­vil­ity has been com­pletely lost in pol­i­tics and sig­nif­i­cantly eroded in both pub­lic and pri­vate life, one or­ga­ni­za­tion is try­ing to push back against the tsunami of tox­i­c­ity and con­tention sweep­ing the coun­try. It’s a de­vel­op­ment that, ac­cord­ing to polls, Amer­i­cans des­per­ately want.

The Na­tional In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course is urg­ing Amer­i­cans to be re­spect­ful of one an­other again. The in­sti­tute and its new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Keith Allred, are be­hind a push to en­gage elected of­fi­cials and ci­ti­zens to­ward ci­vil­ity at a time when dis­course is de­grad­ing, with the hope that peo­ple will re­mem­ber how to dis­agree with one an­other in good faith.

“It’s not the dif­fer­ence of opin­ion on pol­icy that makes us bit­ter,” Allred said. “But think­ing they’re a bad per­son.”

Allred cre­ated the group Com­mon­Sense Amer­i­can, a bi­par­ti­san or­ga­ni­za­tion that weighs in on is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion and cam­paign fi­nance re­form. It is a na­tional off­shoot of a group he cre­ated in Idaho, which worked with the state leg­is­la­ture. The group’s staff cre­ates pol­icy pa­pers it sends to ci­ti­zen mem­bers, who then con­tact their elected of­fi­cials. The goal is to arm peo­ple with in­for­ma­tion about var­i­ous top­ics, and have them weigh in with elected of­fi­cials in an au­then­tic way, with­out the use of canned talk­ing points or vit­riol.

The in­sti­tute has trained more than 12,000 peo­ple in civil dis­course and has hosted more than 500 “ci­vil­ity con­ver­sa­tions” na­tion­wide.

“We’ve po­lar­ized not only our po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, but our per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions,” said for­mer Con­gress­man Jim Kolbe, RAriz., who is on the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ad­vi­sory board.

Putting peo­ple of dif­fer­ing views to­gether is more cru­cial than ever, said Carolyn Lukens­meyer, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the group. As peo­ple re­treat into their corners on so­cial me­dia and in­creas­ingly live in places where they are sur­rounded by the like-minded, talk­ing to those on the op­po­site side of po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments of­ten doesn’t hap­pen.

Lukens­meyer said the ef­forts have in­cluded weekly dis­cus­sions at brew­eries and cof­fee shops among peo­ple hold­ing dif­fer­ing views. The in­sti­tute has filmed in­ter­ac­tions be­tween peo­ple with dif­fer­ing back­grounds and opin­ions to show how they can re­spect­fully dis­agree and find com­mon ground. It is look­ing for a stream­ing ser­vice to dis­trib­ute the se­ries.

“Once they’re in an en­vi­ron­ment where they meet, they have more in com­mon than ex­pected,” she said.

Polls show that Amer­i­cans want a re­turn to ci­vil­ity. Nine­ty­one per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers said the lack of ci­vil­ity in pol­i­tics is a “se­ri­ous prob­lem,” ac­cord­ing to a 2018 Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity poll. Sixty-eight per­cent of those sur­veyed in a Pew Re­search poll from July said it was “es­sen­tial” for peo­ple in high po­lit­i­cal of­fices to main­tain a tone of ci­vil­ity and re­spect in pol­i­tics.

Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the for­mer Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader and a co-chair of the in­sti­tute’s ad­vi­sory board, said the fate of Amer­ica rests on a re­turn to ci­vil­ity, both in pol­i­tics and pub­lic life.

The in­sti­tute spon­sored two work­shops on how to run a pos­i­tive po­lit­i­cal cam­paign over the sum­mer; 16 of the 18 par­tic­i­pants were ac­tively run­ning in an elec­tion. Nine of them won.

To nudge elected of­fi­cials, the in­sti­tute cre­ated a pro­gram called Next Gen­er­a­tion, in which it shows state leg­is­la­tors how to work across the aisle. De­spite its in­tense po­lar­iza­tion, Congress even has a ci­vil­ity cau­cus, with mem­bers vis­it­ing one an­other’s districts to see what life is like and to learn from a dif­fer­ent set of con­stituents.

The group was founded in 2011, months af­ter a shoot­ing in Tuc­son, Ariz., that killed six peo­ple and wounded 13, in­clud­ing for­mer Con­gress­woman Gabrielle Gif­fords, D-Ariz.

CAROLYN VAN HOUTEN/ THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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