July 2012 – January 2019
The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) was established in May of 2011 after the tragic Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. All were participating in a “Congress on Your Corner” event, a fundamental act of democracy.
In response to the tragedy, the Tucson community came together to create NICD, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization based at the University of Arizona, to promote healthy and civil political debate. NICD is devoted to the same principles that motivated Congresswoman Giffords: that people with different values and political preferences can discuss their differences in a productive and civil manner. Just days before the shooting, Rep. Giffords had begun discussions to create a center to study how to improve the quality of civil conversation.
In 2011, NICD launched with one employee and an active founding board – chaired by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Under the leadership of Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, the organization has expanded to 13 staff members and has worked to advance and restore civility in our country focusing on elected officials, the public, and the media.
Initiatives and Accomplishments
Revive Civility: Initiated during the 2016 elections, Revive Civility empowers Americans to restore civility and respect in our democracy. Using tools and trainings created by NICD, mayors issue civility proclamations, citizens learn to listen across difference for understanding, and communities host conversations to help restore civility to our public discourse.
• 35 mayors have issued civility proclamations, including the mayors of Austin, TX, Columbus, OH, and Portland, ME
• NICD has engaged or trained over 12,000 people in civil discourse and listening across differences for understanding
• Over 500 civility conversations have been hosted nationwide and as part of statewide initiatives in Ohio, Arizona, Iowa, and Maine
• Nearly 13,000 participants, mainly young adults, have used the award-winning Text, Talk, Revive Civility platform to hold respectful conversations and learn about civil discourse
• Over 100 civic, faith, youth, and government organizational partners across the political spectrum endorse the Initiative; sponsoring activities for families in places of worship, workplaces and community gatherings
Setting the Table for Civility – During the 2017 holiday season, 17 bipartisan Members of Congress, (notably Majority Whip Steve Scalise and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer) took part in conversations with each other to help heal the deep divisions and increase understanding between Americans. The series of conversations was co-sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute and the League of Women Voters. Most important, these conversations spurred the creation of the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus by Ohio Congressmen Steve Stivers and Joyce Beatty.
National Week of Conversation – NICD was a founding member of national coalition fostering the first annual “National Week of Conversation” in April 2018, where group and one-on-one conversations took place in 35 states. NICD asked Americans, and especially Republican and Democratic County Party chairs, to meet one on one to discuss what can be done to reduce polarization and improve the tone of the elections. A citizen, D. Boyer, captured the sentiment shared by many: "What struck me is how many hopeful approaches we can develop if we come at a problem with the idea that common ground might be possible".
National Conversation Symposium – NICD joined the American Psychological Association to co-sponsor a “National Conversation” symposium on the incivility crisis in our democracy and the importance of civility for problem solving, moderated by NPR’s Scott Simon, with Jonathan Haidt, Sally Kohn, American Psychological Association CEO Dr. Arthur C. Evans and Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer. The conversation fostered nearly 200 watch parties in 29 states.
Post 2018 Mid-Term Election – In the aftermath of the bitterly contested 2018 elections and as a new Congress and hundreds of other new officials are sworn in at the federal, state and local level, NICD has worked with its faith partners and other supportive religious groups to get involved. As a result, five prominent national faith leaders that span the political spectrum and represent millions of Americans have issued a “National Call for Reflection, Prayer and Reconciliation” to call for unity and civility, ask their congregations and individual members across the country to help our country end the incivility that dominates our politics. As part of this initiative, NICD also moderated an event in November of 2018 with Senator Chris Coons and diverse faith leaders to discuss bridging the partisan divide.
Next Generation - Next Generation was formed to provide state legislators with a workshop “Building Trust through Civil Discourse” that would give them an opportunity to identify how to improve political discourse in their legislatures. The long-term mission of the workshop is to train Washington’s future leaders to embrace bipartisanship, while also providing state legislators with an opportunity to explore the benefits of improving the level of civil discourse and more effectively work across the aisle, promoting a culture where discourse and collaboration typify public policy development.
• Our half day workshop, “Building Trust through Civil Discourse” has been held in 16 states; several states have held multiple workshops
• More than 850 legislators have participated in and benefited from this training
• We have trained 40 state legislators and former legislators to facilitate workshops in bipartisan pairs in other states
• The impacts of this program include more bi-partisan legislation, increased dialogue across the aisle, significant procedural changes, and legislators holding civil conversations with their constituents
• Last year, we introduced the workshop to 30 Majority Leaders from 19 states, and 30 State Legislative Speakers
• Over 100 legislators are active in NICD’s National Network of State Legislators committed to Civil Governance
• A new component, a Positive Campaign training workshop, has been added at the request of legislators. In 2018, 16 candidates from 7 different states took the workshop, including 2 seeking statewide office: Ohio Secretary of State-elect Frank LaRose and Maine gubernatorial candidate Terry Hayes. 11 of the 16 candidates were actively running for office in 2018; 9 of the 11 won their election.
Quotes from Elected Officials:
“(Next Generation] is what we need in our country. I feel like the public is really crying out for civil discourse.” – Jeni James Arndt, Colorado State Representative
“[Next Generation] is going to be very vital to restoring democracy in its purest, truest form.”
– Heath Mello, Former Nebraska State Senator
“The forum proved to be both enlightening and constructive. Enlightening in that we learned more about each other as legislators and people. I found that what encouraged me to public service was very similar to what motivated others to run for public office. Constructive in that we learned that civil discourse does not mean abandoning one’s principles—rather it means listening respectfully to those with whom we disagree while advocating our own beliefs and principles in a respectful manner—an approach that, when employed, has improved and strengthened our process. I certainly would urge others to consider participating in this very worthwhile endeavor.” – Brent Hill, Idaho Senate President Pro Tem
“This is a solution for legislators coming in so that they can be more productive as a collective and not be as hyper-partisan as we have been in the past.” – Denise Driehaus, Hamilton County Commissioner and Former Ohio State Representative
“We’re talking about new tools to change the dialogue, which someday I hope will change the perception and engage people in a more positive way with their government.” – Sharon Wylie, Washington State Representative
“Civility is more than just having good manners; without it, our system of government cannot function effectively. As citizens, it is our responsibility to expect better from our leaders and from each other. We all benefit when improved civility becomes a mutual priority.” – Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State-elect and Co-Chair of the National Network
“I’m very encouraged that there is a growing group of legislators who have identified this as a priority, understand how important this is, and understand what this can accomplish.” – Pam DeLissio, Pennsylvania State Representative
“It’s really about learning and trusting, being present for each other in a way that is counterintuitive for the way that our politics have developed.” – JoAnn Ward, Minnesota State Representative
Next Gen recognized for Outstanding Collaboration:
In 2017, Next Generation was recognized with an American Civic Collaboration Award (Civvys Award) for our partnership with the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF) and the National Foundation for Women Legislators (NFWL). Our collaboration led to a new leadership program designed to deliver insight, insputation and techniques to legislative leaders working to improve public policy discussion in their states. With our expertise in training community leaders and legislatures, SLLF’s success in providing state legislators with nonpartisan information and a forum for discussion, and NFWL’s work in empowering leaders, our partnership aimed to replace gridlock with progress and criticism with compassion.
Civility Caucus: In 2017, a bipartisan group of 48 freshmen members of the 115th US Congress signed a very strong commitment to civility. Rep. Mike Johnson (LA- 4th) and Charlie Crist (FL-13th) took the next step, creating a Civility Caucus, which now has 150 members. On the heels of the freshman commitments, Rep. Steve Stivers (OH-15th) and Rep. Joyce Beatty (OH-3rd) announced the creation of the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus, which requires pairs of members to act with civility and respect in their political discourse in their congressional districts and in Washington.
The Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus invited NICD to adapt our current state legislative workshop, Building Trust through Civil Discourse, to present to members of the House of Representatives. NICD conducted the first workshop for the caucus leadership of both Civility Caucus’ and 12 other members in July 2018 and will continue the work now that the 116th Congress has been seated.
National Civility Network: Recognizing the importance of doing civility and respect work on college campuses, NICD created the National Civility Network (NCN) of University-based civility institutes to collaborate and amplify each other’s work. The NCN is comprised of institutes and centers committed to a more robust democracy through programs both on campus and in the broader society. The NCD collaborates on projects related to political dysfunction, civility, and civic engagement. Current member organizations include all types of higher education institutions, including public and private colleges, community colleges and universities. The NCN has engaged a diverse public utilizing a number of NICD resources such as Text, Talk, Revive Civility, as well as hosting events and programs rooted in the idea that civil discourse is an important skill and approach for students, faculty, and staff to learn, practice and study. To learn more about the Network, and find out what campuses are members, click here.
Scholarly Research: NICD’s first edited volume, entitled A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents, presents and develops a robust discussion of what civility is, why it matters, what factors might contribute to it, and what its consequences are for democratic life. The authors included in this volume pursue three major questions: Is the state of American political discourse today really that bad compared to prior eras; what lessons about civility can we draw from the 2016 election; and how have changes in technology such as the development of online news and other means of mediated communication changed the nature of our discourse? This book seeks to develop a coherent, civil conversation between divergent contemporary perspectives in political science, communications, history, sociology, and philosophy. This multidisciplinary approach helps to reflect on challenges to civil discourse, define civility, and identify its consequences for democratic life in a digital age. In this accessible text, an all-star cast of contributors tills the earth in which future discussion on civility will be planted.
NICD Research Network:
The NICD Research Network has grown to include over forty prominent scholars from a wide range of disciplines including political science, philosophy, education, communication, psychology, sociology, and history. NICD has convened two gatherings where scholars have discussed their work and shared ideas. NICD has worked to acquaint other academics with contemporary scholarship on civility, by sponsoring conference panels, distributing a newsletter on current civility research, and publishing an edited volume of recent work on civility. NICD has also supported new research on civility through the provision of seed grants for new projects and funding for collaborative research among teams of academics.
Measuring Civility in Presidential Debates: In 2016, we developed a project to measure civility in the presidential debates. Early in the campaign season, NICD contacted a number of citizens, political leaders, and academics to ask about what sorts of debate behaviors they felt would constitute civil or uncivil behavior. We developed a civility checklist that could be used to measure the civility, or lack thereof, of the debates and hired undergraduate research assistants to use the checklist to measure instances of incivility in prior years’ presidential debates, in order to create a baseline for looking at the 2016 debates. We then had audiences score the 2016 debates with the intention to determine how the 2016 debates compared to prior years. We did this long before the uncivil tenor of the 2016 presidential campaign became obvious. We issued a series of press releases in 2016 on the individual debates and prepared a research paper on the 2016 race.
Our research findings include:
• The 2016 debates were less civil than any prior debates that we studied;
• Trump was less civil than Clinton;
• There was substantial agreement regarding Trump regardless of the survey respondents' partisanship. However, Republicans rated Clinton as being less civil than did Democrats;
• There were no gender differences in evaluations of the candidates' civility; and
• Respondent’s evaluations of the civility of the moderators did not have any relationship to media coverage of which moderators were more effective.
In 2018, we recruited political scientists in a number of different battleground Senate races to write short papers on civility in these states’ debates. We will hold an event at the 2019 Midwest Political Science Association meeting to discuss our findings, and plan to prepare a report on 2018 drawing on these scholars’ work. We hope to use this as a launching pad for working with the Commission on Presidential Debates to encourage civility in the 2020 campaign and to measure how the 2020 debates compare to prior years.
Creating Community Solutions: Creating Community Solutions (CCS) was launched in partnership with the Obama Administration as a response to the Sandy Hook school shooting and a call for a community-based national dialogue on mental health.
NICD led CCS by implementing a three-tier strategy including:
• Mayor Initiated Lead Cities – Six major cities across the country led dialogues among 300-400 members of the community and government and formulated plans and budgets for improving mental health in the community.
• Community Conversations – 258 communities hosted conversations on mental health.
• Text, Talk, Act – Over 100,000 participants held mental health dialogues in small groups using a text message-based conversation guide.
Findings from our work showed:
• Participants were more knowledgeable about mental health and where to go for help,
• Participants were more comfortable talking about mental health; and
• Communities created actions that addressed mental health priorities, including building housing for transition-aged youth with a mental illness, launching youth-led anti-stigma campaigns, and expanding Mental Health First Aide certification to first responders, students, teachers and parents.
As a result of our efforts, CCS was selected as the International Association for Public Participation’s Top Public Participation Project in 2014 and was on of the Top 3 Finalists for Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation within the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2014 and 2016.
To capture the stories of how this work inspired participants and communities, we wrote a book, Out of the Shadows, Into the Light: How Community Conversations Can Transform Our Nation’s Approach to Mental Health. The book includes interviews of hundreds of individuals that took part in the national effort and details their stories of transformation.
“Divided We Fall”: A Civility TV Series: NICD and our partner, New Vision Strategies, created “Divided We Fall”, a television docu-series created to match the challenges Americans are now experiencing in our political and public discourse. In creating the docu-series, we found that despite profound divisions, Americans are hungry to bridge them. Americans want to talk with and listen to each other. Americans want the core of our democratic experiment – “We the People” to succeed. We filmed twelve white Gen X voters over a September 2018 weekend at the Double Edge Theater in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Over the weekend of Jan 4-6, 2019 we filmed a cast of millennial voters of different races in Chicago. Finally, we will conclude our first series of episodes in early March in Charlotte, NC with a cast of urban and rural voters of different races. Each cast includes an equal number of men and women and is divided in their support for President Trump. Half strongly approve of his presidency and half strongly disapprove of his presidency. Watch the trailer here.
An Exciting New Development –
University of Arizona’s DC Center: As part of the University of Arizona’s 2018 Strategic Plan, UA President Robbins has announced the creation of a new Washington DC center for the University of Arizona. In the Strategic Plan, the UA points to The National Institute for Civil Discourse’s existing presence in DC as a model and leader for the center. NICD is excited to be part of the leadership to help with the establishment of this new center.