NICD Pairs Scholars With Philosophical Opposites to Research Polarization & American Civic Life

Mon, 2019-06-17

Contact: Julia Schechter | 917-282-2754 |

Washington, D.C. – The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), in conjunction with the Charles Koch Foundation, today announced the recipients of the Institute’s “Creating Research Projects Across Disciplinary and Ideological Lines” program. After a competitive application process, NICD awarded five $25,000 grants to scholars with different ideologies and from different disciplines who seek to come together to research core concepts and institutions that are vital to American political and civic life. Some of the projects aim to analyze the style, presence and growth of incivility in our discourse – including two that will quantify name-calling on Twitter and uncivil speech in both network news and on YouTube.

“Part of NICD’s mission is to encourage conversations among people from different walks of life and with different points of view to improve the state of our national civil discourse,” said NICD Research Director Robert Boatright, Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Clark University. “These projects will be strengthened by the diverse points of view the researchers bring to them, and we hope they will serve as a model for how colleges and universities can create better, more inclusive conversations.”

The research grants will fund five studies:

  • Joan McGregor and Tracy Fessenden (Arizona State University), “Recovering our Moral Capital”: This project is a collaboration between a moral philosopher and religious studies scholar to study moral capital, which New York Times columnist David Brooks recently defined as “the shared habits, norms, institutions and values that make common life possible.” In the view of cultural critics across the political spectrum, moral capital is currently in high demand and low supply. McGregor and Fessenden will study what constitutes moral capital in America, whether we’re in danger of losing it and how universities can play a role in developing and sustaining it.
  • Molly Brigid McGrath (Assumption College) and Robert Boatright (Clark University), “Corruption and Corruption Talk”: According to most indices, the United States ranks among the twenty least corrupt countries in the world. However, allegations of corruption have become a central part of our political discourse and took a prominent role in the 2016 presidential campaign. The project will explore the different ways in which the term “corruption” is used in political discourse, the confusions that result from conflicting definitions and proposals for clarifying the meaning of the term.
  • Diana Mutz and Ani Nenkova (University of Pennsylvania), “Identifying and Quantifying Uncivil Political Discourse in Audio-Visual Media”: Mutz and Nenkova will create pilot experiments for a larger project to computationally monitor and quantify the levels incivility of political discourse on websites, YouTube and network news – leading to new metrics for understanding the presence of incivility in media. The analysis will combine examinations of text, audio and audio-visual media to produce a means of monitoring incivility in all media forms.
  • Kate Kenski, Steve Bethard, Steve Rains, & Yotam Shmargad (University of Arizona), and Kevin Coe (University of Utah), “Detecting Incivility in 2020 Presidential Primary Candidate Social Media Posts”: Computational methods to analyze incivility in social media have limitations and, to date, may fall short of explaining its true prevalence. This project will employ well-trained coders of incivility to analyze the Twitter posts of major 2020 presidential candidates and identify instances of name-calling in a subset of tweets. Researchers will then quantify its use and then map out the social network of candidates and users who mention them.
  • Joshua Grubbs (Bowling Green State University), Sean Stevens (New York University), Lee Jussim (Rutgers University) and colleagues, “Effects of Perceived Moral Grandstanding on Public Discourse”: Moral grandstanding – a negatively-perceived attempt to use moral superiority to advance social status – is a damaging element of our discourse, but it’s often difficult to identify in our allies and easy to spot in our opponents. This project studies the role of moral grandstanding in social and political discourse, examining how people may attribute grandstanding to discredit opposing arguments and how such attributions might shape reactions to its role in asserting social status.

Upon completion of the research in the fall of 2020, the scholars will present their findings, as well as reflections on their collaboration. Some of these scholars will also present preliminary details of their work at NICD’s third biennial research convening at the University of Arizona in September 2019.

“Our work to bridge divides must include bringing together disparate fields of study,” said Charles Koch Institute director of free expression Sarah Ruger. “NICD and the scholars they’re funding through this project are engaging across disciplinary, institutional, and philosophical differences. It’s just as much about the discovery that comes from their research as it is a better understanding of what benefits and innovation come from exploration with a diverse group.”

The projects, made possible through the Charles Koch Foundation’s Courageous Collaborations initiative, are being overseen by Robert G. Boatright, NICD Research Director, and Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, NICD Executive Director Emerita. NICD has developed a network of over fifty scholars from a range of institutions, disciplines, and political perspectives who study civility.  The NICD Research Network serves as a forum for encouraging discussion of how scholars might broaden their understandings of the role of civility in their research and teaching.


Informed by research, the National Institute for Civil Discourse programs are designed to create safe spaces for elected officials, the public, and the media to engage different voices respectfully and take responsibility for the quality of our public discourse and democratic institutions. Learn more at