Robert Ehlert

Seeking civility amid the uncivil war of presidential politics

How citizens can revive civility in our political discourse

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, was in Boise July 31-Aug. 2 to participate in a Civility Summit with Boise City Club and Boise State's School of Public Service. In June, she explained the NICD
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Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, was in Boise July 31-Aug. 2 to participate in a Civility Summit with Boise City Club and Boise State's School of Public Service. In June, she explained the NICD

What is said — or left unsaid — during the first presidential debate Monday evening will be debated until the next time the major candidates or running mates face off in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election.

Though we all expect to hear some policy sound bites and slogans before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump turn to the cameras to ask us for our votes, I will be measuring this encounter through a slightly different filter than most in the media.

I am joining a group of people in Boise and around the country who will be scoring the debate in regard to its level of civility — or, considering who is involved, any measurable incivility.

For the past 18 months we’ve seen some of the ugliest tactics and antics politics can regurgitate. But even before that the National Institute for Civil Discourse had been monitoring and documenting the sad state of our politics and offering lots of suggestions to foster more civil relationships among elected officials, the media and citizens.

The City Club of Boise has been engaged in a yearlong project on civility, examining the problem and identifying solutions for some of the sore spots in Idaho and elsewhere. Many of its members will be watching the Clinton-Trump debate with a discerning eye toward the way the candidates ... interact.

They will observe the debates while considering some guidelines and questions put out by the discourse institute and the “Revive Civility” initiative it is carrying out at the University of Arizona: a 15-point paper on Standards of Conduct for debaters, moderators and the audience; and a survey/questionnaire that debate-watchers can fill out during and after the debate.

“The NICD has partnered with us in events throughout our Civility Project this year, including this summer’s Civility Summit here in Boise,” said Richard Newman, president of the City Club of Boise. “We’re glad to return the favor and give our members and followers a chance to participate in Monday night’s debate by scoring the civility of its participants and help influence a more constructive tone.”

I am going to follow along, too, tweeting things out I observe and noting the demeanor of the candidates, using the same hashtag City Club will use: #ccboi. At the end I intend to fill out the survey and share it with City Club and the national organizers.

There is an opportunity for you to get involved if you are reading this online. Included in this package are the standards and the survey questions, which you can access by downloading them or by visiting a website where you can access the material.

The first two questions: “At any point in the debate did Hillary Clinton directly insult Donald Trump?” “At any point in the debate did Donald Trump directly insult Hillary Clinton?”

I paused at the word “insult,” wondering what the threshold was for that term, figuring one person’s insult might be another’s debating tactic. I called Robert Boatright, the head of the Department of Political Science at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who is one of the administers of the survey and who will tabulate the results.

He understood the question and answered it by saying that “insults” would be in the eye of the beholder — the survey takers.

Boatright said students at Clark, the University of Arizona, Assumption College (also in Worcester), Kansas State University and San Diego Mesa College will take the survey Monday after the debate, with their results tabulated overnight. Other participants — such as City Club of Boise and the Cleveland City Club — will mail their results to Boatright, who will supervise their tabulation.

Let me know ahead of time your predictions. Will Trump be on his best behavior? Will Clinton manage to get under her opponent’s skin — or vice versa ? Will the night end without any instances of name calling? Or will the two most unpopular candidates in recent history win us over with smiles, kumbaya hugs, good manners and graciousness?

Scoring the level of civility in the debate

You can download the survey from the online package of this story, or visit the organizers’ website at clarku.co1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_3WYooYnLshtuEaF. If you would prefer to tweet your observations live, use #ccboi.

If you like, you can forward your completed survey to City Club of Boise, PO Box 6521, Boise, ID 83707-6521. They will forward it to the national organizers at Clark University.

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