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Conference Brings Groups Together To Come Up With Ideas To Make Politics More Polite

Oct 7, 2015

An estimated one hundred elected officials, public leaders and journalists met quietly this week in Columbus for a first-ever conference about how to make the political process more polite. 

Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.

The presidential election is more than a year away, and we’ve already had videos of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talking about Mexican immigrants bringing drugs and crime to the US; of shouting matches in the two Republican candidate debates. And there’s been video of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton sounding off on Trump’s comment about “cherishing women” and of Democratic contender Bernie Sanders blasting Trump for allowing an attendee at a rally to claim President Obama is “not even an American”.

While all this angry debate and response is coming early, there are those who say it’s not too late to hope for a more civil campaign that focuses on issues, not insults; policy, not potshots; and substance, not soundbites. Among those is the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, which is co-chaired by Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton. The NICD says while the lack of civility in politics has reached crisis proportions, change is possible. And it plans to spend the next year trying to change the tone of Ohio politics and engaging citizens in the political process. The two-day conference in Columbus brought together elected officials, public leaders and journalists to talk specifically about what problems are brought by incivility in politics and what can be done about it. And as the attendees talked in breakout sessions and then shared their thoughts with the larger group, some were surprised. Doug Oplinger is the managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. “Probably the most moving moment for me was when a young person from Cleveland stood up and said, ‘What citizens take away from this is that journalists and elected officials view us with disdain.’ And that was deeply troubling,” Oplinger said. “It’s something we have to think about. We have to respect the people of this state.”

Tom Niehaus is the Republican former Ohio Senate President, and is now a lobbyist. He said it was instructional to join a group discussion about voter suppression. “When I heard that term, immediately I shut down. I said, how can there be voter suppression? We vote for 28 days. There are plenty of opportunities for people to vote,” Niehaus said. “But then when I sat down with the group that brought the issue up, I discovered that they’re not talking about the number of days to vote, but they’re talking about inability to vote because the line is too long or a machine didn’t work or there weren’t enough machine, which to me is a different issue than someone deliberately trying to suppress the vote.”

Tim Francisco is a journalism professor at Youngstown State University, and he brought up the moment when the journalists talked about how newsrooms track the number of times online articles are accessed – and how readers can take accountability for their clicks. “I think people get it tangentially, but they don’t necessarily get the inside baseball of it,” said Francisco. “And it was really interesting to watch the light bulbs in the room as that concept was put forward.”

There are more events planned in the coming year. And more education on this topic is a good thing, says Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza, a non-profit that works with the Hispanic community in Cleveland. “I just don’t think it comes natural to us,” he said. “I think we naturally want to become combative and defend our side. We have to be taught those things.”

Makayla Meachem is with Next Generation, a Columbus group working with the NICD. And she says time is running out to reach one of the most disengaged groups of voters – millennials like her. “We’re kind of deterred by the super-like, hyper partisanism,” she said. “So I think to get them back you have to focus more on the issues and what they’re interested in rather than throwing shade on each other.”

The National Institute on Civil Discourse zeroed in on Ohio because more money was spent here by presidential campaigns in 2012 than in any other state. And the dollar figures are likely to be massive again next year, when Ohio will not only be a key battleground state, but will also host the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and the first presidential nominees debate at Wright State University in September.