With a stormy 2014 election season in the political forecast, the Akron-based Ohio Civility Project is gearing up to give the public a chance to weigh in on the invective.
This time, rather than use only a panel of experts as in the 2012 experiment, voters will be able to go to a website, read a selected political ad or statement and share an opinion on whether it is civil or not.
In the coming year, Ohio elects a governor, 17 state senators and all of its U.S. and Ohio representatives.
The gubernatorial race between incumbent John Kasich and Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald will be the focus of the 2014 civility index.
The University of Akron, Cleveland State University and the University of Mount Union began the project in 2011. It was later joined by the Akron Beacon Journal, several faith and civic groups in 2012 in an exploration of how citizens can constructively discuss divisive issues.
John Green, executive director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said the 2012 races were revealing, especially regarding bias.
He said the public is aware that “civility isn’t just politeness. Civility isn’t avoiding tough questions. Civility is engaging constructive conversation with people you disagree with and doing it in a way that is likely to produce some kind of outcome.”
But there is a dark, frustrating side.
“The bad news is that civility, it appears, is easily pushed aside by other values, like partisanship, competition,” he said. “I think a lot of our political advertising — and a lot of smart people are paid a lot of money to do this — works very hard at engaging people’s emotions.”
That showed up when the political scientists studied the way its panel evaluated potential uncivil comments in 2012.
For example, there was a right-leaning participant who was more likely to view a Democrat’s statements as uncivil and a left-leaning participant who was more likely to judge a Republican’s statements as uncivil. Many panel members had more moderate views.
“I’m not criticizing these people,” Green said. “Their evaluations might be entirely valid. It’s just that there is a clear bias in their responses.”
The panel was formed to be politically diverse.
“Looking back at the people we had reason to believe had some kind of partisan issue, I indicated there were some partisan responses, but they were not very doctrinaire,” Green said. “There were Republicans that scored Romney very, very negatively. There were Democrats who scored the president very negatively.”
Green said one participant wrote: “Doesn’t our ‘fill-in-the-blank’ candidate understand the most important thing is to win the election?”
He said researchers want to discover “operational” ways to promote civility in an era when many political campaigns have concluded, without admitting it, that riling supporters with uncivil advertising can get a candidate elected.
“It’s clear that nobody has figured out that next step,” he said.
New pledges rejected
As a part of the Beacon Journal’s exploration of the topic, the newspaper asked area members of Congress to take a pledge to civility. Only two participated, one who wasn’t running again and another who was running unopposed.
Many politicians refuse to adopt pledges, in part as a reaction to a no-tax-increase pledge secured from most Republicans by a national anti-tax organization. That pledge has been used to divide candidates at election time and has played a role in disputes on how to deal with the federal deficit.
When U.S. Senate candidates Sherrod Brown, the incumbent, and Josh Mandel, the state treasurer, were asked by the Beacon Journal for interviews to discuss the role of civility in campaigns, they delayed and then said no through their political handlers.
Green said researchers suspect civility might be enhanced by face-to-face contact on the theory that a person is less likely to insult someone in the same room.
“It’s certainly possible to be uncivil to people face-to-face but it’s harder, because there are repercussions,” Green said. “If you attack somebody today and then you have to work with them tomorrow or see them in the supermarket, there are consequences to that.”
He said there is consideration for doing more research on a local level where face-to-face encounters are more likely.
The original civility index was featured twice weekly in the Beacon Journal and on the newspaper’s Ohio.com. Green said the new index might be on a separate website with an application that would allow the public to gauge the civility of comments and be counted.
The website also would take basic information about the participants so it can study how diverse the participants are.
The Web can be rowdy, but Green said he will weed out incivility on the project’s site.
“We need to weed out the trolls,” he said.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.