Four Questions: Keith Allred On Tackling The Problem Of Incivility

Feb. 27, 2019

Keith Allred, the new director of the UA’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, discusses how the institute plans to stem the rising tide of incivility.

photo of Keith Allred

Keith Allred. Photo by Anna Augustowska.


Heated rhetoric and a lack of bipartisan collaboration are leaving many citizens frustrated and worried about the country’s future.

The University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, or NICD – founded in 2011 after the Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – is taking concrete steps to dismantle the toxic politics paralyzing effective governing and straining interpersonal relationships.

Leading this charge is Keith Allred, the new executive director of NICD. Allred is an expert in conflict resolution and mediation and has a successful track record of bringing people from different political groups together to solve problems. Allred hopes to build on the success of former executive director Carolyn Lukensmeyer, who guided the institute to become a national leader on the importance of strengthening civility.

Allred has ingrained roots in both red and blue states, a background that set him on his professional course and gives him insight into various perspectives.

Allred is a fifth-generation Idahoan who grew up working on his grandparents’ cattle ranch. He was educated at Brown, Stanford, and UCLA, obtaining his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior. He was a professor at Columbia and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Allred returned to Idaho 15 years ago to raise his family. (Fun fact: Allred and his wife, Christine, along with their three children, compete on cutting horses. In 2017, Keith qualified for the World Finals, finishing eighth.) They recently moved to Vienna, Virginia, so Allred could be near NICD’s Washington D.C. office fulltime.

“I have loved the heartland experience and my experiences at some the nation’s best universities and cities on the coast,” Allred said. “During this current historical moment, some people feel that because people have a different view than they do on policy or a different vision of the country, they must be bad people. I feel in my gut that that is not true. There are good people everywhere.”

In our current political climate, we see incivility, as well polarization of opinions. However, you could be sharply divided on a topic but not necessarily uncivil. How do you think the two issues are related? 
 Incivility and divisiveness are related, but I think the relationship is complex. To understand polarization among the public, political scientist have had to draw a distraction between issues polarization and social polarization. Issues polarization is how far apart are we on the concrete issues, but social polarization is how angry are you at the other side.

What is curious is that among elected officials, polarization of both forms has increased over the last 40 years. Among the American people, there is far less issues polarization than people think. Research shows that people think that Democrats and Republicans are twice as apart on the issues as they really are. Because of this, they are getting increasingly angry at each other.

Our view at NICD is that substantive difference in ideas is not really the problem. That really can be a strength; diversity of ideas and perspectives gives us a kind of rigor. James Madison made this the core of his thinking as he designed the Constitution. He argued that solutions that could attract broad support in a diverse republic would be wiser than solutions that could only attract narrow support.

It is really the incivility that is the challenge for the republic more than the differences on policy. We understand that if you can engage those differences with respect and civility, then you can get to real solutions that work.

The NICD website indicates that people are tired of incivility. Ninety-one percent of registered voters said the lack of civility in politics is a "serious problem," according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll. But at the same time, we see citizens voting for people who run negative campaigns. We see plenty of incivility on social media. Relatedly, we see politicians punished at the polls for attempts at moderation or compromise – they can’t get past the primaries. What accounts for this incongruence?
There is decent evidence that negative campaigning works pretty well. Emotion is a more powerful human motivator than cognition. And negative emotion is a more positive motivator than positive emotion. So if you really want to get people off their duff, volunteering and giving dollars and showing up at polls, then playing to the darker sides of our nature can work. The problem is you can win elections that way, but you can’t govern that way.

It is useful to recognize that the folks we see on the news and social media are a minority, but they talk louder and longer so they make an outsized impression. But still the majority of the country is not engaging in that type of behavior, doesn’t think it will work for the country, and is hungry for something different.

In a variety of ways, including in how the primaries are structured, we have ceded a lot of power to the extreme. Increasingly states are moving from open to closed primaries where independents, who are 40 percent of the country, don’t get to vote. And voter turnout is low in primaries. It is the true believers on the left and right that turn out, and it’s the moderates who don’t. The moderates aren’t showing up until the general election but by then they don’t like their choices. We are going to get extreme politics if we cede the stage to those with extreme views.

I really believe that the American people are going to be our saving grace. But they are going to need to stand up in ways they are not right now.

NICD has been tackling this problem from many angles, including Revive Civility campaigns with the public and the Next Generation program with legislators. Yet many people would say the problem of incivility has not gotten better. What more can you do to move the needle?
I think we have to move toward increased scale. We’ve touched about 25,000 people so far, so that’s pretty decent scale. But it’s a country of over 300 million people.

In our Revive Civility program, we are doing some fascinating work with a larger scale. For example, before Christmas we shot two pilot episodes of a program called “Divided We Fall,” what we call civility television, which is like reality television. We bring together people from various divides, and we provide a process for them to engage with each other constructively. We are talking with some streaming platforms so that we can get hundreds of thousands of views.

Commonsense American is a new program that is part of the scaling effort. I did a pilot of the program in Idaho – called Common Interest – for five years with really good success and passing of major legislation. With NICD, we are launching at the federal level now. We are inviting people across the country to join Commonsense American by going to the website, and we take four steps together. First, members pick a handful of issues each year to work on. Second, we develop policy briefs on each one of these issue. These are not position papers. We try to make the strongest case for competing perspectives consistent with the available data. Third, every member commits 90 minutes a year to review the brief they get randomly assigned to and weigh in on each concrete proposal in the brief. Fourth, anything that gets two-thirds consensus or greater becomes the position that is advanced, and the members share their views with Congress.

It is stunning how hungry the American people are for change. There are lots of people distressed by what is happening, and they are willing to do something about it, but they don’t see an effective way to do it. And they are not necessarily going to spend tons of time. They have busy lives. That is why Commonsense American is designed the way that it is.

What can people do in their daily interactions to decrease incivility?
The simplest most obvious thing is listen first. Cross that divide and actually have conversations with people who have different views. And start with listening for understanding, not just assuming that there are dark motives for why they think the way they do. You might not come to agree with them, but usually you are going to find there is a whole person there. That helps.

People can go to our Revive Civility website which provides guidelines for how you can have one-on-one or small group conversation on divisive topics productively.

Hear More from Keith Allred    

Keith Allred was the first guest on the new talk show “Smart Talk with Robin and Al” on Tucson’s 1030 KVOI AM. The show is a co-production of the UA’s College of Education and College of SBS. You can listen to the Feb. 2 podcast here.

Learn More about the National Institute for Civil Discourse

The National Institute for Civil Discourse, which is housed in the School of Government and Public Policy in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institute dedicated to addressing incivility and political dysfunction in American democracy.

The institute’s four main pillars of work:

Revive Civility – The institute has trained more than 12,000 people in civil discourse and has hosted more than 500 "civility conversations" nationwide.

Next Generation – The program has trained more than 850 state legislators in 16 states on how to work across the aisle.

Research – NICD integrates research findings into its programming.

Commonsense American – CommonSense American brings together Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to find and champion solutions with broad support.