In a nasty campaign, can politicians play nice?

Can politicians play nice? Some are trying
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Can politicians play nice? Some are trying 11:59

Story highlights

  • Carol Costello says National Institute for Civil Discourse is trying to civilize level of conversation in American politics
  • Costello: It's a tall order. How can anyone force lawmakers to suddenly remember what mother taught them?

Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)I laughed when I first heard about the National Institute for Civil Discourse -- a nonpartisan research center born at the University of Arizona to literally civilize the level of conversation in American politics, media and culture.

"So, you teach everyone how to be nice?" I asked Ted Celeste, a veteran Ohio lawmaker who is the founder and director of Next Generation, a program of this "Institute of Nice."
"Well, nice is a part of it," he told me with a smile. "It's about being able to disagree, but not be disagreeable, to not call each other names."
Oh, please.
Carol Costello
Name-calling is like verbal OxyContin. Go ahead, shout "Lucifer in the flesh" at a "miserable son of a bitch!" It's so much more cathartic than, "He's a strong-willed guy." See, civility is so... low energy.
Yet, it's that kind of dialogue the National Institute for Civil Discourse is trying to discourage.
"The goal of the Institute is to find ways to set standards for the kinds of conversation people will have," Celeste said. By people, Celeste specifically means politicians, especially in the halls of Congress.
It's a tall order. How can anyone force lawmakers, used to acrimonious partisanship, to suddenly remember what mother taught them?
You focus, Celeste said, on the "kids": state legislators.
"Over 51 percent of people who go onto Congress come from state houses," Celeste said. If you counsel them on civility, they'll be well-equipped to reach across the aisle once they reach Capitol Hill.
And before you say something uncivil about all this, consider the fact that more than 450 state lawmakers have already participated in this Institute of Nice, because -- OMG! -- they actually do care about solving America's problems.
The institute holds workshops where lawmakers are assured a safe space (no discussions leave the room) to talk about why they entered into public service and how they arrived at their positions on issues.
Celeste's team has conducted 17 workshops in 12 states, including Maine, arguably the most uncivil state in the nation. I say that because Republican Gov. Paul LePage is the gold standard in the world of political vitriol. He has vetoed a record 450 bills since 2011. He is so proud of that fact, that he named his dog Veto.
LePage has accused a Democratic lawmaker of having "no brains," and a "black heart." He called a group of independent lawmakers, "idiots," and he told the state chapter of the NAACP that they could "kiss my butt."
Republicans in the state are not immune to his fiery rhetoric. A website, GetRightMaine.com, was created by two lifelong Republicans who say Maine has always been guided by a "measured and mature guiding hand" -- until now.
"The most difficult thing for us," Maine Treasurer Terry Hayes told me, "is how do we remain civil in the face of incivility?"
Lawmakers haven't yet nailed that one down. But they are making progress. In the past two years, Maine lawmakers and office holders -- both Republicans and Democrats -- have participated in three civility workshops organized by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Lawmakers gather in small groups and just ... talk. Like neighbors. And it's powerful.
Hayes, a former Democrat who is now an independent, told me that simply hearing personal stories shattered her assumptions about a Republican colleague. Today, instead of avoiding eye contact when she sees him, she doesn't hesitate to "walk over and hug him."
"The Institute isn't interested in doing away with partisan politics," said Republican lawmaker, Matt Pouliot, from Maine's 86th District. "It's OK to be partisan. Civility does not mean agreement. Being civil does not mean being passive, he said. "[But] it's also important to see the world through someone else's lens."
Maine lawmakers have even organized yearly bus trips so that legislators can visit one another's districts. Some lawmakers in Maine's Senate, including its Republican president, now wear a civililty pin. And, just a few weeks ago, the legislature passed a "civility resolution."
It's all beautiful music to Ted Celeste and his National Institute for Civil Discourse. But is it the start of something big? Will civility sweep the country in the midst of one of the meanest presidential elections in history?
I respectfully disagree if you say that it's impossible.