Infrastructure bill won’t end Washington’s problems. Neither would ending the filibuster

In this piece written for Roll Call, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen make the case that the only real way to fix America’s political system is to focus on electing leaders committed to bipartisan solutions. 

Proponents of common ground — like ourselves — received some welcome news earlier this month with the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It’s the largest investment in infrastructure since the 1950s, and it passed with 19 Republican votes. It’s a rare sight to see major legislation pass on a bipartisan basis, but, unfortunately, it does not necessarily signal a change in Washington.

Democrats seem intent on going it alone, using the budget reconciliation process to push a separate multitrillion spending package, partially due to the threat of the filibuster. For such a hotly debated rule, it’s notable that the filibuster was essentially created by accident. As vice president, Aaron Burr argued in 1805 that a Senate procedure allowing a simple majority of legislators to end debate and move to a vote was redundant and should be removed. He got his wish when he left office, and the filibuster was born.

Whether or not a political party is in favor of the filibuster seems to hinge on its position of power in the Senate.

Before he called it a “relic of Jim Crow”— and it must be acknowledged that the modern filibuster was a favored tool of opponents of civil rights legislation — a young Sen. Barack Obama argued passionately in favor of the procedural maneuver when his party was in the minority. President Donald Trump wanted Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to eliminate the rule in 2018 to easily pass his agenda — much in the same way Democrats are now pressing President Joe Biden. Opponents of the filibuster say it’s an affront to how the Founders intended government to work and silences the will of the people. Proponents say it’s the one tool legislators have left to force bipartisan solutions and that its elimination would give the majority complete control to force through its agenda.

As heads of Common Ground Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing political polarization, we welcome any tool that would encourage Democrats and Republicans to come together and find solutions. But the filibuster is neither the solution nor the problem. What needs to be changed is the mindset of our leaders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House wouldn’t vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed the  reconciliation measure. (In an agreement reached with Democratic moderates, both bills are now expected to receive votes in the House by the end of September.) In the Senate, McConnell has threatened “zero input” from Republicans if the filibuster is eliminated. We cannot afford this prioritization of conflict over solutions any longer.

We’re at a critical juncture as a nation.

If the filibuster is indeed removed or reformed, there will be little incentive for Democrats and Republicans to work together. If it remains, it will continue to be used as a tool to block legislation and stifle debate. Reforms such as a proposed plan to exempt voting rights laws from the filibuster would only slap a Band-Aid on the problem. The only path forward is to change the culture in Washington.

While there is evidence Americans want to see their leaders compromise, that sentiment isn’t reflected in who we elect to office. Prior to the 2020 elections, our organization released the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool to help Americans see how likely members of Congress and candidates were to find common ground. The average score for members of Congress and governors was only 25 out of a possible 110. There are exceptions, such as members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, but when the vast majority of our government leaders are incentivized to pursue partisan agendas, it’s clear we as citizens have not done enough to encourage them to work together. Our votes give us the power to make them listen.

It’s time to end this back-and-forth on the filibuster and put governing back in the hands of the legislative branch.

Rather than pressure our elected leaders on a Senate mechanism, we should focus our energies on backing candidates committed to bipartisan solutions — members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, for example. Tools like the Common Ground Scorecard and the Bipartisan Index from the Lugar Center can help voters identify those candidates.

The best policies are those that include the input of multiple points of view, that won’t be reversed when there is a change in power, and that are representative of the majority of Americans. That requires bipartisan work and support. Until elected officials feel political pressure to work together, we will fail to make that kind of badly needed progress on the most pressing issues facing our nation, regardless of whether or not the filibuster exists.

The filibuster may have been created by accident, but it’s now become a favored tool of whichever party is in the minority. Its elimination will not end the dysfunction in Washington. That will only happen when we as citizens decide we’ve had enough of fighting and gridlock, and support politicians who put country over party.

– This article was originally published in Roll Call on August 25, 2021.

American Bipartisanship

Introducing: Spotlight on Common Ground

Polarization makes headlines. But what about the hard, yet hopeful work of finding shared solutions? We’re excited to introduce Spotlight on Common Ground, a new initiative that highlights instances of bipartisan cooperation across the nation, and the individuals who made them possible.

August Honorees: Infrastructure Bill Legislators

The first honorees of Spotlight on Common Ground are the 10 U.S. senators who helped craft the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed in the Senate 69-30. After months of negotiations this bipartisan group of senators — composed of five Democrats and Republicans — helped shepherd through a bill that could easily have been derailed given ideological differences and the forces driving the nation’s divided politics.

These legislators were among those included in our Common Ground Scorecard, which ranks candidates for office and elected officials on their likelihood to work with the opposite party. The 10 senators have an average score of 49/110, higher than the average score of 31/110 for all current U.S. senators.

Their individual scores are as follows:

  • Susan Collins (R-ME): 60/110
  • Rob Portman (R-OH): 50/110
  • Mitt Romney (R-UT): 25/110
  • Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): 50/110
  • Bill Cassidy (R-LA): 59/110
  • Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ): 57/110
  • Joe Manchin (D-WV): 75/110 (15th highest in the country)
  • Mark Warner (D-VA): 47/110
  • Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): 34/110
  • Jon Tester (D-MT): 42/110

“Too often, politicians are more focused on scoring political points than finding real solutions for the American people,” said Bruce Bond, co-founder and CEO of CGC. “These 10 senators reminded Americans what good can look like in the legislative process. We’re hopeful the Senate’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can be a foundation for future cooperation between the two parties.”

Follow #SpotlightOnCommonGround on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn to stay up to date on future highlights.

Jenna Spinelle

Spotlight on The Democracy Group

The Democracy Group is a consortium of podcasts founded in March 2020 by Jenna Spinelle, Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, who also co-hosts the Institute’s podcast, Democracy Works.

What was the motivation behind forming The Democracy Group?

The McCourtney Institute started the Democracy Works podcast in 2018. We created The Democracy Group in March of 2020 as a structure for cross-promotion. In the podcast world, cross-promotion is a big thing. The best way to find out about a podcast is by hearing an ad for it, or hearing someone else recommend it on another podcast. I’d been doing a lot of one-offs partnering Democracy Works with other shows and wanted to find a way to put some structure and process around promotion. You know, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats sort of thing. The second reason we launched it is that there’s this whole landscape of organizations tied to democracy reform, news organizations like The Fulcrum, and groups like the Bridge Alliance. And I noticed there was no audio component to any of them.

Is there a unifying principle that defines what shows you take on as a good fit for The Democracy Group’s network?

It definitely has to be focused on the themes of democracy and civic engagement and civil discourse. And educational in nature, so not like political punditry. There are lots of podcasts out there that do that, and certainly nothing against them. But we’re really trying to be educational for people who want to take a deeper dive beyond the headlines or sound bites you hear on cable news, to really get at the heart of—frankly, what’s not working so well in our democracy. And more importantly, how we can fix it, how we can all work together to make things better. Different podcasts take different perspectives. But if you take the network as a whole, I think we try to represent the variety of the political spectrum.

Can you give us an example of the range of podcasts?

There are several shows that are produced by universities in the network, so they’re very academically focused. I would put Democracy Works in that category. We have different political perspectives, like In the Arena from the McCain Institute, and Our Body Politic, which looks at the experience that black women have in our democracy, and 70 million, which looks at criminal justice reform. Shows like Let’s Find Common Ground tends to bring in a variety of different political perspectives. Our shows recognize the range of all these various systems and things that go together to make our democracy and look at it through different lenses.

 How many podcasts have you done for Democracy Works, and what’s your podcast’s lens?

We’ve done 175 episodes, give or take, usually weekly. The McCourtney Institute’s motto is that we’re partisans for democracy. That means we don’t take a side in terms of Republican or Democrat—in fact, I don’t know that it’s always helpful to think of things in those terms. We look at it like, How can we use politics as a way to strengthen our democracy? I think sometimes there’s this perception that in order to really make progress, you have to be completely nonpartisan. And I think we would say that that’s not exactly the case. You just have to figure out how partisan interests see themselves as legitimate opposition, and that democracy is the continual struggle between those competing interests. Sometimes one party wins, sometimes the other wins. But as long as you recognize each other as legitimate, that’s really democracy working at its best.

How do you determine if a show is right for The Democracy Group?

In terms of looking at new members, I think it’s about a landscape of perspectives. What are they bringing to the table that we don’t already have? We’ve also done some listener surveys and focus groups with our subscribers, and one of the things that we’ve heard is that they like shows that feature people who are experts, whether they’re academics or practitioners or policymakers or politicians. And I think it should be a two-way street. What can your organization bring to our consortium? And what can we bring to them?

Do you have any new projects in the works, COVID permitting?

We’ve been working to create resource guides on topics like gerrymandering and misinformation. Those are all available on our website. And we are working with external partners to help bring their expertise to our audience and integrate content for people in other formats. We’re also starting to do some virtual events. We’re doing one on August 24th at 4 p.m. about the promise and peril of free speech in podcasting. We’re always looking for new topics, and the landscape is endless.

Common Ground Committee’s bi-weekly podcast, Let’s Find Common Ground is part of the Democracy Group.  You can learn more and listen HERE.

American flag democracy

How to Take an Active Part in America’s Democracy

When we think of being a good citizen, the obvious things that come to mind are aspects of community benevolence: Take your turn at four-way intersections. Pay your taxes. Clear your portion of the sidewalk. Participate in town fundraisers. Buy local.

But being a good citizen goes higher than local. It means voting, from local to national. Knowing who your representatives are. Voicing your opinion on both issues. Introducing or supporting ballot measures in your town or city.   In short, being an active citizen in our democracy.

At Common Ground Committee, we realize that understanding how to be an active citizen can be difficult.  Elected officials come and go.  It can be hard to keep track.  Sure, you may also like to pick up the phone on an issue to let someone know what you think. But maybe you don’t know what to say or do.

Read on for our guide that will help you.

Find your local representatives

Not sure of your congressional district or who your member is? This government site matches your ZIP code to your congressional district, with links to your member’s website and contact page.  You can find your senator at this site too (live link to U.S. Senate: Senators)

Contact your Representative or Senator

When you really care about an issue under consideration, how and where do you express yourself? In a letter (or email) to your Senator. Many, many people sign petitions, which while useful, are not the most impactful. An individual message is a uniquely effective bullhorn. Remember to consider the urgency of timing. If you are writing concerning a pending vote, email is your best option as security screenings may delay receipt of a physical letter by up to three weeks. Bear in mind that unique and moving messages can be shared more widely with the members of Congress.

Here’s a sample model for a letter to a Senator.

Perhaps you would prefer to call?  You can either call the Capitol’s main number at (202) 224-3121 and be connected or for House Representatives, you can look up the number at Find Your Representative | house.gov.  For Senators, you can use this link U.S. Senate: Contacting U.S. Senators

When you do make a phone call, it is useful to remember the following:

  • Be prepared to offer your name and zip code
  • Be courteous. Staff members are always willing to hear your point of view but polite communication will be welcomed (even if you disagree with your rep’s stance on an issue).  go a long way.
  • If you are calling about a specific piece of legislation have the details handy such as the name.

You may also wish to sign up for Issue Voter where you can easily see what legislation is underway and quickly support or express that you disagree.

Step Up to the Podium

If a stint in politics appeals to you, but you haven’t zeroed in on the position that you’d like to run for, start with your city, county, or state’s election website. It will have information about specific roles, rules for campaigning, and requirements for holding office. While you’re there, check residency, age, and other requirements for any role you’re considering. What are the incumbent’s circumstances? Do you believe you could offer the community more? This article in Kiplinger outlines Kathy Tran’s successful path for the Virginia state legislature when her previous political experience was PTO president. Also, a number of panelists in our public forums have encouraged the audience to run for office but to start locally, for example with a position on the town council. It’s hard to break into politics at higher levels and even if you win an election for such an office, you won’t have relationships in place that you will need to be successful in the position.

Register to Vote

Whatever your political preference, your right to vote gives you the chance to be heard and impact the direction of our country. According to data from the U.S. Elections Project in 2016, 43 percent of voters did not fill out their ballots. Why? Many Americans don’t know enough about the voting process, how to register, or are unaware of registration deadlines. Rock the Vote provides an easy link to get started on your registration in moments. Vote411 from the League of Women Voters Education Fund can also help you check your registration status, get registered, and find information about the issues.

Help at the Election Day Polls

Election workers are essential to ensuring that elections are a success. With each election, millions of Americans dedicate themselves to sustaining the backbone of democracy – our election process. EAC encourages those interested in becoming election workers at the polls on election day to learn more about what is required and how to sign up to work with your local election official.

With freedom comes responsibility.  Each of us has unique views and cares about a variety of issues.  When we all participate as active citizens, America’s democracy is stronger.

Learn more about Common Ground Committee and stay up to date on important issues.

Healing Extremism Webinar

Healing Extremism

How does a white supremacist go from hate to healing, from extreme division to unity?

This was the subject of Common Ground Committee’s most recent webinar, “Turning Racism & Extremism to Hope and Healing,” on June 14, featuring Daryl Davis, a musician and race reconciliator, and Ryan Lo’Ree, an interventionist and former supremacist.

The webinar was a kickoff to the National Week of Conversation, a series of discussions aimed to shed light on what individuals can do to help heal divisions in our society. Below are some excerpted highlights of the event, moderated by Wendi C. Thomas, founding editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, an award-winning, nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power, and public policy.

 

WT: We’re joined by two extraordinary human beings tonight who have devoted much of their lives to confronting racism and extremism head-on to help bring harmony and healing to our society. Daryl is an accomplished boogie-woogie and blues piano player who has shared the stage with legends such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and B.B. King. He’s also spent over 35 years using the power of human connection to convince over 200 people to leave white supremacist groups and renounce racism. Daryl’s work has even taken him to KKK rallies—this is a brave man—complete with chanting and burning crosses. And because of his efforts, over two dozen Klansmen have actually given him their robes, and some have even become close friends. Daryl was even invited by the KKK’s Imperial Wizard of Maryland to be the godfather of his daughter. Now let me introduce Ryan Lo’Ree. Ryan is a former white supremacist who turned away from hate. He grew up in the very poor community of Flint, Michigan, where many children end up in gangs or prisons. And both of those actually happened to Ryan. He came home after serving in the military, found himself broke and was drawn into a group called the Rollingwood Skins. After counseling and self-education, he is now with Light Upon Light as an interventionist. He’s working to deradicalize others who have been lured into extremism and white supremacy.

WT: Daryl, let’s start with you. You’ve convinced hundreds of white supremacists to renounce racism over the course of decades. Are you surprised that these groups are on the rise? And how do you think we got to this point?

 

DD: Okay, well no, I’m not surprised. Yes, they’re on the rise, but they’re not on the rise as most people would perceive it. Because they’ve always been here. In recent years they’ve come out from under the carpet, out from the closet. You know, they– they’ve felt emboldened. What you’re looking at is two decades from now, in 2042, two decades, this country’s population will, for the first time in our history, become 50/50 — 50% white, 50% non-white. And while there is a large segment of the white population of this country that welcomes that, there is a certain segment that is becoming unhinged about it. They feel that their identity is being erased. They call it the browning of America, or white genocide through miscegenation. When I first started this kind of work about 37 years ago, there were the Ku Klux Klans and neo-Nazi groups and some white power skinheads. Now you got those same three, plus the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, on and on and on, the alt-right. You have all these groups saying, “Come join us. We’re gonna take our country back.”

WT: Ryan, I want to turn to you. To help us understand what’s going on in this country, can you explain how you became a part of a hate group?

 

RL: Yeah, I was in a very tough economic position in my life at the time. I was just getting out of the military. It was hard to find a job living in the city of Flint. My family– going generations back have always been General Motors workers and many of my friends. And so, when General Motors struggles, so do they. So, I was in a very tough economic situation. I had an uncle who just got out of prison. He was actually part of a hate group while he was inside. He came to me, knowing that I was hurting at the time, like many hate groups do– to vulnerable people, and said he had some people he wanted to introduce me to. And because I had just got out of the military, I believe that I was still looking for that, like, that brotherhood. And you know, they lured me right in. Did I believe all the philosophy right away? No. But I think a lot of what they were playing on was my anger, my anger with the U.S. government– my anger with the fact that you know, I was a veteran and couldn’t get a job.

WT: How did you get out? How did you manage to extricate yourself?

 

RL: So, with me, is that I was incarcerated. And through that incarceration, I was able to separate myself from the group. I had other people that had come to me, friends of mine from before I’d ever joined these groups, that said, “Hey, I still love you, I still care about you. “I know that you made these mistakes. I know that this isn’t you.” And that was very, very important for my transition and for my transformation. It’s very important for us, too, when we do our interventions to be the same way. Daryl has said this many times, you can be empathetic without being sympathetic with the person. And having that empathy just allows them to actually sit down at the table with you so you can start a conversation, to even begin to understand whether or not you can deradicalize this person or not. Because not every case is a success story.

In mine, though, it was. I had the support of my family. I had a support system of friends that were still there for me. And I had an inmate at the time that actually was very understanding of my past. We grew up in the same city. And he turned me on to some different civil rights leaders that he had read books about, one of them being Dr. Cornell West. So, there was education. But there’s a lot of psychology that comes into it, and it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s definitely a long process. And it’s a process that’s really underfunded in this country to help with intervention work.

DD: When I was a kid there was the saying, “a tiger does not change its stripes.” “A leopard does not change its spots.” So, when I first got involved in this, you know, I just thought, “A Klansman, is not going to change his robe and hood. That’s who he is. That’s who she is.”

But I learned something. What can be learned can become unlearned. And yes, a tiger and leopard do not change their stripes and spots. But that’s because they were born with those stripes and spots. A Klansman is not born with his robe and hood. It is a learned behavior. And what can be learned can become unlearned. But we must put in the time. A missed opportunity to dialogue is a missed opportunity for conflict resolution.

WT: Ryan, talk to me a little bit about the work that you and Daryl have done together.

 

RL: There are different tactics and ways that you can intervene, and different types of situations. Sometimes it’s helping somebody to get over someone who passed away, and who they found out had something like this go on in their life. Or a family member whose son joined a hate group and they want to know what can they do to help pull them out.

DD: We give them support. Because coming out of these types of groups, there is a stigma attached. And even after an extremist quits the group and pays their debt to society or whatever, it’s still hard to shake. So, when these people truly give it up, here’s the irony,

they get very little support from those who wanted them out in the first place — because they’re always leery and suspicious. “Oh, you know, I don’t know if I can trust him.”

Well, when they don’t find that support, then where do they go? They can’t go back to the group they just left, because they’ve betrayed that family. But they’ll find some other group that will accept them. And so, this is why it’s really important for people to provide that support so that they can stand on their feet, work their way through the criticism, and have people accept them back into society again.

WT: Let’s talk about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement. One thing that stood out about these demonstrations is there were a lot more white people participating than there ever had been. Daryl, is that a positive sign to you?

 

DD: Absolutely, absolutely it is. At the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, when the power structure looked at those protests and marches, they saw an ocean of Black people with a few white people mixed in. Now fast forward to 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd lynching. What did the power structure see? They saw an ocean of Black people, and an ocean of white people, marching together for the same cause. We had never seen that before. The ripple effect is happening. Places like NASCAR banning the Confederate battle flag. Food brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s changing their labels. Legislation being passed to remove Confederate statues, to change the names of buildings named after slave owners. We’ve never seen things happen that fast [snaps fingers].

WT: Ryan, in white supremacist and extremist groups, what were the reactions that you heard to the Black Lives Matter rallies last summer?

 

RL: With movements like BLM, you’re always gonna have another movement on the hate side that tries to counter that. Like Daryl had said earlier, hate groups have always been here. But there was an uptick in different types of hate groups that started to come out. With BLM I’ve only seen very peaceful marches, never anything violent. But there are certain factions that aren’t peaceful, and it only takes one sour apple. It gave a lot of these white power groups a way of trying to recruit. “Look, they’re destroying their communities, they destroy your communities. They don’t care.”

WT: Has it become harder to extract people from hate groups since George Floyd was killed?

RL: Yes, honestly, it has. I don’t want to say cancel culture is the reason why, but closing down the extremists’ sites and banning groups from Facebook but, when we cut off anybody’s voice in this country, there’s a reaction. When we start to take away their ways of speaking to each other, you’ve basically created the lone wolf terrorist, the domestic terrorist.

WT: Ryan, because of the work you do, did you– did you ever anticipate something like the January 6th insurrection happening?

RL: Oh, I saw it happening. Ten, 20 years ago, even when I was part of the group, this is something that was talked about. They had talked about the race war of 2020 for years—before we ever started looking at 2040 as a date.

 

DD: And as we are approaching that date, that 50/50 point, we’re gonna see more and more of these lone wolves. Take our country back, make America great again, all that kind of stuff. People join these groups. But then when the group fails to take it back or whatever, they say, “You know what? The Klan can’t do it or the neo-Nazis can’t do it. I’ll do it myself.” And that’s when someone like Dylann Roof walks into a Black church, and boom, boom, boom. Or Robert Bowers goes into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murders 11 Jews. And this is why it’s so important to address this issue now. You know, they’re looking for what’s called RaHoWa. RaHoWa, R-A-H-O-W-A, it stands for racial holy war, or for short, the race war.

Every time they raid one of these lone wolves’ home or property, what do they find? They find a cache of automatic weapons that they’re stockpiling for RaHoWa.

WT: I want to pivot and talk about solutions, takeaways for the audience. Both of you have emphasized the importance of listening and discussion. Give us some things we can do, how you convince others to turn away from hate. What is it going to take to end the notion of white supremacy?

RL: It’s empathy. I don’t necessarily have to be sympathetic with what somebody is doing to be able to sit down at the table with them. But if I can show them empathy and saying that look, “I understand that you’ve made some mistakes. I understand that you’ve learned what you’ve learned here. But I think that maybe you’ve been taught the wrong way.” You don’t start the conversation about race and hate and anger. You start the conversation on some things that maybe we have in common, or what may be one of my Black friends has in common with them. Then they see that person, and have to think, what is it I’m hating? It’s all about educating that person to get them away from that ignorance. But the intervention comes in many different ways. We have a hotline that’s set up that people can call into, and some people are okay with talking to you on the phone. Some people didn’t want any type of conversation at all, and it takes a year or two of just discussing stuff with them on the internet or through email before you’re able to actually get this type of conversation.

WT: Daryl, how do you change the mind of a racist? I know you have a really specific process.

 

DD: As a child, I traveled a lot because my parents were U.S. Foreign Service. So, I lived in different countries during the formative years of my life. And now as an adult musician, I tour all over the world. And all, that is to say, is that I’ve been exposed to a multitude of ethnicities, colors of skin, religions, persuasions, ideologies, beliefs, et cetera. And all of that has helped shape me. And what I’ve realized is this: that no matter how far I go from this country, whether it’s next-door to Canada or to Mexico, or halfway around the planet, and no matter how different the people maybe who I encounter, I always end up concluding that we all are human beings. And as such, we all want these basic five core values in our lives. We all want to be loved. We all want to be respected. We all want to be heard. We want to be treated fairly. And we want the same things for our family as anybody else wants for their family. If you employ those five values, when you find yourself in a society or a culture in which you are unfamiliar, people are willing to sit down and talk with you, and there is a chance to plant that seed.

RL: Be empathetic enough to listen to them and try to get an understanding of why they got to that point in their life in the first place. We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes. But we all can be redeemed.

Check out the Let’s Find Common Ground Podcast for more information on finding common solutions to today’s vital issues.

voting at the polls

On voting, conservatives and liberals should find common ground

In this piece written for The Hill, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen analyze recently proposed bills and their impact on voting security and accessibility to determine if political parties can find common ground on voting rights. 

Voting is at the core of American democracy. It’s a fundamental right of all eligible voters that should be free from political gamesmanship. Unfortunately, the politics of voting is creating the false narrative that we have to choose between security and accessibility — when the fact is both are not only desired by the clear majority of Americans, but some states are demonstrating that both can be achieved.

Democrats and Republicans are in yet another game of political football over voting. This week’s vote on the For the People Act was partially in response to Republican-led states’ attempts to overhaul their election rules following the 2020 election. In Texas, for instance, a proposed bill would cut down on early voting hours and empower GOP poll watchers, giving them greater independence and more access to voters. It would also require IDs for mail-in ballots. Republicans say the move is needed to restore confidence in the system. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, called the bill “Jim Crow 2.0.”

Both sides have the wrong idea.

Nearly seven months after the election, there has yet to be any verifiable evidence that fraud was committed. On the other side of the coin, this is not the first time we’ve heard accusations of voter suppression against election reforms when data to support those charges is hard to come by. Those claims were made repeatedly in Georgia — where another controversial law was recently passed — in 2018 and 2020. Instead of constricting accessibility, voting turnout broke records in both years.

If there is one thing this new law, and others like it, are guilty of, it’s turning the need and popular desire for both voting access and security into a political show.

As the heads of a nonprofit, Common Ground Committee, dedicated to reducing toxic polarization in this country, it’s become clear to us that voting laws have become deeply politicized — to the detriment of our system and ultimately our country.

The most talked-about aspects of these laws seem designed to score political points. Is, for example, giving more authority to poll watchers with partisan leanings really going to increase security? Or, will preventing people from handing out water bottles really cause people to leave the polls before voting? There should only be one objective when it comes to voting: provide access to all eligible voters in a safe and secure manner. The current battle over voter fraud versus voter suppression misses that point entirely.

There is room for common ground.

A recent poll from YouGov/The Economist found that most Americans opposed many of the more controversial parts of the Georgia law, which in many ways mimics the proposed bill in Texas. Yet that same survey revealed one aspect they could get behind: voter IDs. Approximately 53 percent of respondents supported that measure. And just this week, a second poll from Monmouth University found that 80 percent of Americans supported voter IDs. While some activists argue such requirements are racist, other polling shows broad support for IDs among Black and other non-white voters.

It is evident: Americans believe voters should be able to prove they are who they say they are. They also want anyone who is eligible to vote to have that opportunity. So why are Democrats attempting to hamper states’ ability to check voter IDs, and why are Republicans fighting for laws that are confusing and would have little impact? If the left and right would stop fighting for a moment, they would see there are states that have expanded access while ensuring security at the same time.

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, there was a lot of talk about the five states that already allowed all voters to vote by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. These states have the technology and infrastructure to keep ballots secure and the proof is in the satisfaction of the electorate. Voters on both sides of the aisle in all five states are overwhelmingly supportive of vote-by-mail. Utah, which has a predominantly conservative electorate, has the second-highest rate of support among that group.

Instead of passing confusing and ineffective laws for political posturing, states must invest in the type of security infrastructure that keeps mail-in ballots secure. In Washington, a deep-blue state with a Republican Secretary of State, signatures on ballots are matched to an online database to confirm identity, and “air-gap” computers are used to prevent hacking. To be sure, these systems did not develop overnight — it took Washington many years to perfect this method. All the more reason states should stop wasting time and get to work now.

It’s time we stop drumming up fear and distrust with the specter of fraud and suppression.

 

– This article was originally published in The Hill on June 24, 2021.

america talks 2021

A Week to Talk….and More Importantly, Listen

The past few years have not been banner ones for civil discourse in the U.S. as politics —and, it seems, just about any subject under the sun — have become increasingly partisan. It’s becoming more and more difficult for people with opposing viewpoints to have civil discourse.  

And it’s not just about the so-called divisive issues that have typically filled the airwaves: gun control, abortion, immigration, environmental protection. It’s about how and whether we are able to vote. It’s about who we are, the ways we live, the values we hold true. It’s even about what daily functions should be considered basic necessities — early education; higher education; broadband; housing — or private luxuries. And the trolling way we use social media and technology often makes matters worse.  

National Week of Conversation 2021

 This is why the National Week of Conversation (NWOC) was launched four years ago: to create an annual weeklong series of open discussions hosted by hundreds of groups on the things that typically divide us — from politics and religion to geography and race.  

“The annual National Week of Conversation was created by members of the #ListenFirst Coalition in 2018 to encourage Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs to have conversations across differences,” says Pearce Godwin, founder, and CEO of the Listen First Project. “Engaging with those unlike ourselves is the only way a country as diverse as America moves forward together. 

This year, three new features of NWOC offer an even more direct and wider path to the conversation.  

  • Citizen Connect is an online resource, a common calendar that collects all the events of more than 300 groups throughout the week in one easily searchable database.  
  • Media partners like Yahoo and Gannett have signed on to with support by hosting an embedded widget that poses pop-up questions designed to identify a person’s social-political-economic leanings. If the person continues to answer, they’ll be steered toward the option to register for the NWOC and steer them toward signing up to participate in the week.  
  • America Talks, a new weekend event to kick off NWOC, has a unique plan to get people to really hear one another: by strategically pairing up two strangers — the goal is to reach 10,000 people — to speak honestly with one another, live online, in response to a series of question prompts.  

“It’s just two people in an online room who’ve expressed interest in being paired with someone from a different background and point of view from theirs, and who answered those questions differently,” says Kirsten Hansen, Executive Director at Civic Health Project.  

It isn’t designed or intended as a debate, and there is rigorous verification and screening in place to weed out trolls looking to get snide or provocative. “America Talks is about joining a pipeline of conversations across the divide,” she says. “It’s based on a program that has existed all over Europe for years called My Country Talks, but ours works from a conversation guide that progresses from innocuous warm-up questions to increasingly deeper rounds.” 

#ListenFirst founder Godwin calls the event a chance for Americans to realize what they have in common instead of focusing on the walls that separate them. 

“America Talks is designed to transform division and contempt into connection and understanding. Each one-on-one conversation can be a repairing stitch in our badly frayed social fabric,” he says. “Our partnership with USA TODAY not only invites a wide swath of Americans to participate but also ensures that many more will be given hope by the coverage, perhaps inspired to take courageous steps to heal America themselves.”

Common Ground Committee’s upcoming event as part of NWOC “Turning Racism & Extremism Into Hope And Healing – Common Ground Committee

Want to know more? Check out Citizen Connect which has all of the America Talks and NWOC events. 

Biden

Why it’s bad for America if President Biden gives up on bipartisanship

In this piece written for USA Today, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen analyze whether President Biden’s call for unity has translated into action, and examine the current opportunity to change how business gets done in Congress.


President Biden has an opportunity to break the ‘winner takes all’ culture in Congress, but he must adjust his definition of what true unity means.

President Joe Biden’s first months in office have been disappointingly familiar. While his predecessor’s combative tone is a thing of the past, when looking at actions (not words), it seems the president’s commitment to collaboration has disappeared.

During negotiations on the American Rescue Plan, Biden essentially said that bipartisan support would be nice, but that he’d be willing to pass the bill without it. The bill was promptly rammed through Congress on a party-line vote.

He did not strike many notes of collaboration during his first address to Congress, at one point saying on immigration: “If you actually want to solve a problem, I’ve sent a bill to take a close look at it.” What happened to the promise to “listen to one another” again?

This is disappointing, but there is a reason for hope. One of the few moments of promise in his speech was the acknowledgment of a Republican counterproposal to his infrastructure plan. We also were encouraged that he recently held talks with congressional Republicans.

Biden says he “welcomes ideas.” Now he must fully commit to this line of thought. Bipartisanship can no longer be thought of as a “nice to have” commodity. It must be considered necessary for future legislative progress because healing our great divides is paramount to the health and strength of the nation.

We know how easy it is to pay lip service to common ground. As heads of an organization, Common Ground Committee, dedicated to healing the existential threat of toxic polarization, we see it all too often from both ends of the political spectrum.

While Republicans are now sounding the call for bipartisanship, it wasn’t long ago that their leadership passed President Donald Trump’s tax cuts without any Democratic support.

Biden has an opportunity to break this “winner takes all” culture in Congress, but he must first adjust his definition of what true unity means.

The Biden administration has made clear that it views unity through the lens of bringing the American people together. To be sure, that is a worthy goal, and polling does show that parts of the president’s agenda have support from both Democratic and Republican citizens.

But so does bipartisanship. A new survey from Public Agenda and USA TODAY found that the majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle want to compromise and that they blame our leaders for the polarization.

There’s a lot of talk about “good faith” negotiations. It’s up for debate whether Republicans’ initial $600 billion counterproposals to the American Rescue Plan was a serious offer. But even if it wasn’t, the president could have called their bluff and made a counteroffer. Would Republicans really have been willing to be seen as the ones scuttling bipartisanship?

Vote on hate crimes bill is encouraging

The recent 94-1 passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was an embodiment of what can happen when Democrats and Republicans put serious effort into cooperation. This type of progress should be commonplace, not a rare occurrence.

Biden should seize the momentum that Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, brought forth and use it to rebuild trust between the two parties heading into the next few months of negotiations on infrastructure.

The type of collaboration we saw on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is not just a bonus, feel-good story – it’s a necessity for our country to function. If no progress is made on infrastructure via collaboration, we fear a chilling effect that could prevent progress on some of the most important issues facing the country, from guns to climate change.

At such a critical point in the nation’s road back to normalcy, now is exactly the time that Biden should hammer home the importance of collaboration.

It’s encouraging that the administration has called the Republicans’ $568 billion infrastructure counterproposal a “good faith effort.” Former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, at a recent event we hosted with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, said he believed there are aspects of the infrastructure bill Republicans could get behind.

Yet, even as talks show signs of promise, Democrats are setting an arbitrary deadline before they go it alone.

Take Republican proposal seriously

We are not saying that the Republican plan is the way to go to solve infrastructure. But at the very least, the president and congressional Democrats ought to seriously consider it as a first step in crafting a bill suitable for both sides – without putting up roadblocks.

Biden wisely said in his inaugural address that “every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” We couldn’t agree more.

Republicans are not going to be on board with every idea the Democrats propose and vice versa – and that’s perfectly fine. But we shouldn’t let those disagreements be a barrier to any progress.

The president has an opportunity to fundamentally change the narrative of how business is done in Congress and give Americans an example to aspire to. He should not let that moment pass him by because, in these times of great division, the way business gets done is just as important as the business to be done.

– This article was originally published in USA Today on May 17, 2021.

Common Ground on Economy

Finding Common Ground on the New Economy

The economy this spring is unlike any other in recent history. Millions of capped and gowned students will step into a marketplace shaped by a new administration, a $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan, and a pandemic that appears to be on the wane. Developments in growth industries like technology, energy, and sustainability present both an opportunity and a question: What will work look like now, and what is the government’s economic role in a recovery landscape?

We brought together two great minds representing both sides of the aisle— former Ohio Governor John Kasich, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro — to discuss what bipartisanship might look like in a post-pandemic economy.

These are some of the thought-provoking highlights from the evening broadcast from the University of Notre Dame, moderated by CNBC host Kelly Evans, with cosponsors Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and BridgeND, the Notre Dame chapter of BridgeUSA. Responses from the one-hour program have been excerpted and condensed for clarity.

Kelly Evans: President Biden has been in office for 85 days, and signed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into law. Are there elements of it you both agree on?

John Kasich: I think they could have probably reached an agreement at $1.1 or $1.2, but there was no effort on either side to really bridge. Were there things in there that are necessary? Absolutely. It’s about trying to make people’s lives better. When people are on the edge because of the pandemic, you want to help. But I don’t think we needed to spend that much. To all these students watching [this panel], at some point, you’re going to have to pay for this spending and your children. So I want to be mindful of stripping things out we don’t need, though there are a lot of things we do need.

KE: Secretary Castro, many in your party would say it’s insane to worry about this debt when we’re in a pandemic and crisis. But what if we do look back and say we shouldn’t have spent all that money?

Julian Castro: When it comes to racking up debt, there’s spending but there’s also revenue. What President Biden is doing is acknowledging how on the revenue side there are many things we can do to garner more revenue. In addition to the economic boost that I believe is going to happen, we’re already seeing the effects through the investments made with the stimulus. In the future, we also need to revamp our federal tax structures so the burden not just on everyday Americans, but also wealthy Americans and also big corporations, too many of which are able to avoid paying taxes for a long time. I think that’s the beginning of addressing the revenue issue.

KE: Are there ways you think we didn’t go far enough in the package?

JC: I think there are additional ways to garner revenue, and there are tremendous needs we have. In my old neck of woods, in housing, I see lot of Americans on the brink of eviction. I see the cost of housing spiking across the country, and the need to build hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing. It’s been a long time since we’ve invested the way we should. Even with $2 trillion in infrastructure, it won’t get us all the way to catching up with the fact we’ve been neglecting infrastructure for decades.

KE: There’s some debate about what the term “infrastructure” actually encompasses. Why the divide over what it means?

JK: As governor, I was in charge of making sure we had good roads. I look at infrastructure as does it help to build the country? At the same time, there are other issues to be concerned about. You put a bunch of green jobs in this, labor jobs in this… the package to me should be things we agree are infrastructure. I agree broadband is. It could improve productivity, and to some degree begin to pay for itself. But with broadband, you have to look at what they’re talking about… they’re government programs. I think you have to use the technology of the private sector for creative solutions. These are things that have to be looked at separately. If you put them into one big package that gets jammed through Senate on a party-line vote, that’s not the way to do things in this country.

JC: I take an expansive view of infrastructure. I think we need to ensure everybody can live with dignity, and everybody counts. One phrase I like to steal [from my twin brother] is “infrastructure of opportunity.” You need a road to get from here to there to your dreams. You need an infrastructure of opportunity. Biden has invested in this economy so people can go out and work. But they also have children who need daycare or parents who need eldercare, and that’s the way I look at the infrastructure success in our country.

KE: Let’s talk about students entering the workforce. Governor, what role does the government have to play in a shifting workforce and economy? Or should it be the private sector driving innovation?

JK: I do think there should be government training programs. I’m actually involved in a program I’m excited about aimed at people unemployed or underemployed. We’ve been able to go to private sector companies, CEOs of big companies in central Ohio, and now we have an online education in technology skills—AI and machine learning. We’re going to train these people to give them a nano degree, and I asked the companies, “Will you agree to interview them?” And every one of the companies said yes.

KE: Where is the common ground on issues and programs that can offer graduating students confidence that there are good and affordable options for them?

JK: We gave [Ohio] kids in high school college credit for some programs. It’s amazing how much they can do and learn while still in high school. With that and community college or regional universities, they can go for just 2-3 years, which dramatically reduces the cost of education. Because people are not going to ring up this debt if people can find another way to get a degree. Do not dismiss the community college education. Community colleges are great options. There are big changes coming… We’ve had a black swan event with this pandemic in this economy now, which affects jobs and working from home, and online education is going to grow. Entrepreneurs who figure out how to do online education at the same time with real college and work experience, they’re going to be the winner.

JC: I agree. They find the job opportunities really don’t afford them the wherewithal to repay that debt and live a decent quality of life—people get saddled with decades of debt. I think we have to tighten up regulations on those [loan] programs. And I wholeheartedly support student debt relief. We have to address this huge mountain of student loan debt.

JK: I think the Secretary and I could sit down and be in great, great harmony, talk about common ground and we could find the things we agree on. Here’s the issue: We’re not in this to get elected or score a point. I could care less about this political garbage that’s out there. People are looking to bash each other instead of getting things done. I want to solve problems and help people. When he talks about housing—of course, we need to give people housing! We’ve got to think about different ways to do it, and if we need to spend some money, then God bless it, we’ve got to do it.

Watch the full event on YouTube and see a behind-the-scenes conversation too.