How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 1: Taking Stock

Inauguration day has come and gone, and we’ve had a more peaceful transition of power than many thought possible. There was no violence; the ceremony was beautiful, reverent, and calm; and the mittened Bernie memes might be the most bipartisan political laugh we’ve seen in years.

But that doesn’t mean “problem solved”; far from it. We have a tremendous job ahead of us—as a nation, a President, a Congress, and an electorate—to find a way across the aisle that’s become an abyss, and have productive legislative conversations. There isn’t a mandate of a clear majority in favor of Biden’s goals, policies, and views, and there’s even significant division within each party when it comes to how to move forward.

Common Ground Committee turned the microphone on its own co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about what it’s going to take to fix our polarization problem.

So here we are post-inauguration, a place that glowed on the calendar with the expectation of progress toward unity. But so much has happened in January alone. Are we in a different place than we were in 2020?

Erik Olsen: Yes. Democrats are figuring out how to speak to their Republican colleagues in the aftermath of the violence on January 6th. The two parties are currently fractured. That said, three quarters of lawmakers are still in the middle. The country is tired. As we move past the inauguration and the news cycle moves forward, we will have a President who expresses more desire for unity, and all of the leadership has an opportunity to emphasize such unity. They need to strike the right tone.

How do we begin to approach fixing the polarized situation we’ve been steeped in for years?

Bruce Bond: It starts with people thinking, first, that we need to have a change and that it needs to be fixed. While there’s a general view that polarization is a bad thing, until Jan 6 there was no sense of urgency. What we’re seeing since the occupation of the Capitol is that it’s becoming more important — that people are becoming more and more concerned about it.

There is a study done by More in Common in 2018, which essentially described 77 percent of the electorate as what they called the “exhausted majority.” And that’s significant, because that group wants change, wants leaders to work together, unlike most on the Far Left and the Far Right who are the most entrenched in their positions. But with a closely divided Senate and House, the common grounders have an opportunity. In order to make progress, there must be common ground. That gives us hope.

What effect does an exhausted majority have on polarization?

Bond: That group used to be called the silent majority, and now it’s called the exhausted majority. That’s profound because what it says is that there’s now an emotional element attached to this not being on the extremes. And the extremes are becoming irritating to people, and also, some are seeing that they’re destructive and not helpful. So that’s a start, and we see that as a first step.

So then the problem is, you have people in the exhausted majority, who may have hope that things can change, but they don’t know how it will happen or what they can do about it. One of the things that we’ve been working on here with our events, and our podcasts, and much of our programming has been demonstrating what good looks like.

And if you can do that, if you can show people how common ground is found, we validate their hope, confirm there is reason to believe that we can change this, and inspire them to make the effort to find common ground in their own experiences with family, friends and colleagues. And, to begin to expect their leaders to do the same.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of strategies that can lead to more progress and less division. Coming soon!

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Where Do We Stand on the Brink of Inauguration?

The election is over, the people have spoken. 

This is where we would expect to find ourselves in the middle of January after a November election. But in 2021, many believe the election isn’t over and never will be, and in a way, that the voice of the people has been suppressed. 

If we didn’t recognize already that we have a serious polarization problem in the U.S., the seditious violence on January 6  made it clear beyond a doubt. Now we also have a twice-impeached president in the space of 13 months with a still-vocal core of supporters.

The nation is white-knuckling it into the last days before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris. Whatever your thoughts on the outcome of the election, there’s strain in every direction: Voters unhappy with the election results, or denying them altogether; anxiety that there might be more violence coming; concern that partisanship has descended to such a place of distrust and disrespect that it’s going to be an Olympian challenge for Biden to bridge the divide.

But in terms of our ability to work together in a bipartisan way, what has substantially changed from a month ago?

We have a number of Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote in favor of impeachment. We see a more centrist, even conciliatory stance from Republican leadership who have criticized President Trump for inciting the rioters. Biden could come into office and begin speaking in a conciliatory tenor: “Let’s come together now.” But he’ll be under tremendous pressure from the Democrats who don’t want to forgive and forget. There are some Republicans who’ve left the Trump camp in recent weeks, and some who’ve been vocal about it. But none are saying they want to join the Democratic party. And even if they regret having supported Trump, they aren’t expressing regret for the way they stood on issues and legislation. That’s not a part of the aisle likely to be crossed because of presidential buyer’s remorse.

Then what about the electorate? The extreme wings are the “tribes” that have no interest in seeking common ground with political opponents. But there is a wide swath – 77 percent of Americans – known as the “exhausted majority” (formerly known as the silent majority) that continues to believe that common ground can and should be found (see: Hidden Tribes of America). 

In the face of an impeachment and a presidentially-provoked riot storming the Capitol, there may be a turning point. There’s a good chance citizens will say, “Enough of this,” and get increasingly involved. And if there’s a growing demand from the electorate to patch things up and start getting things done, elected officials might be forced to come together, even begrudgingly, if they want to be reelected.

So much will be affected by the tenor of the next two or three weeks. As they say in the news, fake or not, stay tuned! 

In a Year Like No Other, Delivering Discourse That Heals

By Erik Olsen & Bruce Bond, CGC Co-Founders

The year 2020 was eventful in ways most people never anticipated. For Common Ground Committee (CGC), the arrival of the pandemic meant we had to rapidly pivot from our brand-defining in-person events to come up with a whole new plan for pursuing our mission to bring healing to the incivility and polarization that plagues our nation. We are grateful to report that CGC rose to the occasion.

We Kicked Off With a Great Forum Event in February

The year got off to a good start in February with an exciting forum event at the Columbia Journalism School that we had planned for over a year, Finding Common Ground on Facts, Fake News & The Media. In an explosive era for modern journalism, our panelists Maggie Haberman of the New York Times and Chris Wallace of Fox News found much common ground. The event was covered by The Hollywood Reporter, The Hill, and the Washington Examiner, which provided a link to the entire event. It was the most significant press coverage CGC received to date, and was a great success.

Even In the Midst of a Global Pandemic, We Never Lost Sight of Our Mission

It soon became apparent that plans for future live forum events would be put on hold as the pandemic put an abrupt halt on public gatherings, throwing many organizations in the non-profit sector into turmoil and uncertainty. As the public response to the pandemic rapidly became a very partisan issue, we responded with an op-ed in USA Today on March 20 entitled, “To Stop Coronavirus, We Must Set Aside Partisanship. Here’s How We Can Do It.

We went on to produce three other op-ed pieces in 2020. In USA Today, we described the need for expanding vote-by-mail in the current pandemic environment. Another USA Today op-ed we wrote called out the need to support candidates willing to work across the aisle. Finally, we published a piece in The Hill calling for healing after the election and asking newly elected officials to embrace the country’s need for its leaders to find common ground.

In May, The Common Ground Podcast Was Born

In 2020, CGC also accelerated plans to launch a podcast series, “Let’s Find Common Ground. The series debuted on May 7 with three simultaneous podcast episode releases, all addressing issues arising from the pandemic and the need for leadership and common ground.

Late in May our podcast committee was alerted to the story of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in rural Georgia killed by three white men who were trying to conduct a “citizen’s arrest.” What was notable was that the men had filmed the incident, thinking that it would give evidence of their innocence. It was a tragic event of mindless brutality. We responded with a healing message by putting together a podcast episode with noted common grounder Daryl Davis, a Black musician who, solely through conversation and building relationships, caused members of the Ku Klux Klan to hang up their robes and give up their racism.

Shortly before the expected release of the podcast the video of George Floyd’s death while in custody was released, sparking widespread unrest in cities across the country. We quickly asked Daryl to do an update on the podcast to include his thoughts about this latest issue. He did so, and that yielded a very timely, effective podcast addressing the problems of racism and the corresponding actions of members of law enforcement. Exceptionally inspiring, it has become one of our most popular podcast episodes.

As race continued to dominate the headlines we produced a series of podcast episodes covering racial equity and law enforcement reform that included interviews with Art Acevedo, the Hispanic Chief of Police for Houston and Errol Toulon, the Black Sheriff of Suffolk County, NY. Sheriff Toulon was joined by his wife,Tina, who is white. The Toulons candidly shared their experiences as a mixed race couple and the perspective it has given them.

In June, We Launched Our YouTube Channel

In June CGC launched a YouTube channel containing over 100 videos of CGC work starting in 2010 and organized in various categories. These include audience reaction, identifying where common ground was found, full forum events, press coverage of CGC activities (including NBC coverage and interviews from the TODAY show and MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin), and partnership activities with other organizations from the Democracy Reform Movement.

We Created the Common Ground Scorecard Just In Time for the Presidential Election

As the summer unfolded and the media focus shifted to the Presidential campaigns, CGC unveiled its latest product, the Common Ground Scorecard. This web-based program is something we had thought about for years and in 2020 finally brought to life. The Scorecard yields an objective score that identifies the degree to which officials and candidates for office are likely to reach across the aisle to find common ground rather than stick to ideology or hold the party line. Essentially it measures the degree to which elected officials are “common grounders.” The tool includes candidates for the presidency, vice-president, members of the U.S. Senate and House and state governors. The Scorecard also includes an option for candidates to pledge to engage in common ground activity while in office.

Over the next several weeks over 15 candidates agreed to take our pledge and local news organizations from Hawaii to Boston picked up the story of how candidates ranked in our Scorecard. In September, Marist College’s highly respected political research organization, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, evaluated the Scorecard and was impressed. They found it to be “a rigorous assessment, using a number of quantitative factors, to score public officeholders on how much of a ‘common grounder’ they are…. It’s not about issue position but rather focuses on how much an office holder reaches out to those on the ‘other’ side.”

We closed out our 2020 programming with a fascinating webinar featuring members of the cast of Stars and Strife, a documentary about polarization in America and what can be done individually and collectively to address it. NYT columnist David Brooks moderated an in-depth, candid and substantive discussion with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, BLM of Greater New York’s Hawk Newsome, business leader Katherine Gehl and the film’s writer and director, David Smick.

As we have successfully made a significant shift in how we pursue our mission, we look forward with great anticipation to 2021. We are planning more webinars with notable panelists, continued delivery of our podcast series, enhancement of our Scorecard and new programming elements and tools.

In addition, we anticipate working with like-minded organizations in what is called the “Democracy Reform” movement that we are a part of. We believe strong partnerships are key to the successful pursuit of our mission moving forward.

We also believe every one of us has an important role in bringing light, not heat, to our country’s civil discourse. In this year of unprecedented crisis and division, we are thankful to be part of a community that continues seeking common ground.

New York NOW Interview: Erik Olsen on Lawmakers Finding Common Ground

With voters more divided than ever, is there an appetite for candidates who work across the aisle?

Our co-founder Erik Olsen talks to New York NOW host Dan Clark about the conclusions that can be drawn from the 2020 election, what our Common Ground Scorecard reveals about New York legislators – and how the dynamic of Washington could change in the coming term.

Curious to see how your elected officials rank? Find them here.

tug of war

Why is America so Politically Polarized? Part 2


Recently we sat down with Common Ground Committee’s co-founder Erik Olsen to discuss why America is so bitterly divided — a gulf separating us by political party, social and economic issues, and willingness to listen to people we disagree with.

We also discussed when this really took hold, and the role the internet has played in fanning tensions.

This week we take a look where loyalties lie, and what it’s going to take to get them more aligned.

Q: What is the bigger source of tension in today’s cultural climate — issues, or party affiliation?

That question is interesting to me, because I do think the parties have drawn away from their focus of being “in it for the people,” and they’ve become much more focused on being in it for the party. Some people have pointed out the fact that up through the ‘80s we had politicians who had close experience with war, or were even WW2 vets themselves. They recognized the difference between a foreign threat — a true physical threat like the USSR and the Cold War —compared to the threat of China, which is viewed as more of a commercial threat.

So instead, people became more focused on party issues and the extension of party control. I think the parties themselves have focused less on issues and more on pitting different interest groups against one another. This has deteriorated the political environment to some extent. And there’s much more of a “winner take all” attitude that rejects working with the opposition more than focusing on solving the issues themselves.

Q: So, you’re saying the party affiliation IS the divisive issue today?

To a certain extent, when looking at the parties today, there are not nearly the same differences between them as in the ‘60s ‘70s. One party favored expanding social programs, one favored lowering taxes. Today, one party supports tax increases, the other supports lowering taxes, but both parties are happy to spend money they don’t have. And neither one seems to recognize the degree that the government has infiltrated our daily lives and created its own winners and losers. I think this is the advent of what we see as crony capitalism, and both parties are equally offensive.

That creates a perspective on issues that I would argue gets distorted. People look at them as winners and losers, and parties are enhancing that view. Both are trying to foster this division because it supports their own power struggle. I would love to be able to say, Here are the good guys in Washington and here are the bad guys, but for me, the good guys are the ones willing to sit down and talk through the problem, and try to resolve it. Those people seem to be few and far between, especially in the leadership — they are much more interested in the defeat of their enemy.

That needs to be repaired in some way. I don’t see it as imminent. Even if we have a change in the White House, I don’t at all anticipate that it will lead to greater unity in Congress. People think Biden is conciliatory, and his demeanor is different from Trump’s. But it’s not like a Biden-Harris presidency is going to lead to handholding and kumbaya singing with the Republicans at all. I don’t think that’s going to change.

Q: Is this the most divided our country has been in recent history, and what is it going to take to get us out of it?

I think first of all the American people are smart enough that they’ll put up with a lot, then stop putting up with it, and things will change. When people say how much more polarized we are today than at any time in history, they point to bipartisan cooperation that took place in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was a great deal more political cooperation, but the country today is not nearly as divided at the population level as it was in the ‘60s. I’m old enough to remember ‘68 and the Vietnam war and the civil unrest. We have a lot going on today over police use of force, and people are recognizing that we need to be more aware and awake to where racism is in the country and who benefits and why and how. But we were going through very similar angry confrontations in the ‘60s and we had the assassination of a presidential candidate and one of the greatest civil rights leaders. It was a horrible time.

But my hope and expectation is that more and more people are recognizing that this atmosphere in Washington is not useful and not helpful, and serves a minority of political views — not the majority of political views. And so I think to the extent that we can encourage political leaders to recognize the common ground and the value of working with people on the other side of the aisle, that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to encourage people to vote in that manner, and get people who are less partisan and have more interest in working together to take office. I think under the Trump administration, the opposite has taken place. There may be people who are more common-ground oriented returning to Congress and taking steps to try to tone down the rhetoric. We don’t get anywhere by demonizing people on the other side.

Certainly the concern on the Republican side is that a Democratic majority would push through their agenda in a partisan way. But they would get voted out in the next election with a resounding loss — that’s what happens if they exerted that kind of authority without trying to take into account the views of the minority. So let’s get people in here with differences of views and outlooks, and encourage them to work together. That’s ultimately what’s going to get us out of our current problems.


Want to hear more? Be sure to check out our new podcast “Let’s Find Common Ground” where we seek common solutions to today’s vital issues.

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Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground

In this piece written for THE HILL, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen argue that politicians and the media are taking the wrong lessons from a divided electorate.

During a time when millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, leadership should be driving their members to find solutions not to stubbornly stand their ground.

This election voters turned out in record numbers. Mail-in ballots alone exceeded the number of Americans who voted in 2016. Polling seemed to indicate that we would see a strong repudiation of President Trump and the Republican party. But while former Vice President Joe Biden did take the White House, voters sent another message with their ballots: They are as far apart on the direction of the country as ever.

As the heads of an organization, Common Ground Committee (CGC), that seeks to heal our political divides, you might think we are discouraged by an election that confirmed our divisions. It’s true that in our everyday life we see politics tearing friends and families apart. But we also think that the political class and media take away the wrong lessons from divided elections.

We are most certainly a country divided by politics, but the response to that shouldn’t be to dig-in further on the party line.

Partisans will always hope for that red or blue wave, but history shows it to be a rare occurrence.

When Republicans had control of the White House and Congress after the 2016 elections, it was only the fifth time since 1980. Control of the Senate has flipped six times since 1987, while the House has flipped four times since 1995. It’s time for our leaders to listen to the electorate. They didn’t want President Trump’s abrasive style, but they were also not comfortable with the Democratic party’s perceived leftward shift — as evidenced by unexpected losses in the House and (pending two run-offs in Georgia) a Senate still under Republican control.

This election was a clarion call for the collaborative government our Founding Fathers intended.

Unfortunately, leadership in Washington typically practices a “winner-takes-all” approach to legislation. President-elect Biden has encouragingly stated he wants to be a leader for all Americans, but he also indicated he would sign executive orders on Day 1 to eliminate many of Trump’s policies, when 8 million more voters supported him than in 2016. Republicans, meanwhile, have boasted that their continued control of the Senate gives them a mandate to continue to pursue partisan agendas despite the Biden-Harris ticket getting the most votes in history.

During a time when millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, leadership should be driving their members to find solutions not to stubbornly stand their ground.

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continue to spar over the size and scope of a second COVID-19 stimulus bill, some Democrats and Republicans have already agreed on a compromise. The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus put forward a $1.5 trillion proposal in September. These 50 Democrats and Republicans found a middle ground between their two different ideologies — because they listened to each other’s concerns and ideas instead of dismissing them outright as wrong. Meanwhile, leadership never gave the proposal serious consideration and entered election day with no deal.

To paraphrase Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), two members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus who recently spoke on our “Let’s Find Common Ground” podcast, government can’t function when leadership on both sides dislikes each other. Democrats and Republicans need to make a decision: Would they rather go to their constituents saying they supported a bill they knew would never pass or one that didn’t have everything they wanted but solved some of the problems hurting American families?

We must make it crystal clear to leadership that a divided election does not mean we want the status quo of gridlock.

There are many officials already working to make progress. Prior to the election nine elected officials and challengers made a pledge to uphold the spirit of what we call “common grounders” through the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool designed to provide an objective measure of a candidate’s willingness to work across the aisle. Seven of them won reelection, including Reps. Fitzpatrick and Spanberger. We urge Americans to publicly praise and reward those officials who are committed to common ground — and call on their representatives at all levels of government to work together.

The complete election results prove that the absence of President Trump will not immediately put an end to polarization. But President-elect Biden and Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have a chance to shift the narrative. If they commit to seriously collaborating to achieve solutions for the American people, we can begin the process of restoring competent governance. They ignore this opportunity at their own risk. A repeat of the last four years will promise an endless cycle of shifts in party control where the only winners are those who seek to exploit our differences.

– This article was originally published in THE HILL on November 21, 2020.

thanksgiving dinner

Your Essential Guide to Civil Political Conversations This Holiday Season

thanksgiving dinner

Around many dining tables this holiday season, there’ll be an extra guest in the room. The elephant, of course. Politics, and all the differing opinions about the tumultuous events of 2020.

We live in divisive times, and unfortunately, our difficulty reaching across the aisle can extend to reaching across the table. Whether or not your gatherings this year include extended relatives, conversations, even among immediate siblings, parents, and significant others, can cover a lot of rocky terrain over a long day and evening.

This year might seem a lot more fraught than most. But the same guidelines for civil conversations apply, even leaving room for constructive disagreement. Let’s have a look at the attributes of folks who seek to meet on common ground, rather than simmer in the far corners of the room.

Identify and set aside personal biases.

It’s tempting to stay steeped in our own beliefs. There’s a reason, after all, why we hold them strongly. Instead, look across at this friend or relative with whom you disagree, and think for a moment about the reasons and experiences behind why they might hold their beliefs strongly, too. This is the basis of finding empathy. And before you make assumptions about their motives, ask sincere questions that give them a chance to explain their reasoning and intentions. There’s a chance they’ll surprise you.

Commit to seeking agreement rather than “winning.”

It’s difficult to achieve a balanced conversation based on connecting with someone if you’re constantly formulating your next retort. You have to actively listen to their points, rather than crafting your own retaliation. You never know — you might even find yourself swayed a bit by their insights. You don’t have to aim to end the night by winning or losing and certainly not by compromising your principles. You just have to get to a civil place where you can agree to disagree and pass the cranberry sauce with a pleasant expression.

It’s possible for good people to disagree.

We all have very different backgrounds that make us who we are, and have shaped the principles we hold firm. But different values and beliefs aren’t synonymous with good and bad. Very different formative experiences can create strong, fundamental differences. If you sense you aren’t going to be able to meet amicably in the middle with this person, perhaps it’s best to find a pivot to another aspect of the conversation.

Use facts, not emotion.

Emotional arguments aren’t a great basis for a conversation, because if both people are speaking from the heart in heated opposition, it’s hard to arrive at the conclusion that it’s possible for good people to disagree. If you have good facts, figures, and statistics, open your toolbox and use them. But let the other person do the same — and if theirs are solid, acknowledge that, even if it doesn’t fit well with your narrative.

Bring down the temperature.

If you find the conversation becoming too heated, do whatever you can to de-escalate a potentially hostile situation. Name-calling and tossing around stereotypes are indicators that things are traveling in the wrong direction. Don’t give in to the temptation to reciprocate with pejorative terms of your own. Storytelling is one way to grab attention — just make sure the takeaway is one of neutrality, or learning something unexpected. And remember – family is always more important than politics.

 Want more tips on healing the divide over Thanksgiving or any gathering? Watch our webinar Ten Ways to Heal the Divide,” with Living Room Conversations founder Joan Blades and founder of Bridge USA, Manu Meel, moderated by Common Ground Committee co-founder, Bruce Bond.

Download the Common Ground Committee’s ten attributes of a Common Grounder




stars and strife

Panel Discussion on “Stars and Strife” Documentary

“I’m worried about our country gorging on hate,” says David Smick, an economist, author and the director of a new documentary, Stars and Strife. “America is going through an identity crisis, so I’m on a journey in search of answers.”

So begins the new documentary Stars and Strife, Smick’s examination of the current state of polarization in the U.S.

Examining the State of Polarization in the US

From white supremacy and QAnon to income inequality and dark money, these days, extreme feels like the new norm. Extreme gets the clicks and retweets; moderate gets ignored. But it’s not just the peanut gallery that’s rowdy. Politicians are more interested in wins for their party than productive governing, Smick says, and their behavior on the congressional floor can make CSPAN look like WWE.

How did we descend to this place of incivility, and how do we climb out?

The Common Ground Committee and the Bridge Alliance brought together a panel discussion featuring New York Times columnist, David Brooks as moderator along with David Smick and three of the public figures in his film — Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense; Hawk Newsome, New York Chairperson and of Black Lives Matter; and Katherine Gehl, appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Board of Directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

In the panel, as in the film, their experiences, observations, and in some cases, institutional memory offered insight on the country’s quandary—and what it might take to emerge stronger.

Key Highlights from Our Panel Discussion

David Smick: I wanted to make this film because I thought the country was in trouble. I read one day that the average empire lasts about 250 years, and of course we’re about 250 years old. And it dawned on me that we’re in trouble. So I went to some of the best documentary makers in this country and said, I want to do this documentary. And [it’s about] two things. How did we get in this mess, and how do we get out?

Leon Panetta: I’ve often said that in my 50-plus years of public life, I’ve seen Washington at its best, and Washington at its worst. The good news is, I’ve seen Washington work…[Politicians]  had their differences, but when it came to national issues, whether it was a Democratic president or a Republican president, they worked together to try to resolve those issues. And during the Reagan administration, my goodness, we passed immigration reform, we passed tax reform, we passed Social Security reform, we passed budgets, and we worked on issues of foreign affairs together. So there was a real sense that nation came before party when it came to those issues. Within the last 20 years, it’s changed dramatically. It’s obviously more partisan than I’ve ever seen it, more divided than I’ve ever seen it, it’s almost trench warfare between the parties. They’re all in their trenches and they’re throwing grenades at one another. If anybody wanders into no-man’s-land, they could get shot in the back, much less shot by the enemy, because they’re worried about losing the support of their own party. So that divisiveness, that partisanship, has in many ways paralyzed the system so that major issues are not being dealt with because parties don’t trust one another. They have no sense of being able to and talk through their differences. And more importantly, when I was there, I think governing was good politics, I really do. But I’m not so sure they think that governing is good politics now. And I think they pay a price for that, in the paralysis and gridlock that we now see.

Katherine Gehl: I like to say, Washington isn’t broken, it’s fixed. Washington is fixed because Washington is doing what it’s designed to do, but it’s not designed to serve the public interest. It’s been designed and optimized now to serve this whole political industry. And the political industry is thriving even if the American public has never been more dissatisfied. So I agree with the Secretary that governing is no longer good politics. And I think, here’s what we need to do. Yes, we can call on [the leadership] to do the right thing. But if we can combine that with

an electoral situation where solving problems for the American people is directly connected with getting re-elected, that would be the key. Whereas right now, dysfunction, gridlock, and demonizing the other side is what’s connected with getting re-elected. So unless we change the party primary that everybody is afraid of, and unless we change the way we vote so we can have more competition to put pressure on the existing parties, we won’t put pressure on the existing parties that if they don’t do what’s needed someone else is going to take their place. We’re not going to see a change in the results simply by calling for better — we have to align the incentives of getting and keeping these jobs with solving problems.

David Brooks: One of the things I was thinking about, especially since George Floyd’s killing, is that we talk a lot about civility. And, you know, keep your tempers in check and your passions in check. But since George Floyd’s death, it’s pretty obvious that sometimes to get attention, to move forward, civility isn’t always the right strategy. I mean, passion is sometimes the right strategy, and there are different people with different social roles. And some are radical, and shouting, and crashing open the structures. Then others come in and build. And Black Lives Matter is now famous and celebrated for sort of opening up the structures. How do you think about that issue, passion versus civility?

Hawk Newsome: I think all of this rage comes from a place of love. It’s a love for black people. It’s a love for humanity that guides us to fight. That propels us to shut down a highway. To sometimes destroy some property, right? It’s because you love people because you want a better society, you’ve grown to this place of frustration. Now when we start talking about opening up the roads and building a foundation and building a structure — David does a great job of this in the film — it provides people an opportunity to talk with their guard down. Because we’ll usually be sitting across a table or sitting on some news show and we’re arguing with one another, not even talking to one another, but just trying to win over the audience. And what’s really important now is to listen to one another.

DB: David, you talk about economics and inequality a lot in the film. I’m going to turn pastor for a second. I used to think the Exodus story was the American story. We left depression, we came to the promised land. But when I talk to young people, they say, That’s what people in your generation think… What do you think about that, David? Is American capitalism fundamentally broken and unfair and unequal? Sometimes it seems that way.

DS: I think so. There’s a ruthlessness to capitalism in the last 15 to 20 years that’s really kind of appalling. The entire political establishment can complain about the economy, but they really need to think about how we got to where we are. The Berlin wall falls. China, India, and a host of other countries join the global system. Both parties said hooray. This is great, we did a lot of trading with them, you could buy products cheaper at Walmart. Of course, there was a downside, globalization had a paradoxical element to it. And it wasn’t just that your plant might move to Mexico or China. It was also that globalization led to extraordinarily low-interest rates. And so we’ve seen a 30-year period of low-interest rates. It’s great for stocks. So, half the country owns stocks. The other half doesn’t. The other half are wage earners. So you’ve had this period of stock market bonanza, which is great. A lot of retirement plans benefit. But half the country doesn’t have access to that. And I say that in part contributed to some of the hate, because if you’re not part of the party, there is a sense of humiliation, and your loss of dignity turns to anger and hate.

We talk about income inequality, but there’s also opportunity inequality. Thirty years ago, if you were born into the bottom 25 percent of the economy, you had a 25 percent chance of rising to the top 25 percent. Today, only a five percent chance. You’re working hard at your job, and you’re not getting ahead, or your children have sacrificed and they’re not getting in. That is the whole crucible for fear, anger, humiliation — in particular, if you fall out of the middle class. You thought you had it made to the middle class, and you fall out of that. You can see that sense of helplessness and fear…. They’re the ones that feel like they don’t have a home. So they’re taking a ride with Trump. They look at the offensive stuff he says, but they say, What else do I have?

HN: Well, we believe behind all of the racism there is classism. I just want to touch back on the American Dream. The American Dream — to most folks who are outside this country, and what a lot of people experience here — is the American Nightmare for foundational black Americans, the people who built this country for nothing…. There should not be two and three generations of people on welfare and public housing. But, are we teaching black kids about financial literacy? No, right? Are we giving them credit counseling? No. Are we teaching them about the values of owning property? No. This system is fixed and it’s fixed against us. And the system is working to keep us poor and oppressed.

DB: We are going to end on an optimistic note. Because the film is about solutions. What makes you optimistic?

HN: The children. The children. Folks who are 20 now, or 18, grew up in this BLM movement, social justice, and equal rights and equity for all since they were 10 or 12. Those young minds have been shaped, even the babies in elementary school, and they are receiving a world in doses that is not hypocritical. These kids know that Columbus conquered a people. They don’t think that he magically discovered empty land. There’s so much realness and compassion in the world right now. And with that being said, I think we as a civilization have hit rock bottom — corporate greed, divisiveness, racism, they’ve hit an all-time low. And I believe the majority of us are dedicated to building the country that we really want, the country we all deserve, being a beacon of light for the rest of the world.

KG: What makes me optimistic are so many people with different ideologies coming together around political innovation. Like the rules of the game for elections. [Two opponents recently shared a stage] and they said, We don’t agree on any politics, we don’t vote for the same people. But we agree on this: that the system isn’t working, and that we need to hold together to change these rules so we can start to solve problems for the American people. And they keep doing their own thing in the existing duopoly, but they say we need to change it because it’s not working for anybody.

DS: Why am I optimistic? Because of the gay marriage example. Gay marriage was thought to have no chance of going anywhere in Washington. Obama was against it, everyone said That’s not going to happen. Then there’s a revolution in the country, state by state by state. It just kind of happened. I think Joe Biden actually had to say to the president, No, this is coming. Do you see that tidal wave? You don’t want to be in front of that.

Missed the event?  You can watch it here!

tug of war

Why Is America So Politically Polarized?

tug of war

It’s widely acknowledged that our nation is bitterly divided — by party, by issues, by approach, and by willingness to communicate effectively with people who hold differing opinions.

What’s less agreed-upon is why this is the case, and what it’s going to take to get back on track.

We sat down with one of our founders, Erik Olsen, for his thoughts, based upon his perspective as a political thought leader and economist.

Q: When did you start feeling this polarization really taking hold?

EO: In 2009, my cofounder Bruce Bond and I came up with concept for Common Ground Committee because we were noticing that the tone of public discourse was becoming more vitriolic and offensive. I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s book THE RIGHTEOUS MIND, and one of the things he recognizes is that people have become more tribal — they look at people close to them and say, If you don’t share my belief system then there’s something wrong with you. People have become less reflective and self-examining.

Q: Why do you think this happened?

EO: It’s hard to say. We’ve evolved with the internet in the last 20-15 years, and you can’t deny the way it’s encouraged this kind of behavior for a variety of reasons. In part it’s because there’s relative anonymity in saying things you’d never say to someone’s face; the internet makes it easy to engage that way. It has contributed to our becoming more polarized in part because it made it easier to argue anonymously.

I got on Facebook in 2007 really as a mechanism for getting in touch with friends all around the country, and I renewed a lot of friendships from my high school and college days. What was very curious is that as the years went by, I noticed people were becoming more and more political, and I was kind of astonished at the ferocity of their political beliefs. I too have strong views, but they could be characterized as free market views. Working at Common Ground Committee has made me be more thoughtful about my own biases, and say, Ok, I can have more confidence in views backed up by my own research and study, but I have to recognize where I don’t have an omniscient knowledge base. Yet I see people talk in strident terms about things they don’t have any particular authority in, with strong views devolving into a kind of derision, or anger, or vituperativeness. You might have a valid opinion, but the way you’re representing your point doesn’t support your argument. Instead, it relies on screeds. You’re not convincing anyone when you’re talking trash.

Q: How would you suggest the internet could be used for more productive discussions?

EO: Conceptually, the internet is stunning, in terms of its usefulness. We’ve all become rather jaded with it, but I think back to high school and what I could have done with the internet for access to research and learning. We look at the internet now and we curse it because it’s feeding back to us the kind of things we want to hear. I just find it interesting that we’re not more intelligent about the way we use it — a caustic environment instead of a learning tool. One of the things I find interesting is that you can start going so far down into practically doctorate-level research based on a tweet. Someone says, This is the way the world is, and I say, That’s not the way the world is, the world is this way, and then they provide their evidence, and I provide my evidence. I like to look at their evidence, and I to see if their side has validity or not. But I don’t know that other people follow through that way.

Q: To what extent do you think it’s due to our current political leadership?

EO: In the last four years in particular many people have focused on Donald Trump as a source of polarization. But I strongly believe he isn’t a source of polarization — he’s a symptom. To a certain extent, he’s speaking for people who feel they’ve lost their voice because of the way media has evolved on cable — that is becoming I think becoming even more biased as time goes on, with news organizations becoming more focused on particular opinions. And I think Donald Trump gives voice to people who think their voice is missing from the public stage. They, for their own reasons, get a thrill out of the way he seems to tweak the establishment’s nose. None of that is contributing to a useful or meaningful dialogue. Its’ not about finding the truth, it’s about what zinger can you come up with to fight with people. It doesn’t make for good governance and doesn’t make for good discourse.

Read Part 2 of our interview series, “Why Is America So Politically Polarized?”


Ranked Choice Voting Explained


What is ranked choice voting?

What if instead of casting your ballot for one candidate, you could vote for not just your first choice — but also indicate your second choice, third choice, and so on?

In some states, it’s already happening. Earlier this year, four states — Wyoming, Alaska, Kansas, and Hawaii — used ranked-choice voting (RCV) to reduce the field in the presidential primaries. In Utah, both the Democratic and Republican parties used it for this year’s virtual conventions. And this November, Maine will become the first state to use RCV in the general presidential election.

The process works like this.

  • The candidate with the majority of first-choice votes wins outright, as long as the support constitutes more than 50 percent of voters.
  • If no single candidate gets 50 percent, then a new counting process kicks off. The last-place candidate is eliminated, and that candidate’s voters have their second-choice pick activated.
  • This process continues until there is a candidate who has a 50 percent majority.
  • By comparison, the current system elects a winner by the plurality system: the candidate with the highest number of votes wins, period. It doesn’t matter whether the candidate earned the majority (more than 50 percent) of the vote.

What’s the appeal of RCV?

Its supporters stress that the ability to rank choices allows Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to compete on a level playing field. A third-party candidate might not have enough votes to win a plurality, but its supporters’ second-choice vote would have a voice. In this way, voters feel free to choose the candidates they like best as their first-choice pick, without worrying that their vote will somehow help the candidate they like least. A voter can rank in first place a third-party candidate who has little chance of winning, and select the major-party candidate they can tolerate most for their second-place vote. In this way, RCV allows people to vote for third-party candidates without “throwing away their vote.”

Ranked choice voting allows political parties to produce nominees with broad support, even in a crowded field of candidates. In the current system, a large field of contenders threatens to produce a nominee with strong support from a small group, but without broad support from the voters. Currently, candidates with similar platforms or experiences can split supporters, dividing the votes and potentially helping a more polarizing candidate with a less popular platform to surge ahead. To keep this from happening, candidates seen as longshots are pressured to drop out — and their diversity of opinion is lost, giving voters less choice.

RCV advocates say the system motivates candidates to work together rather than attack one another, because candidates risk losing valuable second- and third-place votes by alienating one another’s strongest supporters. And forcing candidates to try to appeal to a broader cross-section of the public makes it much more likely that the winner will be open to moderation, compromise, and building nonpartisan coalitions.

Opponents of RCV exist on both sides of the aisle. Many say it complicates elections for voters, requiring them to be better-educated about (and possibly overwhelmed by) a wider range of candidates, and that it takes more time and money to tabulate multiple rounds of results. There’s also some concern that RCV can be misused to “game the system.” Since candidates often win by being the second choice of those who support less-popular third-party candidates, there’s a baked-in incentive for the major parties to look for third-party candidates on whose coattails they can gain second-place votes.

The jury is still out on whether RCV increases or decreases turnout at the polls. For the time being, it’s being increasingly discussed in states and municipalities — so information and data about it will also be on the rise.

To learn more about voting, and the importance of having a voting plan, see our action plan guide.