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. 

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 reason for hope. One of the few moments of promise in his speech was the acknowledgement 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 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 counterproposal 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.

What Do the Problem Solvers Do?

What Do the Problem Solvers Do? And what work is cut out for them going forward with the new administration?

When the Problem Solvers Caucus announced its top priorities to address for the 117th Congress, they included some of the country’s toughest issues.

“The Problem Solvers Caucus will continue to work closely, across the aisle, and with both Chambers, to tackle some of our country’s toughest challenges with civility,” the group wrote in its priority agenda. “These problems require bipartisan consensus and respectful collaboration to ensure long-term solutions. Gridlock and partisanship will serve no one.”

The group is optimistic about its ability to break through partisanship — even these days — because this is precisely the reason it was formed, amid worsening cross-aisle relations in 2017.

Rep. Fred Upton

We caught up with Rep. Fred Upton, one of the caucus’ vice-chairs, shortly before the COVID-19 relief bill, to discuss what makes the caucus unique, what makes it work, and its prognosis for going forward following a blistering start to the year. 

CGC: The Problem Solvers Caucus is made up of 56 representatives, evenly split among Democrats and Republicans. What is the organizing principle behind it?

RFU: The mission is, “let’s avoid the gridlock and get things done.” We just want to get things done. That’s the message for America and from our voters. They don’t care if there’s an R or D to your name, they just want things done.

How did you come to join Problem Solvers?

You sort of have to be invited. I have some very good friends on the other side of the aisle. I’ve never been the guy that trashed the other side, and people remember. I know I do…

I think it was my track record as Chair of Energy and Commerce that set the stage [to be invited], and the legacy of the 21st Century Cures Act. It took three years and was one of the last bills Obama signed in 2016. We would not have a vaccine approved for COVID if not for that.

Are there any conditions or rules of membership?

It is of course bipartisan, and the rules are such that if 75 percent of both sides are in favor of something, we will vote as a block. We have to have real trust in each other. As part of our admission to the group we do a civility pledge, so you won’t see any of us go after anyone else. We never donate or campaign against anyone in the room [the caucus].

What were the big challenges of the 115-116 session?

We passed an agricultural immigration bill by almost 100 votes in the House, but the Senate failed to act. The immigration problem is like a third rail — [touch it and] you’ll get accused by the hard right as giving amnesty. But we have to deal with this issue. And police reform. I’m sure you were just as moved as I was by George Floyd’s murder. We need reform, and we need to make sure we don’t defund our police. We were hoping to get a fix on QI [qualified immunity]. That was a big issue. We met for hours. We have a hard enough time recruiting good people, and if they allow officers and families to be sued, no one’s going to join that profession. And COVID relief. This COVID package as it’s moving now is truly partisan, which is really unfortunate, and I assume it’ll be muscled through. I just hope that it does not poison the well on other issues.

How is the work of the caucus changing now with the new administration? How do relationships across the aisle go forward after the events of January 6th?

That’s a very good question. I don’t have the answer. It was a very disturbing day. I was in the capitol that morning—not on the floor during it, I was in my office. I have a balcony, and I was watching the crowd. It was a very scary day. I have some broken glass I’m keeping. But somehow we have to get back on our feet. That’s why they went back in on Jan 6 [to certify]. We have to move on. The proof will be in the pudding.

What do you think holds Problem Solvers together and makes it work, when so much else hasn’t been working to bridge the divide?

I think we just have a true relationship with people. It’s almost a fraternal organization without the hazing. There’s real trust. Dean Phillips [fellow vice chair], took an R seat from a good friend of mine, but I’m all in for Dean. He worked hard. And Anthony Gonzales. We’re close. Would I know him otherwise? Maybe not. He’s not in my building, not in my committee, but I know him pretty well. As I told the group when I chose to run for reelection, “I believe we can make a difference, and to make a difference we have to work together.”

Get the inside scoop on how the Problem Solvers Caucus works: listen to our interview with caucus members Abigail Spanberger (D) & Brian Fitzpatrick (R).

Women's History Month 2021

Celebrating the Role of Women in Shaping History…And Our Future

Women's History Month 2021

Women’s History Month, recognized each March, celebrates the vital role of women in shaping our history – and our shared future. As a citizen-led nonprofit dedicated to driving more progress and less divisions, we have been fortunate to explore some of our era’s most pressing issues with women who are breaking ground in their pursuit of democracy, truth and the creation of a thriving nation that upholds our common ideals.

As we pause to celebrate the accomplishments and progress of women, hear directly from seven iconic CGC panelists in these videos from our YouTube channel, featuring some of our most engaging forums and podcast conversations.

Condoleezza Rice

Born in Birmingham, AL, Condoleezza Rice was raised in the racially segregated South. A member of the Republican party, she was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve first as the country’s first female National Security Advisor and later as the first Black female Secretary of State. Along with former Secretary of State John Kerry, Ms. Rice was a guest panelist at our forum Finding Common Ground on America’s Role in the World. (For your reading list: No Higher Honor: a Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice.)


Donna Brazile

As campaign manager for Al Gore, in 2000 Donna Brazile became the first Black woman to manage a major party presidential campaign and served twice as acting Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She is an author and contributor to Fox News. Along with former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, Ms. Brazile was a guest panelist at our forum Finding Common Ground on Government’s Role in Bridging Racial Divides. (For your reading list: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics by Donna Brazile, Yolanda Caraway, Leah Daughtry & Minyon Moore.)

Susan Rice

One of the country’s most prominent diplomats, Susan Rice was appointed under President Barack Obama to serve as the first Black woman ambassador to the United Nations. She was later named National Security Advisor. Currently, she serves as director of the Domestic Policy Council for the Biden administration. Along with Gen. David Petraeus, (US Army, Ret.), Ms. Rice was a guest panelist at our forum Finding Common Ground on the New Cold War. (For your reading list: Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For by Susan Rice.)

Maggie Haberman

Maggie Haberman is a CNN political analyst and New York Times White House correspondent. One of journalism’s most influential voices, in 2018 she received a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Trump administration and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Along with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, Ms. Haberman was a guest panelist at our forum Finding Common Ground on Facts, Fake News & The Media.

Caroline Randall Williams

Harvard graduate Caroline Randall Williams is an award-winning author, activist and scholar. She is the descendant of enslaved people and the great-great-grand-daughter of Edmund Pettus, a Confederate officer and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, for whom is named the bridge in Selma where the 1965 civil rights march known as “Bloody Sunday” took place. Ms. Williams appeared as a guest on our podcast episode My Body Is a Confederate Monument.

Ilyasah Shabazz

Ilyasah Shabazz is the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz. She is an award-winning author, community organizer, social activist and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is passionate about promoting higher education for at-risk youth and interfaith dialogue to build bridges between cultures for young leaders of the world. Ms. Shabazz appeared as a guest on our podcast episode What Racism Means to Me. (For your reading list: Growing Up X: A Memoir by the Daughter of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz.)

Abigail Spanberger

Democrat Abigail Spanberger is serving her first term in Congress after defeating a Republican incumbent in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Previously, she served as a federal agent and as a case officer for the CIA. Along with Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, a fellow member of the bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus, Ms. Spanberberger appeared as a guest on our podcast episode Seeking Common Ground in Congress.

Watch our full Women’s Series playlist and subscribe to Common Ground Committee’s YouTube channel to see new content as it is added.

blue & orange chair representing discourse

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 3: Dialing Back Division

As Congress and the American people have grown more polarized, legislation has become increasingly gridlocked and political rhetoric more extreme. Can the country’s “exhausted majority” be mobilized to lead the country back to common ground?

In this final installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, Common Ground Committee talks with co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond about what it will take to dial back division and get Congress back to work for the people.

There’s a level of emotion, call it heat or call it hate, that comes into disagreements about almost any issue these days. How can we dial back from code red to code orange or yellow?

Erik Olsen: Well, what’s implicit in the question is, why is that the case? We’ve had differences of views in the past, but we haven’t had the degree of antipathy towards one another that we have today.

First of all, I would take the position that the way Washington conducts itself right now exacerbates that problem because it tries to say to the voting base, “We have to have our way on everything we want, or you’re not going to get anything you want.” So they have to have a majority in everything in order to get the agenda in office that they want to get accomplished.

That’s where I think looking to congressional representatives who come to the table with different perspectives makes a difference. One is a Republican. One’s a Democrat. And they say, “We come to the table with different perspectives. Let’s share those perspectives and see how we can craft legislation that finds at least a measure of agreement on each side.”

Also, there are issues that I think are presented in a polarizing manner that don’t need to be. Vote-by-mail is one of these. Vote-by-mail is intended to allow more people to vote. If one party has a problem with having more people vote, then the problem is not with the voting process. It’s with the message that they’re getting out to people. That’s what they need to focus on, not, “How do we get less people to vote?”

Bruce Bond: And there are a lot of voters who are supporting mechanisms that need to be addressed. We’ve got gerrymandering, that’s a problem, and you’ve got the money that goes to PACs, the propaganda out there that’s so negative toward opposing candidates, and that kind of thing.

So those are some things that need to be addressed. The executive order system just goes back and forth like a ping-pong, that the Republican executes some executive orders, and then the Democratic successor reverses them and vice-versa. And that just continues to cause anger, if you will, between the different parties. That is happening right now with the former and new administration.

So how do you convince an electorate that’s tired of all the anger to get up off the couch and care again, to vote?

Bond: Like I said, I think that shift from the silent majority to the exhausted majority is profound in that we now have an emotional element in the issue that we didn’t have before. The silent majority was sort of like, “Yeah. I don’t care,” if you will, they were apathetic. But when you have an exhausted majority, people are saying they’re fed up. They don’t want this anymore. They want change, and that’s the soil in which the good seed can grow.

Olsen: That’s the point, that changing voter behavior or influencing voter behavior is the most effective thing to do. The NRA’s influence, for example, is based on their effectiveness in reaching their members and saying, “Your right to own a gun is in jeopardy, and here’s what you need to do about it.” Experienced Congresspeople on our panels have stressed their educated view that this is the most effective thing that goes on in Washington – how you encourage people to vote the way you want them to, how you influence them to vote.

Bond: What you really need to do is get people out to vote for the candidates who are going to support those positions they have in their protests. So it’s all well and good to go out and protest and be with your friends and feel good about doing that. But it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you don’t get people to actually vote the way you want them to.

Olsen: Our view of the election results is that there was a huge turnout. It’s the largest voter turnout in 110 years or something like that, and it was a very close election. But what was significant is that Donald Trump lost, and yet Republicans generally, and Republican issues generally, won.

What that indicates to us is that, first of all, the country is pretty evenly divided in terms of their interests, and number two, that Republican voters, at least, were willing to split the ticket and support a polarizer–if I can use that term that way–like Donald Trump who’s just making the entire situation worse. He’s not interested in common ground. They were willing to vote him out of office, and also to reduce the Democratic majority in the House, because their interests of a right-of-center policy remain fairly strong.

It’s likely the Republicans might have kept the Senate had President Trump not pushed his view that the election was rigged and tried to intimidate state officials. So, unless you can sit down with people and say, “Let’s figure out how to work together to craft legislation,” you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re just going to continue to be in gridlock.

Bond: You can tweet Congress as much as you want, but you have to drive the cultural change, which is where we’re focused—we’re not focused on things like gerrymandering and all those other things. If you drive the cultural change where voters stand up and say, in so many words, “You know what? We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore,” then they’ll start supporting candidates that are common grounders.

There’s critical mass in this country where enough of the population says, “We’ve been doing this, and it’s wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this anymore.” And that becomes the culture of the nation. That number, research suggests, is 11 million people.

We have 330 million people in this country. So 11 million is not that large a number. It’s not inconsequential, it’s not just a drop in the bucket, but it is interesting how that’s a tipping point in cultural change. So, if we can help people get there—and our work suggests that we can, and we are doing that—we’re getting people to see that these things are possible, that they should expect other than what they’re getting from their leaders, now you’re on to something.

Don’t miss the earlier installments of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a look at the current political dynamic and strategies that can lead to more progress and less division.

magnifying glass with bias text wording

Is Common Ground Committee Biased?

Magnifying glass with bias text words

We need to talk with you about something important.

We at Common Ground Committee (CGC) have taken some heat from time to time about an issue that cuts close to home. We’re coming right out and addressing it head-on because it’s something we care deeply about and strive hard to get right.

It has been suggested that CGC appears biased toward a particular political ideology based on the type of content it presents. For an organization that is wholly dedicated to bridging the divide between left and right, committed to the importance of active listening and dealing with objective facts, it is crucial to us and to our mission that we not have a political agenda, nor that we be perceived as having one. We can say without reservation that as an organization we do not have a political agenda. We lean neither right nor left, having purposely built a board whose members span the political spectrum. But sometimes people of good faith and discerning minds perceive that we are biased in some way. We have been accused of having a conservative agenda and at other times a progressive one.

Working through Biases

Let’s consider for a minute what it means to be unbiased. As a concept, and as an organization, Common Ground Committee has no bias. It was formed expressly in the service of shared communication, in hopes that shedding light on the issues that divide us—turning it in the light like one would a gem to see from all sides—so that we can better understand one another. While there is no guarantee, understanding can lead to common ground or compromise, and finally to progress on the issue. Certainly, it can lead to increased civility.

Individuals, however, have bias. Everyone, no matter how hard they work to behave with impartiality, has a way they naturally lean, a set of beliefs that influences their perspective, the decisions they make, and the votes they cast. The most impartial of journalists have the moment where they step into the voting booth and pull the lever. But it’s how aware you are of your biases, and how you work to recognize and handle them, that makes you effective at objective discourse and achieving common ground.

Sometimes the biases slip out. In a recent podcast, former Senate Secretary Kelly Johnston, a Republican and founding board member of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, discussed a moment of his own “intemperance” – a message he regrets tweeting in 2018 that fanned the conspiracy flames about left-leaning financier George Soros helping immigrants bound for the U.S. border.

“I did campaign work, 35 campaigns in 25 states. That’s combat. So my instincts and my experience and my work was all about doing battle. Then, when I got into the private sector about two decades ago, Rob Fersh (a Democrat and Co-Founder of Convergence) actually inspired me to look at bridge-building as a much more productive activity. And I realized that I was part of the problem because I was busy tearing other people down and fighting on issues, and I was accomplishing really nothing to advance the ball,” he said. “And I realized, ‘You know what? I would like to really solve some of these problems.’ Do I fall off the wagon on occasion? Yes, guilty as charged. But I try to get back on, which is important.”

This sticks with us from that podcast, as it is a tremendously good point. We each have our biases and they can surface from time to time. We know we have differences because that’s why one person is a Democrat and another is a Republican.

Occasionally, we have found that something as simple as a slight difference in the choice of words — for example, the murder of George Floyd, rather than the death of George Floyd; or equality instead of equity — signals bias to readers of different parties. Such is not our intent, and we appreciate hearing your feedback on the nuances of language.

We also find that, every now and then, referencing buzzwords that are commonly used to frame issues to appeal to the values of a particular party — for example, voting access versus voting security, or immigration reform versus border security — can serve as a dog whistle in and of itself. But that shouldn’t make the topic itself taboo in our journey to reach common ground. It makes it all the more important.

Continuing to Find Common Ground

We hope we’ve shed enough light on this question of bias so that you’ll accept that we do strive very hard to keep Common Ground Committee on a track that leans neither right nor left. We know words matter. You might read a “trigger” word or phrase in our content, but we hope you’ll recognize that we use it in our effort to build the understanding that can bridge the particular divide we are discussing, not to take a position. And should that happen, we invite you to partner with us in this process of discussion and transparency, by giving us feedback so that we can continue to build Common Ground Committee’s brand as an unbiased, nonpartisan organization. Our emails are and

Thank you for listening to us on this question that is so crucial to our work!

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 2: Implementing Strategy

Despite President Biden’s vow to unify America, legislation in the new Congress appears poised to continue along strictly partisan lines. Is common ground really possible – and what will it take to get there?

In this second installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, Common Ground Committee sat down with its co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about strategies that can lead to more progress and less division.

Your work focuses on inspiring the exhausted majority to seek common ground. Once you’ve gotten their attention, what do you do from there?

Bruce Bond: There are lots of different things. There are a lot of groups out there, including us, that have put out positions on, “Here’s how you have good, productive conversations with people that you disagree with.” We can really look into moving the ball forward when it comes to finding a solution or, at the very least, engaging with people to understand what’s really involved in solving a problem.

You have these conversations with people you disagree with to understand what their position is and why they have them. And when you do that, you learn a lot, you have a certain empathy for the people that you’re speaking with, and it just puts you in a completely different position to have a conversation.

We explored this dynamic in a recent podcast episode with two young men from different sides of the aisle who took a cross-country roadtrip together. Ultimately, their commitment to connecting at a human level transcended their differences.

So knowing how to have the conversation is a key element in solving the polarization problem. It’s been said “It’s hard to hate up close.”

Does this apply to the general population, or the leadership?

Erik Olsen: Both. That is the next thing: what we can do from a leadership level? How can we convince our leaders at the top, particularly at the federal level, who really set the tone for this? If you can solve the problem of Congress in particular being so divided, then you would see a much different view by the public about the value of Congress, and the value of engaging in productive debate — as opposed to debate to win the argument.

So, you’re talking about getting folks to value productive debate instead of the art of winning, or the art of the food fight. Does that also mean electing people who have that mindset already?

Bond: Yes. Along these lines, we developed the Common Ground Scorecard, which is a tool that helps voters identify the person running for office that are most likely to reach across the aisle and find common ground with those that are the other side of the aisle, so to speak.

On paper, these are little things, but they are significant. If you can learn to have a conversation, and you can keep an eye out for people in or seeking office that are likely to work to find a solution rather than win an ideological argument or not engage in the debate for fear of being primaried, for example, which is a problem that we have now.

If you can get those leaders to say, Finding common ground is a better way, now you’re on to something. Leaders tend to fear the voters more than anything else. If the voters start voting with favoritism toward those who are common grounders, as we like to call them, you start to see some change.

Olsen: We’ve been offering new members of Congress the opportunity to take a pledge we call the Common Ground Commitments. And they’re saying, “Yeah, we do want to make these commitments,” because they’re now interested in trying to make Congress more common-ground-oriented.

They need to somehow deal with the leadership on this, and I don’t know exactly how that will happen. But one way that it will happen is if people, representatives, and legislators who are in power have more interest in returning Congress to a more balanced body. They see that polarization as not acting in their best interest.

Congress needs to be returned to a governing body that recognizes that the best interests of the country lie in finding legislators who are willing to work together to try to find common ground. And they’re more likely to stay in office because they’ve worked to solve the problem instead of just creating more problems.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of what it will take to dial back America’s political division. Coming soon!

American Flag Divided

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. Some Democrats are reaching out to engage with their Republican colleagues to find common ground despite the violence on January 6th. However, the two parties are currently fractured, with three quarters of lawmakers still in the middle.

The country is tired and looking for a way forward. As we move past the inauguration and the news cycle moves forward, the President has expressed a desire for more unity. Now Congressional leadership has an opportunity to emphasize such unity. However, they need to strike the right tone. We are concerned that with the significant use of executive orders and the impeachment trial, we aren’t getting off to a great start.

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, that polarization needs to be fixed. While there’s been 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 the 23%, some from the left and some from the right, who are entrenched in their positions.

But with a closely divided Senate and House, the common grounders have an opportunity because they will be courted by both sides. That gives us hope for finding common ground and thereby making real progress.

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. The extremes are becoming irritating to people, and also, some are seeing that they’re not helpful but destructive. So that’s a start, and we see that as one of the first steps.

The next problem is that 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 – demonstrating people of note engaging in passionate but constructive conversation that exposes common ground.

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!