The Middle Shelf: Part 8 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

It’s Thursday again CGC MiddleShelfers,

As you know by now, each Thursday we have been bringing you suggestions for reading books that in some way may move the needle towards common ground.  We typically look for new releases with a few of the classics thrown in for good measure.  Our criteria have been non-fiction and to try and present both sides and/or a centrist point of view.  However, this week we thought we would try something a little different and throw it back to you for suggestions as well as some insight on what is on the reading table of you and your friends.

Also, given that this is the first official week of summer and you might be focused on kids getting out of school, graduations and other family events, we wanted to keep things a little lighter.  So with that as the mindset, we started to look at the mid-year 100 books we should all read type lists.  Lo and behold, even for these lists there really is no unanimity.  Of course, there are some crossovers that appear on all the lists but it appears reading is individual in taste even for scholars and book editors.

What we did find interesting is that on most of the general lists as opposed to a specific genre (mystery, science, etc.), novels seem to dominate rather than non-fiction.  The thought perhaps is that novels are more timeless and deal with human emotions while non-fiction is often more influenced by the shifting currents. Not so surprising is the fact that some of the lists include books about food and culture as people have realized that common ground is often found around a good meal. However, we tend to agree with the author of the Esquire list that:

“While a great novel can be engaging, there’s nothing quite like a true story—whether that story comes in the form of deep reporting, memoir, or personal essays. Nonfiction gives us the chance to look at the world around us and learn something about how we fit within it. And nonfiction also tells us a lot about ourselves.”  

Below are links to the book lists we found from the U.S. and Great Britain. The one from PBS is actually a poll for the Great American Read (novels only) which you can still vote on.  Do any of these books in your opinion offer some ways to achieve common ground? Do town-wide reading challenges often held by libraries help bring a community together as everyone reads and hopefully discusses the same thing?  If you were making a list of must reads for people looking for common ground and how to really talk to one another which books would be on your list?

Top 10 Book List for this Week



The Middle Shelf: Part 7 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

Among the ways that we hope to achieve common ground is through seeing if we can at least get people on the same page as to what issues and facts are being debated.  Once that is achieved, debates and discourse should be somewhat easier.  You have the same starting basis and then layer in the […]

The Middle Shelf: Part 6 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the fact that in the search for common ground, it seemed that the search would need to involve getting a better understanding through reading of the views of the “other” or those whose opinions we fail to immediately understand.  Along these lines, we have noticed a few trends that have been emerging of late in new books that are being published.  The velocity of books trying to make sense of what signals people and pundits might have missed, and which have resulted in overt polarization, seems to be speeding up.  Each week there is at least one new book from all sides that looks to explain why we are where we are and why we should not be so surprised that common ground is lacking.

This week’s recommended books are no exception.  Three books have recently come out that make the attempt to point to causes and effects that should have been picked up along the way.  All three have something in common in that they were written by journalist/commentators that are looking back on what they themselves failed to notice were trends in attitudes.  In essence, all three of these books are mea culpas by longtime observers of the political spectrum who missed the signs over the last few decades of just how polarized we were becoming because they had been insulated to a large degree.

In The Great Revolt, Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Salena Zito, and veteran Republican strategist Brad Todd, tackle the question of whether or not the election of Donald Trump was a “fluke” or truly a tectonic shift that will impact our nation and elections for years to come.  They traveled through 10 states and interviewed over 300 Trump voters and came away believing that the media did and continue to get it wrong in how his base is characterized.  The book is sympathetic to its subject, and according to some reviews perhaps a bit too much, but its premise that the media and politicians missed the depth of the dissatisfaction is well documented. It cautions against using simplistic terms like male or working class to describe those driving this movement.

Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable, by former senior political CNN analyst Bill Schneider, takes a somewhat different approach in his attempt to answer the same questions. His focus is on the last 50 years of elections and the impact of the New America of diversity that became a force in the 1960’s ran up against backlash from the Old America in 2016 could have been expected from the presidential elections during that time span.  “Tracing the development of the growing rift over the decades, he examines the forces that have produced America’s present “gridlock and dysfunctional government,” chiefly the separation of powers built into the Constitution. He makes a strong case that voters have increasingly placed values over interests and that public opinion often rules: The “intensity of opinion matters, not just numbers.”

Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It, by journalist and attorney Steven Brill covers roughly the same time period that Schneider’s book does.  Regarded as a progressive and liberal, Brill’s book is worth noting for two reasons; the first being that he    pinpoints his own profession of lawyers as partly accountable the current dysfunction claiming that there is a:

“new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers, high-achieving, well-educated individuals who have gravitated to law and finance, inventing financial instruments and corporate legal defenses that fed greed but “deadened incentives for the long-term development and growth of the rest of the economy. Brill calls these individuals, who want to hold onto their wealth, the “protected,” as opposed to the rest of society, “the unprotected,” who need government to act for the common good.”

However, he also spends time searching for and highlighting current national and local groups that are actively working to get past the polarization and seek solutions and common ground.

All three of the books can be added to possible reads that might help to explain how we reached a place where discourse is especially difficult but also to help on the road to a better understanding of the reasons behind opinions other than our own.

The Middle Shelf: Part 5 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

Columnist, radio host, lawyer, and cable commentator Michael Smerconish has just released a new book with a title that may well sum up the current political landscape for those of us trying to reach common ground. While primarily based in Philadelphia, Smerconish has a national audience.  In Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right, American Life in Columns, Smerconish compiles over 17 years of his writings for a number of newspapers and where needed, provides updates on how his opinions have evolved to become more centrist.  As former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says in his review of the book:

“If only more of the country could be as passionate as Smerconish about the need for change, we could end partisan gridlock and get our politicians working for the people again. I have always believed in Dwight d. Eisenhower’s wisdom that the center of the road is the only usable space and the extreme left and right are the gutters, and Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right says this perfectly.”

A couple of side notes worth mentioning about the book:

Smerconish now identifies himself as an Independent but had been a life-long Republican until 2010. He previously had worked for Vice-President George H.W. Bush and Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo when he became a Republican.  However, in 2008 he began to break with the Republican Party endorsing President Obama because he felt that the Republican’s failed to capture Osama Bin Laden. As time had gone on he began to move away from the Conservative views to a Centrist position. In an op-ed in 2010 for the Washington Post, he wrote,   “Buying gas or groceries or attending back-to-school nights, I speak to people for whom the issues are a mixed bag; they are liberal on some, conservative on others, middle of the road on the rest. But politicians don’t take their cues from those people. No, politicians emulate the world of punditry.”

His latest book, especially the updated afterward that follow many of the columns, is worth taking a look at to see how someone who is so well-entrenched in media now tries to walk the middle ground in an effort to alleviate some of the polarization that may well have been caused by talk radio and cable shows.




The Middle Shelf: Part 4 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

In discussions on why common ground is often so difficult to reach, there is a lot of talk about echo chambers, tribes and especially the popular rationale of not being able to understand “the other.”  Of course, the notion of “the other” is subjective depending on who you are, where you might have been raised, what your socio-economic and demographic identity may be, not to mention gender, religion and the list goes on and on. We tend to see things through frameworks and breaking through those to understand a different view is hard.

One of the things that all of the panelists that CGC has had at its forums have been adamant about is that to reach common ground or at the very least to try to bridge some of the discourse, people should READ.  Reading about the ideas and lives of those we do not agree with or understand at least offers some jumping off point to gain insight.  To that end, this week we are putting the spotlight on three books that try to open windows into the thinking of who or what may be your “other.” These are not easy reads in the sense that depending on your vantage point you may find them uncomfortable.  However, part of the challenge in trying to find common ground is to at least try to hear many voices.

Two of the books came out originally in 2016 with the paperbacks recently being released. These both explore in different ways what could be called the “Trump voter,” though they offer a much deeper analysis of those in America who for many years have felt that the nation was passing them by.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance tells the story of Vance’s family who despite some upward mobility where he was raised in Middletown, Ohio could not escape their Appalachian roots.  Vance, a Marine veteran, Ivy League law school graduate and a leader in Silicon Valley offers a poignant memoir of both the rise and fall of the white middle class and the cultural and social impact that it has had on multiple generations.  However, the book remains somewhat controversial because while it has been embraced by many conservatives as a tough love view of the rural poor, many progressives believe that it reinforced myths about the poor.  Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, this book offers a starting point for discussion on the subject of can we have any common ground on how we view the causes of poverty versus personal responsibility.

While Vance’s book is more memoir than study, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild offers a more analytical approach to trying to understand the sources of anger many missed.  Hochschild is a retired award-winning U.C. Berkeley professor of sociology.  The book is based on a five-year study where she immersed herself with Tea Party loyalists in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She chose a state that she saw as a paradox.  Her goal was to bridge what she calls her liberal “empathy wall” to better understand the Right. As one reviewer put it:

“In her attempt to climb over the ’empathy wall’ and truly understand the emotional lives of her political adversaries, Arlie Hochschild gives us a vital roadmap to bridging the deep divides in our political landscape and renewing the promise of American democracy. A must-read for any political American who isn’t ready to give up just yet.”
Joan Blades, co-founder of,, and

While both of the above offer views of some constituencies on the white southern and rustbelt Right, the just-released I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown is a memoir of a middle class African-American woman who puts her personal story of growing up in Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio in the context both of race and her work in churches. Interestingly enough, she grew up in Ohio like J.D. Vance but offers a different perspective as an African-American and woman.  She is a writer with a degree in social justice and she has “worked with nonprofits, churches, parachurch ministries, and universities in both the urban and suburban context for the advancement of racial justice and reconciliation.”

Brown has worked hard through her activism to try to bridge the divide but this book pulls no punches when it comes to her anger over what she sees as systemic racism even among liberal whites.  She is not offering any absolution and while advocating reconciliation she also describes an exhaustion she feels from battling.

None of these books offer solutions. What they do offer as we search for common ground are windows into why some people feel disenfranchised and why polarization has no easy fix except to keep trying. A reviewer of Hillbilly Elegy summed up the situation thusly:

“All these books are inarticulate attempts to describe the true scene that now has been revealed to us. We don’t know how to talk about this; we don’t know how to talk to each other. One day we may stumble into a lexicon and a strategy for solution, but the way forward, for now, is to first learn to listen to each other and reflect upon our own distorting frames.”




The Middle Shelf: Part 3 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

One of the seminal books that should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand polarization and how there could be a possibility of bridging divides and reaching common ground is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. While the book has been out since 2013 we still want to recommend it because we find the author’s empirical approach to polarization based on his work as a social psychologist to be a rational way to view politics during this rather confusing time.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at the NYU-Stern School of Business. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, and spent most of his career (1995-2011) at the University of Virginia.

Haidt’s research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures––including the cultures of American progressive, conservatives, and libertarians. He was named a “top 100 global thinker” in 2012 by Foreign Policy magazine, and one of the 65 “World Thinkers of 2013” by Prospect magazine.

Haidt considers himself a centrist politically. A couple of years after he wrote the book, he explained that his main goals in writing The Righteous Mind was to “examine through applied psychology how moral psychology can help us understand the forces making American democracy so dysfunctional? Also how can moral psychology help citizens understand each other across the political divide?” 

What he found was that all political movements have blind spots even among those that acknowledge moral truths. The three pillars of political thought being the left right and libertarian, according to Haidt, all have their truths about how to create a society that is humane. The problem is that ideology, even if well meaning, can distort and make us blind to how others think.

Few books on this type of subject begin with the origin of life starting with bacteria! By looking at morality through both cultural and biological lenses, we can get unique insight into how humans make judgments. It is a multi-genre study that takes the reader across the academic fields of study ranging from social and political sciences as well as the humanities.

In his introduction, Haidt notes that there are aspects of the topic that are not easy:

Etiquette books tell us not to discuss [politics and religion] in polite company, but I say go ahead. Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together. My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with a mixture of awe, wonder, and curiosity.”

The book is divided into three parts or principles:

  • Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second
  • There’s more to morality than harm and fairness
  • Morality binds and blinds.

Throughout the book Haidt offers graphics to illustrate his points. One of the ones we found particularly enlightening was:


There is so much more about this book that makes it an excellent addition to your summer, or any season, reading list. For more on this book please visit Jonathan Haidt website. 

As always, we would like to hear from you about your summer reading plans. Are there new books or any classics you think are worth reading on the road to common ground? Let us know what you think of our first two choices.

The Middle Shelf: Part 2 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

As is often said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” (Actually, the original quote is probably from philosopher George Santayana and read “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.“). Nevertheless, the idea that we need to be cognizant of what came before in order not just to learn but to keep things in perspective is necessary. Each generation might wish to believe that its problems are unique but looking back to past generations can provide some guidance that we have in many ways been there and done that.

The difference today may lie in the fact that previous generations did not have either the benefit or some might say curse of having immediate news of or information on things that are going wrong. With immediacy comes reaction at lightning speed and often quicker polarization.  If we really stop to analyze what is taking place and try to put things in perspective, would we be more likely to process and think?  Would the road to common ground be paved a little smoother if we recognized that history has lessons to teach us?

The latest book by historian Jon Meacham suggests that while we may currently believe we are in our most polarized state, in fact, our nation has faced crisis and upheaval throughout its history and that we have come through to make progress.  In The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Meacham looks back to the very origins of the nation, debates over the function of the presidency, the Civil War and its aftermath, anti-immigration sentiment during periods such as the Gilded Age, and periods up to Civil Rights battles.  He profiles presidents that have shaped our nation and how policies, some good some bad, were created by the push me-pull you of politics. He finds some presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman who redeemed themselves by stepping beyond the political to guide the nation through some of its darkest hours.

In a recent interview, Meacham said that it is not about the party or that one side or the other has the better angels on their side.  “Our best moments have come when voices far from power – reformers, protesters, those who have been on the margins – have forced the powerful to take notice… our finest hours have come when presidential power has intersected with voices of protest to lead us to higher ground. And that may sound homiletic or may sound a little bit like a Fourth of July remark, but it’s not. It’s simply a historic fact.”

It should be noted that Meacham does have some strong negative views about the current administration. The author is a former editor in chief of Newsweek, a Pulitzer prize winner for his book about Andrew Jackson, wrote books about Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush among others. What is worth gleaning from the book is not so much what he views about today’s President, but rather what he said the above interview: “As  a southerner and as a biographer, my sense of things is where Faulkner was in “Requiem For A Nun,” when he said the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

Conversation Watch: Police and Community

As we mentioned in our last blog and Facebook posts, we will be posting a book list of recommended readings that show how various people are seeking and sometimes achieving common ground. One of our first recommendations was Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America which focuses on how individual communities are revitalizing through working on local problems and in some respects ignoring the noise of the echo chambers.

During our recent event in Charlottesville, VA featuring Donna Brazile and Michael Steele on the Role of Government in Bridging the Racial Divide, Michael Steele made the point that government can only do so much and that community engagement must be a major part of any achievement of common ground on the racial issues that rip communities apart. Michael added a personal antidote by recounting his upbringing where the local police for example lived and patrolled their neighborhoods and consequently knew exactly who those were most likely to create problems. Donna Brazile agreed with this point and added her own personal antidote of a similar experience growing up with civil servants and first responders who worked in the areas they lived in.

An example of the type of community conversation that Steele and Brazile were referring to took place this month in South Bend, Indiana which has seen its share of incidents where civil rights violations have been alleged and both sides have agreed over the course of time that work is needed to be done between the police and the community to restore trust while mindful of safety needs of everyone involved,.

The City and constituents mostly from African American neighborhoods in South Bend have been engaging for the last couple of years on a series of meetings both big and small to try to bridge some of the gaps and at least attempt to find some common ground on how police and members of the African American community can at least come to terms with how to approach the issues.  The most recent took place on May 1st that was organized and filmed by a local television station.

The central theme that emerged was that many of the issues that divided the sides stemmed from generalization rather than specifics and policies that were in place such as how a suspect is identified or detained is often at the mercy of departmental policies. Solutions may lie in more local policing where there is a higher familiarity with actual people. Additionally, communities need to be more proactive in discussing how these policies are created and become more engaged in the process.

If nothing else arises from these conversations, they are demonstrations that change is hard and will take time and continual discussion but the fact is that without some framework to at least try to hear what the other side is saying common ground cannot be achieved.


Links to the three-part video series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The Middle Shelf: Part 1 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

Here on the East Coast the weather has FINALLY turned warm and thoughts are turning to summer and the proverbial book list everyone promises they will catch up on.  Here at CGC while we do not have any sizzling novels to suggest for your beach bag, we are kicking off our recommendations for books that focus on a variety of experiences and ideas on reaching common ground.  Beginning today and every Thursday during the 99 days of summer we will be sharing some ideas for books you might want to check out.  We encourage you to read as well as to send us your recommendations for our reading list. We are kicking this off with two books that approach the search for common ground from very different vantage points both geographically as well as politically.

The first book, Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country, is an inside the Beltway memoir written by Senator Tim Scott and Congressman Trey Gowdy, both from South Carolina.

They first became acquainted when Scott was a Congressman who served alongside Gowdy before becoming their state’s junior Senator.  While both are Republicans, Scott who is African American and Gowdy who is white, began forging their friendship following the tragic shootings in 2015 at the Mother Emanual Church in Charleston. While both are Republicans, they acknowledge that they have different perspectives which come not just from philosophical differences but from the very different backgrounds and upbringings.  Scott came from a poor, single-parent family while Gowdy was the son of a doctor.


Gowdy explained during a recent interview the pair had on CBS News, “I find it inspirational from the moment we became friends. I think his — the story of how he got where he is, is a story of hope that our whole country would benefit from. I think contrast is good. I think conflict is debilitating. We’re in a dangerous time in our in our history in terms of political discourse … I think there’s a hunger and a yearning for unity. And if you can find it with a handsome bald-headed guy from Charleston and a middle-aged son of a doctor from the upstate of South Carolina then I think everyone can benefit from unlikely friendships”.


Scott picked up the points by saying, “I think about the challenges of race in our state,” Scott continued. “We have a very provocative history on race in South Carolina. The truth is that after the 2015 Mother Emanuel Church shooting, I found myself turning to a white guy in the aftermath. It became clear to me that there is a chance to bridge real gaps in this country. And if that was an example of one real bridging of a gap — after a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, led me to turn to a white guy that I did not know before I came to Congress. Are there lessons within this friendship that can help our nation that seems to be so polarized, in such conflict, mired in challenges, and sometimes heading towards tribalism? If there’s a way to bridge that gap, can we and should we tell that story? I think we can, and I think we should, and we did.”

Link to CBS News article about the book 

While Unified is clearly about how two politicians have been able to find common ground in a divided Washington D.C., the book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America by the husband and wife team of James and Deborah Fallows doesn’t venture into Washington D.C but instead went searching for the answer of how Americans were actually living their lives and working together to solve community problems.

The Fallows are long-time members of the Democrat establishment and accomplished authors and journalists. After years covering overseas politics, they decided to turn their lives into a journey to find out what their own country really was about. They set off on a 5-year journey, in a single engine prop plane to visit and interview Americans from coast to coast but focusing primarily on smaller communities in the Heartland that were trying to revitalize. They made two-week stops in 24 places and 25 shorter stops in others.

The book is a fascinating view of what it is like to go beyond the echo chamber to see how people are really living not just how or why they voted a certain way.  As pointed out by journalist Lincoln Caplan in his review of the book and interview with the authors:

“OUR TOWNS is not naïve. In the May 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Jim writes about the book: “Everyone knows how genuinely troubled the United States is at the level of national politics and governance. It is natural to assume that these disorders must reflect a deeper rot across the country. And indeed, you can’t travel extensively through today’s America…without being exposed to signs of rot, from opioid addiction to calcifying class barriers.”

However, as the interview also points out, despite the numerous issues that are polarizing us, solutions are being found and communities that were once written off are rising again through local moxie.

“Suppose that you are skeptical of this fundamental claim, about the ongoing health of local American society,” Jim writes in The Atlantic. “I suggest the following test…: Through the next year, go to half a dozen places that are new to you, and that are not usually covered by the press. When you get there, don’t ask people about national politics…if it’s on cable news, don’t ask about it. Instead, ask about what is happening right now in these places. The schools, the businesses, the downtowns, the kind of people moving out and the kind moving in, and how all of this compares with the situation 10 years ago. See where that leads you. This process, repeated again and again,” led the Fallowses to the optimistic conclusion they reach in their book.

Link to the Harvard article for the book.


A bridge across the divide

With the National Week of Conversation behind us, we wanted everyone who has been following us on this journey to get a full summary of the impact of this event. For those of you who attended an event. we applaud that you took action and were a part of the change that we here at Common Ground support.  For those of you who could not or simply did not participate, we implore you to take the time and still try to start conversations within your local areas about communal, national and political matters and to bring light and not heat to public discourse.

If there was something we all learned through this and prior experience, it is that in our country,  grief is something both personal and visceral and no one, no matter how well-meaning can predict how long someone or a community will need to take to fully heal from a traumatic event such as that which occurred in Charlottesville last year.

Shawn M. Griffiths article from Independent Voter Coverage .com on the National Week of Conversation reflects the many positive experiences that happened during the recent conversations in Charlottesville. However, he also unpacked an unpopular and unspoken truth about the community’s and especially African American constituent’s uncomfortableness about opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box that was speaking about last August’s 2017 hate-filled protest.

Debilyn Molineux, Co-Director of Bridge Alliance, explained to Griffith her thoughts on this grief process and the current thought on healing in America:

“We move so immediately to taking action that people who are still traumatized can’t go with us,” Debilyn remarked.

“Somehow in this country, it has become unpopular to grieve, especially to grieve publicly. We are still in a period of grieving — a lot of us are. Not just about what happened on August 12 in Charlottesville, but what happened in past elections or what happened recently in Toronto. We have all of this trauma happening and we don’t really have a place to share and process it by pulling together. Instead of pulling us together, it ends up pulling us apart.”

When speaking to an audience member following the event, they asked if we felt we had all the answers since she, like many, felt too many people from the outside were invading their privacy in a well-meaning but albeit, misguided attempt to help. Outsiders could never truly understand the pain that their community has gone through and continues to process.  After a week of thought, we at Common Ground absolutely agree.

We do not have all the answers, nor do we think any one person or group will ever have all the answers.  Given this reality, we appreciate even more the overall positive feelings people spoke to us about after our event and the general uplifted mood everyone felt even if it was only for that afternoon. However, we need stones to build bridges to cross the divide and someone has to put the first stone down which being a part of the National week of Conversation in our mind was doing.