Thought from our President on our event in Charlottesville

As co-founder of Common Ground Committee, I am very excited about our public forum, “Finding Common Ground on Government’s Role In Bridging Racial Divides” which will take place this Sunday, April 22 at 1 pm at The Haven in Charlottesville, Virginia. We will be the final session of the weekend-long Listen First in Charlottesville event, part of the National Week of Conversation. We will be joined in Charlottesville by a number of organizations who, like us, are working to heal the challenges of polarization and rancorous discourse. We are pleased and honored to be working with them. And we are grateful to Donna Brazile, Michael Steele and Wendi C. Thomas for being panelists and moderator for our public forum.

On a personal note, yesterday I had the opportunity to take a private tour of James Madison’s home, Montpelier. Madison is considered the “Father of our Constitution”. I learned just how true that is. When one thinks about how countries throughout the world have adopted the principles of government that Madison put forth it is hard to imagine anyone who has had a greater impact on the evolution of global political evolution. In the US, the Constitution is something we use every day. Madison was someone who truly changed the world for the better.

He was also a slave owner. A relatively new exhibit at Montpelier brilliantly captures the impact of slavery on our nation and on the lives of the enslaved, specifically those at Montpelier. It is an undeniable fact that the early and remarkable growth of the American economy was largely built on the institution of slavery. For people like me who truly love this nation, it is painful to see and acknowledge this blight on our history. But it is important that we do so if we are to successfully bridge racial divides. It has given me a different perspective as I think about our forum on Sunday.

States vs Federal: Where can we look for Common Ground?

This past week we witnessed two vastly different approaches to common ground.  On the one hand, we watched as the State of Florida and its heretofore conservative Governor Rick Scott passed what could be described for that particular state as surprisingly progressive gun control legislation.  The package approved by the Florida legislature and signed by Governor Scott did not include everything that some constituents hoped for.  However, the new laws showed signs that the recent Parkland tragedy,  social media as well as in-person demonstrations from the students and populists were strong enough to move politicians that had until this moment been unwilling to enact this type of legislation limiting gun purchases.

On the other hand, we also witnessed the House Intelligence Committee led by a Republican majority issue notice along with a 150-page report, ending their investigation into alleged Russian interference with the 2016 election.  What is important here is not so much what their findings were since depending on your particular political view you may or may not agree.  The Democrat minority on the committee found out about the decision and the report via the news as opposed to any personal discussions. This is disappointing and could be said to be an egregious break in the Congressional protocol that speaks to just how broken the federal legislative system is currently.

In the case of Florida, common ground was met in various degrees.  Whether or not it was motivated by emotion or the pragmatic thought that many of the students will be coming of voting age for the upcoming November elections is open to question.  However, the simple fact is, common ground was achieved in a state on a topic that up until recently would not have looked to enact this type of legislation.

Florida’s action raises the efficacy of our current federal system.  When Congressional committees cannot even observe the basic protocols of notifying opposition members of decisions of the majority, will we need to look to each state and its citizens to achieve common ground?

What then is common ground vis-a-vis the national interest or are we at a point where common ground will be that which each state views as such? How does this impact state to state border relations? While there has and always will be differences in how regions view many issues, are we swinging more towards a state’s rights system when it comes to many issues that divide us as a nation.  If so, what would that look like?

Does Common Ground Require Agreeing on the Common Good?

“What are the American ideals? They are the development of the individual for his own and the common good; the development of the individual through liberty; and the attainment of the common good through democracy and social justice.” – Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

The above quote is from the new book The Common Good by former Secretary of Labor and now professor and author Robert Reich.  While there is no doubt that Reich is an advocate for liberal and progressive thought, his latest book raises an interesting thesis that is worth discussing as it relates to the notion of how to achieve common ground?

Reich posits that America has for at least the last five decades under both Republican and Democrat and liberal and conservative majorities, been mired in a cycle that has swung far away from the common good and more towards the individual to the detriment of societal trust in government and other institutions. As such we no longer have a sense of what the common good is but rather we are now a nation of shareholders as opposed to stakeholders.  While the book is critical of the current majority, he is clear that today’s divisiveness did not just spring from this administration but has been fomenting for a very long time.

Much of his book focuses on using economic principles as a way to measure just how far we have strayed from understanding what we owe each other if anything as members of the same society.  His stated goal in writing the book is as he notes, to at least advance a discussion of the good that we have in common and provide a means for people with different views to debate.   As he also points out, the idea of the common good is not new.

He makes mention of the Eighteenth Century philosophers and the Founders who all advocated the idea of a public good as a means to civic virtue.  In fact the concept of the common good can be found in writings dating back to Plato and the idea of social harmony.  But as Reich also points out, we should not romanticize any of this because common good even when it was a goal was clearly not always inclusive.  However, Reich raises the idea that we cannot advance today and break the current cycle of polarization unless we get back to at least the goal of common good.

“The goal of the Common Ground Committee is to pursue initiatives which will reveal common ground for finding truth, clarity, understanding, and progress on issues of importance in a civil manner that does not require compromise of fundamental principles”.

We would ask whether or not agreement on the common good is necessary to achieve common ground? Do fundamental principles require a consensus on what is the common good for all or can each side of the aisle have a separate idea of what is the common good? Do you think that in a country as ideologically diverse as we have become we can be both shareholder and stakeholder to achieve what Justice Brandeis described as the American ideal? We welcome your thoughts?

State of the Union Address: Part 3 – Does it still matter? The rebuttal.

So far we have focused on whether or not the annual State of the Union address has relevance to the idea of not just informing the nation about a current President’s views on how the nation is faring, but if it can be used as a tool to reaching common ground.  The same questions can be raised regarding the rebuttal exercise that the minority party follows the speech with each year.

This year the Democrats chose not one, not two but four ways to rebut the speech and two alternate responses cropped up as well.  These included three televised “formal” responses from Congressman Joe Kennedy (network and cable), Congresswoman Maxine Waters (on BET) and newly elected Virginia delegate Elizabeth Guzman (Telemundo, CNN en Espanol and Univision). Senator Bernie Sanders used his YouTube live stream honed during the recent election to provide the Progressive view. Two non-Democratic party Donna Edwards, a former Congresswoman now running for county executive in Maryland, responded on behalf of the Working Families Party (not technically a Democrat response) and president of NARAL-Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue also spoke.

Keep in mind that Republicans responded to President  Obama four different ways  back in 2014 with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers giving the official response, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., giving the Spanish-language version and  Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky both speaking for the Tea Party coalition.

Looking at relevance and impact, the history of the rebuttals has been fraught with unforced errors as rising stars are often selected to make the response and rather than focusing on their views get derailed by morning after gifs and memes about water bottles and Chapstick and if these up and comers withstood the pressure of a national audience.

This year, as well as using 2014 as an example, the evidence of unity on the party of the responding party was lacking.  Different wings and bases of the parties are given the chance to state their position.  Obviously consensus is missing.

Given the above, do the responses to the State of the Union contribute in any way to reaching common ground for the minority party?  If people are more focused on the cult of personalities and are fodder for the social media amusement, what benefit do we derive from the response? And in general regarding the response and the main address being rebutted, if people are using these speeches as material for their own variety hour, the question of whether or not any of the speeches matter probably has been answered for a segment of the population.

Where then do we go as a citizenry from here? In the next few days we will discuss that question.

State of the Union Address: Part 2 – Does it still matter? The aftermath.

Today, in part two of our notes on the relevance of the State of the Union address, we focus on whether or not the speech given by President Trump last evening represented a method for presidents to help achieve common ground, or rather in today’s technologically driven world, is simply a political anachronism that time and technology have left behind.  Tomorrow, in part three we will put the same lens on the opposition rebuttals.

The fact is that the speech’s success or lack thereof is probably in the eye of the beholder depending on which side of the political aisle you may be sitting on.  The issues raised by the President last night are not new and have been matters of division for a long time.  Immigration has been a hot button for many years, global terrorism and in particular North Korea have been wrestled with by the last four presidents, economics and wage growth and the relationship to the stock market continue to be a conundrum.  As such, there should have been no expectation that one speech each year by any president or any political figure would solve these issues.  Whether or not you feel this President in this speech offered a roadmap to actually solving these problems is a matter for your personal opinion.

One commentator derided the ceremonial traditions that surround the speech making it seem almost monarchical as well as almost redundant.  Historically this was one of the primary reasons Thomas Jefferson did away with the tradition all together.

Another  commentator suggested that the speech in general no longer has relevance, especially for this President, because whereas in the past it was a moment that allowed a president to be presidential and “forced the presidency into action and helped coordinate the bureaucracy, the congressional agenda, and public attention.” However, with a president that communicates multiple times via Twitter on a daily basis, the speech might be obsolete because his words are no longer “finite.”

There is no doubt that this president has thrust the presidency into the social media morass for better or worse.  However, because of the fact that today’s news is presented in short bursts that do not always allow for  true analysis, perhaps a long form speech that lays out the issues is not necessarily a bad idea.  While the solutions presented might not be to one’s liking, the delineation of the issues can motivate a citizen to do some of their own fact checking and research.

Did you watch the speech? Did you see and hear ideas and issues that led you to either change your mind or at least want to know more?  Does this yearly speech represent a unifier or a chance for the President to simply reinforce a particular partisan stance? If the speech were no longer required, what method would you fashion to replace it?  However, the question at hand is what purpose this annual exercise serves in accordance with helping to achieve common ground in a divided nation?

State of the Union Address: Part 1 – Does it matter?

With the State of the Union address less than 24 hours away, the question of its relevance in today’s polarized political climate is on the minds of all of the major media outlets as well as CGC. Today’s blog post we start a 3-part series about the State of the Union. Today we will focus on the history of the speech to ready ourselves for tomorrows address.

The history of this speech is surprisingly far more politically charged then one would imagine.  The speech has its origins and obligation rooted in the Constitution, Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, which states The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The first president to make such a speech was George Washington in what was then known as the Annual Message. Jefferson later discontinued the tradition because to him to smacked of the Annual Message presented by the British crown each year (and he didn’t want to make the trip up to the then capital of New York). For some years, it was presented by a clerk and then devolved into a written message.  Woodrow Wilson revived the personal delivery in front of the full Congress.

Wilson’s motives for re-instituting the in person address was due to his belief that the founders erred on making the three branches of government separate and that by doing a in-person delivery he could further his agenda and make a more democratic process. With the exception of Herbert Hoover, all other presidents since Wilson have presented a public speech and used available media to ensure the public had awareness.

While on its face, the presentation of the State of the Union address should be a benign event that has not always been the case.  There have been some humorous moments in recent history caught for posterity by television and kept alive as memes and gifs by the internet (such as Justice Ginsberg taking a nap in 2015 and Vice President Joe Biden grinning and pointing). However, there have also been some moments where unfortunate political polarization has been captured such as when Justice Alito reacted to President Obama’s criticism of the Citizens United decision and President Nixon’s argument that one year of Watergate was enough.

While the historical aspects of the speech are interesting and historians can and do debate which speech was best or worst, CGC would pose the question as to whether or not the speech has a relevance as a way to generate common ground.  Have presidents been able to spark unity and understanding through the speech or is it simply an arcane exercise?

Do you plan on watching the speech or boycotting?  Will you watch with an eye and ear towards understanding the other side’s position?

The Bases are Loaded So How do you hit a Home Run? Evidently with a Stick.

As we continue in shutdown limbo, it is worth asking whether or not common ground is possible when our representatives are catering to their base as opposed to the country as a whole.  Right now, progressives are angry that the Democratic leadership did not keep the shutdown going on the supposition that a protracted shutdown would have resulted in legislation that would protect the Dreamers.  Alternatively, partisans on the opposite side are holding firm, at least in the House of Representatives, to the idea that what the Democrats essential want is amnesty and they have no intention of agreeing to that.  President Trump has signaled some degree of movement on the path to citizenship for the Dreamers but it is still not clear what concessions he will actually want to agree to a solution.

Trust between the parties is almost nonexistent. Each side feels compelled to adhere to what their base is demanding. While the base on each side may well not represent the majority, it is well known that those who comprise the base are often the most ardent supporters who go out and vote in primaries and with election season soon upon us, representatives are often politicians first and statesmen secondarily.  So long as moderate voices are not in the forefront, the base will dominate.

How many of you have heard of the talking stick? We are sure for some this might hearken back to elementary school days circle time when your teacher would give a student an object, such as a stick or small ball that would indicate who could talk and when they could talk, and would be passed around the class to allow for a controlled but constructive speaking environment.  During the negotiations to end the shutdown, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), a member of the centrist senatorial group calling themselves the Common Sense Coalition, held meetings in her office and utilized the talking stick which had been a gift to her from Democrat Senator Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota.

This was a mechanism to ensure that all voices had a chance to be heard.  While some of the discussions were heated because even centrists have a base, the use of this tool resulted in everyone present at last making their point known and resolution occurred.  Were the bases happy-no.  However, moderates put aside their partisanship to some degree and acted less like politicians and more like representatives of the whole.

It is moments like this that we should be encouraging as the norm rather than as an outlier. Yes we send people to Congress to enact legislation about special causes we care about. However, when the bases dominate and moderate voices are drowned out we all potentially lose.

What are your thoughts about the influence that the bases have on our current government? Just how much influence should they have? At what point should the base be ignored in favor of the center?

What talking sticks do you use in your life to make sure that you are heard and that you are listening?

(Photo Credit: WGME.com )

2018: Getting to really know your government is the first step

2018 is barely out of the gate and I think we can all agree that is seems this year is going to reap what 2017 sewed. With our current government wrestling with shutdowns, trust issues and this last weekend again seeing marches on opposing sides, it seems the polarization has finally manifested itself in its full form.

CGC would like to first give our support to those military and government workers who were effected monetarily that have little to no power when shutdowns like these occur. There are many people in our country who work hard to make all of our lives better. They run the gamut from those who work on environmental, medical, education, sanitation, agriculture, etc., who can be hurt by these shutdowns and deserve our support and recognition for being caught between this partisan morass.

While CGC condemns unnecessary governmental shutdowns, we understand that these issues involved are not new and have been festering for many years. There are no easy fixes, however, CGC would suggest that everyone take a moment to consider that while the worst case scenario seems to be happened, and currently we have been put in limbo until Feb 8th. What as citizens can we do to mitigate the fallout?

We believe that during times like these we should all be productive in our understanding of how the government works, how shutdowns like these happen and both their short and long term effects on our country.  It is never too early to begin to think about the 2018 elections and your options for representation. Were your representatives providing constructive suggestions and appropriate civil behavior during the negotiating process? When it came to this shutdown and leading up to it in 2017, did they try to work toward bipartisanship within Congress? If they didn’t, what were their reasons behind it and were they sufficient enough that it made sense to you?

So to start this examination, CGC will focus this week on proactive information to help educate our followers about the consequences of shutdowns, about how our government works and what early steps as a citizen you can take to hold your representative to civil responsibility.

We recommend that everyone watch Crash Course from PBS Digital Studios.  This on going multi-generational 48 episode series of short, less than 10 minute vignettes will provide the concrete information to help you understand your government’s workings and help place the events into context.

While we all wait to see what will come in the next few weeks, we ask what productive things you as a citizens feel you can and will do to prevent future shutdowns from happening. What do you plan to do now in January to prepare for the elections happening in November and to make yourself more informed. What would you like to see from organizations like ours in facilitating in areas such as how we can better hold our elected officials accountable for civility.

Divided they stand, United we…. or How the DACA meeting showed us what could have been if common ground had been taken seriously and what we as citizens need to do about it.

One of our core beliefs is that, given the opportunity and a supporting environment, leaders with strongly held opposite views can and will work together to make tangible progress on important issues.

On January 9, 2018 the President and bipartisan group of 25 members of Congress met to work together on formulating an immigration bill that all could live with. With cameras rolling, different participants demonstrated a give-and-take spirit and a desire to make real progress that we have not seen for a while and certainly did not expect. It was a notable data point in support of our aforementioned core belief.

Unfortunately, the events of subsequent days have at best dimmed if not erased the ray of hope that emerged. As we write this post, the public’s attention has shifted from the real possibility of a bipartisan agreement to the outrage caused by the President’s reported response to a follow-up immigration bill proposal submitted to him by a bipartisan group of six senators.

We condemn and find no excuse for the statements attributed to the President.  However, our hope is that, as a nation and as individuals, we do not discard the possibilities of progress raised by the January 8 meeting in an angry rage against the offensive, thoughtless comments reported thereafter. Regardless of your individual views about this issue or the comments, the January 8 meeting provided a glimpse of what is possible when political leaders sit down together, listen to one another and work to find common ground.

We need to build on what happened in that meeting. As citizens, let us ask our elected officials to follow the high minded, good faith efforts we saw in it and seek to consistently work with their peers in this manner on all issues, not just the easy ones. As voters, let us reward those who make efforts to find solutions by giving our support and votes to candidates we believe will work most to find common ground without sacrificing core principles, even if the candidates are not members of the party to which we belong.

Regardless of the aftermath, the January 8 meeting proved that elected leaders, working in a spirit of collaboration and common ground on important issues can find agreement. Let’s act and vote for individuals who’s will to follow that lead and consistently work in that spirit.

A follow up on discernment in our schools about fake media.

A few posts back we talked about a teacher who had begun an initiative with his class to be able to discern fake news from real news and the critical importance of this skill to ensuring a sound democracy.  This initiative is becoming a movement among educators and legislators including programs in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Mexico and the state of Washington.  Arizona, New York and Hawaii are expected to join the cause this year. These bills focus on media and in particular digital literacy.  Many of the bills’ authors are using models from groups such as Media Literacy Now and the Digital Citizenship Institute  .  Opposition has been limited and mostly surrounding the possible costs to school funding of any additional mandates so many of the rules are framed as voluntary.

This movement comes at a time when there is increasing recognition that no matter what side of the aisle you may be on, it is necessary to try to ensure that our populace, especially young people who spend a substantial amount of time online, have discernment skills.  This follows a recent study by Stanford University researchers which “warned that students from middle school to college were ill-equipped to use reason with online information.

CGC believes that such efforts to make a better informed citizenry can and should be supported. “I don’t think it’s a partisan issue to appreciate the importance of good information and the teaching of tools for navigating the information environment,” said Hans Zeiger, a Republican state senator in Washington who co-sponsored a bill that passed in his state earlier this year. “There is such a thing as an objective source versus other kinds of sources, and that’s an appropriate thing for schools to be teaching.”

CGC will update as more information on this movement continues.  Are you aware of any legislation in your community on this issue?  Do you feel well equipped to speak to those who have the ability to sponsor this type of legislation?  Do you feel you have the skills and information to be able to discern fact from fake and how to approach your child on this?