American flag democracy

How to Take an Active Part in America’s Democracy

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

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

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

Read on for our guide that will help you.

Find your local representatives

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

Contact your Representative or Senator

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Up to the Podium

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

Register to Vote

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

Help at the Election Day Polls

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

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

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

Healing Extremism Webinar

Healing Extremism

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

voting at the polls

On voting, conservatives and liberals should find common ground

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

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

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

Both sides have the wrong idea.

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

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

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

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

There is room for common ground.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

america talks 2021

A Week to Talk….and More Importantly, Listen

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

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

National Week of Conversation 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote on hate crimes bill is encouraging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Republican proposal seriously

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

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

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

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

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

Common Ground on Economy

Finding Common Ground on the New Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WATCH: How Do Common Ground Events Inspire Students?

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.