race wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stars and strife

Panel Discussion on “Stars and Strife” Documentary

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

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

Examining the State of Polarization in the US

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

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

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

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

Key Highlights from Our Panel Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missed the event?  You can watch it here!

tug of war

Why Is America So Politically Polarized?

tug of war

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Why do you think this happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ranked Choice Voting Explained


What is ranked choice voting?

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

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

The process works like this.

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

What’s the appeal of RCV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WATCH: Introducing Our Common Ground Scorecard

Want more progress and less division in politics? Our new Common Ground Scorecard can help inform your vote.

We all need our government to work effectively – but it won’t unless we elect those with the capacity to reach across the aisle. That’s why we created the Common Ground Scorecard, a free mobile-friendly tool that helps voters of all parties evaluate how well your elected officials are doing at listening, leading productive conversations and finding bipartisan points of agreement.

VIDEO: View our short tutorial on how to use the Common Ground Scorecard.

Give the scorecard a try, and see how it can help inform your vote for candidates who will work for more progress, and less division.

Why America needs you to vote for candidates who cooperate, not partisans who fight

In this Opinion Editorial piece for USA Today, Common Ground Committee Co-Founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen make a case for why it’s so important for voters to identify and support candidates in the 2020 election who seek common ground on political issues. 

Voters need a new mindset that makes willingness to find common ground a “must have” quality for any candidate.

The “new normal” that defined 2020 has made its presence known this election season. The upcoming presidential debates will not have in-person audiences. Door-to-door campaigning has mostly vanished. One thing that hasn’t changed in this climate is the rabid partisanship that has been synonymous with our politics for more than a decade.

Elections are known for partisan bickering, and that has been on full display. But the issue goes much deeper. Negotiations over a second stimulus remain stalled and action now seems unlikely until after the election. After the killing of George Floyd, Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform bill couldn’t get past even a procedural vote to begin debate. And most disturbing of all, partisan rhetoric has devolved into violence in cities like Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wisc.

To be sure, there are hints of cooperation on the federal level. Congressional leaders are attempting to revive negotiations following the shooting of Jacob Blake, as the nation cries out for action. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the 2020 Health Statistics Act, which would improve our government’s efforts to fight the pandemic.

But when our disagreements turn into violence and critical legislation is stalled, we can’t afford piecemeal progress. Voters need a new mindset that makes willingness to find common ground a “must have” quality for any candidate.

Politics has always had some degree of hostility, but it has not always been such a lightning rod. In 1960, just 4% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married someone from the opposite party, according to the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. By 2018, that number jumped to 45% and 35%, respectively per Public Religion Research Institute.

Voters’ attitudes have shifted

This thinking has also seeped into our voting habits. After the 2018 midterms, Pew Research found that voters from both parties cited opposition to the other party as a reason for their vote, more so than support of that particular candidate. Just 10 years earlier, Pew found that votes for Barack Obama and John McCain were made primarily in support of those candidates.

It would be easy to solely blame our leaders for this shift. After all, the behavior we witness on a near daily basis on our screens or in our papers feeds into the idea that the other side is an enemy to be defeated rather than a potential partner. But politicians reflect the behavior they think voters want to see. It’s become clear that many see demonization as a required step along the path to victory.

To paraphrase Rep. Barney Frank, who spoke last year at an event hosted by our organization, Common Ground Committee, we are not calling for Americans to vote for candidates they don’t believe in. But we’ve reached a point where we need to strongly consider those who have demonstrated a commitment to working across the aisle — because what we’re doing now is not working.

Politicians who are not interested in hearing what the other side has to say are not interested in making progress, they are simply interested in getting their way.

If we had told you this time last year that most of our workforce was remote, or that the majority of Americans have rallied behind significant police reforms, you may not have believed us. A shift in thinking is never easy, but if there was ever a time, it’s this moment.

Consider actions, not just words

When you go to the polls in November or send in your mail-in ballot, don’t immediately flock to the candidate you think will best dominate the other side. Consider the individual who best represents your ideals but also knows that collaboration is essential in getting things done. Consider their concrete actions rather than just their words.

Find open-minded politicians with the Common Ground Scorecard

This new mindset will require a new set of tools to cut through the noise. That’s why we introduced the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool that measures the degree to which officeholders and candidates for elected office embody the spirit and practice of what we call Common Grounders — people who seek solutions through listening and productive conversation.

The same way voters would research where a candidate for public office stands on issues like climate change, the Scorecard provides a venue to see where they stand on common ground.

Along with the Scorecard, we urge voters to use other voting tools available to help them make informed decisions. Examples include Vote Smart, the Bipartisan Index from the Lugar Center and Ballotpedia.

The historic challenges our nation faces won’t be solved by partisan shots in the coming weeks and months. And they won’t be solved by treating this election like any other.

It is long past time to head to the polls with a new mindset that prioritizes solutions and ideas over demonization and tribalism. With new tools and thinking, we can begin to move the incentive needle away from demonizing the opposition and toward working together to make progress on the tough issues our nation faces.

Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen are co-founders of Common Ground Committee, a citizen-led initiative focused on demonstrating productive public discourse.

– This article was published in USA Today on September 17th, 2020.

Democracy Reform Group Spotlight: The Bridge Alliance

There has been a proliferation of groups dedicated to political reform today — and the organizational efforts to link them collaboratively.

The Bridge Alliance is one such umbrella organization that collects the energy and ideas and helps focus them into concerted efforts.

As part of a series on key players involved in reform, Common Ground Committee is hosting a series of Q&A sessions beginning with Jeremy Garson, Chief of Staff with The Bridge Alliance.

Common Ground Committee: How would you define the democracy reform movement?

Jeremy Garson, The Bridge Alliance: It started with people who believed the country as it stands is not a healthy democratic republic, and coming together to ask, What do we do to make it one? We might have different ideas of what the country should be, but we need to work together to accomplish our goals. We’ll accomplish more as a collaborative whole than as individuals doing what they want to do. From there, it evolved in so many different factions, so to encapsulate it in one definition is impossible. Really, anyone who’s trying to resolve that question and move in that direction — thousands of organizations and people —comprise the movement. In general, if you think you’re part of the movement, you’re likely part of the movement.

Jeremy Garson, Chief of Staff with The Bridge Alliance

CGC: What’s the Bridge Alliance’s role?

JG: We consider ourselves to be an umbrella group for about 100 organizations working together. We try to take a 10,000-foot view from above; we see ourselves bringing together organizations who have a track record of success, or some degree of good-faith nonpartisanship, and most importantly, have a history of showing a willingness to collaborate. From there, we’re very inclusive. It’s nonpartisan in the sense that anyone with a range of leanings can be part of it, though of course a lot of the players have a clear ideological lean.

CGC: Tell us about what the Bridge Alliance does. In what ways do you pull together the factions?

JG: We have what we call “three buckets” our members fit into, which are three categories of focus work within the democracy reform movement. They are civic engagement; campaigns and the election process (making the vote more secure); and governance and policymaking, which means providing support to help elected officials do their job. What probably separates us from most organizations is that we’re not trying to propose specific solutions. We’re trying to create a marketplace of ideas, and show the American public, “Here are the options available to you, pick and choose what angle you care to get engaged in.” We’d like to help them understand the ways they can get involved, to understand reform opportunities out there, and what groups to connect with if they have certain ideas about ways the country should go. For example, if campaign finance is your thing, we have a group for you. And we get the word out about what our member-groups are doing. Getting all these balls rolling will eventually lead to healthier self-governance.

CGC: Can you give us an example of something you’ve spearheaded as a group?

JG: The Bridge Alliance Education Fund hosted a summit last October focused on bringing diversity into the reform movement — diversity by ideology, race and ethnicity, age and faith, and geography, and gathered all these people together with our member organizations in the D.C. metropolitan area. It involved a lot of honest networking with no cameras and no media, so everyone would feel free to engage without prying eyes. It wasn’t about inviting people to join the Bridge Alliance per se, but inviting them to engage with our members to make sure we were expanding these networks as large as possible through informal partnerships.

CGC:  Are there any core beliefs or efforts that the Bridge Alliance shares as a whole?

JG: This isn’t going to sound like much, but we believe every eligible American should be able to vote, safely and securely. This plays to both progressive and conservative viewpoints, people concerned with issues of access and legitimacy. We present the arguments for mail-in voting because we have members who are dedicated to that as a good answer to the pandemic. And we have members focusing on ballot security as well.

I’m very proud of that diversity of opinion. Every single one of us has something that we’re wrong about, and you have to have a bunch of brilliant minds in the room to find solutions that work best.

Stay tuned for the next session in our series. Want to hear more on this and other important topics? Check out our newly launched Podcast “Let’s Find Common Ground” featuring top leaders.

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What is the Democracy Reform Movement?

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Many Americans feel that our political process has become more than dangerously polarized — that democracy as we know it is in fact broken, and requires concerted efforts to fix it.

But what constitutes “fixing?” Opinions and prescriptives are as varied as the people who vote at the polls. But there are some cornerstones of democracy that are held in high esteem. And in today’s culture of incivility, are the ones most agreed upon to need reform.

  • Threats to the freedom to vote
  • Excessive money spent in pursuit of elected offices
  • The influence of outside parties and special interests
  • Lack of representation of our diverse electorate
  • Incivility in political discourse

Common Ground Committee examines these in a multi-part blog post series.

Today, there are hundreds of organizations working to foster a more functional, representative, and accountable government. They focus on a variety of strategies. Some stress the importance of changing electoral rules, or smoothing the path for more diverse candidates; some focus on supporting nonpartisan candidates who have a track record of reaching across the aisle to accomplish change.  Others like Common Ground Committee strive for bringing leaders and citizens together to find commonality, civility and make progress.

An important step in the right direction was the passage of H.R. 1 a year ago. This historic democracy reform legislation, also known as the For the People Act, kicked off a surge of reform motivation at the local, state, federal, and presidential levels.

What is H.R.1?

H.R. 1 has three pillars of reform, each with policy solutions aimed to strengthen democracy and more fairly represent all people and communities in the U.S.

  1. Protect and expand the right to vote. Some of the strategies include creating automatic voter registration nationwide, instituting same-day registration, expanding early voting, prohibiting inappropriate purges of voter rolls, and committing to restore the Voting Rights Act. Particularly notable recommendations: establishing independent redistricting commissions to ending partisan gerrymandering, and focusing on blocking infiltration of outside parties and influences trying to undermine legitimate election results.
  2. Shrink the corrupting influence of special interests that dominate the federal policymaking process. Among the solutions: restructuring the Federal Election Commission, so that the agency can robustly enforce election laws. Especially significant: a new federal matching system for small donations. This will give the American people a stronger voice in politics while making it easier for a diverse range of candidates and candidates without wealthy donor networks to run for public office.
  3. Restoring ethics and accountability for government officials by breaking the influence economy in Washington. Solutions: expanding conflict of interest laws, requiring top elected and appointed officials to take commonsense steps to divest from their financial holdings, slowing the revolving door between government and the private sector, and mandating presidents to disclose their tax returns. Especially noteworthy reforms include overhauling the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and ensuring that government watchdogs finally have the resources they need to actively enforce the law.

The proclamations of support for these reforms represent significant mile markers on the road to creating a political system that works for everyday Americans instead of only for corporations and special interests. And represent a critical first step in restoring public trust in the U.S. federal political process.

Check back for our upcoming post where we interview Jeremy Garson of the Bridge Alliance Movement.

Learn more about Common Ground Committee – our bi-weekly podcast and past events.

Dreading Election Season? Get 5 Tips for Better Political Conversations

Our series of monthly actions invite Common Grounders to bring light, not heat, to the work of leading progress on America’s most pressing issues. This month: as tensions rise during election season, prepare yourself with tools for leading better political conversations.

August 2020 Action: Find More Common Ground in Your Political Conversations

With the countdown to the general election now underway, political divisions can be more fraught than ever – particularly at home, where the emotional stakes are high. This month, prepare yourself to lead better conversations with family and friends who may hold opposing political views.

5 tips for better political talks

Turns out, (nearly) everything we need to know about successful political conversations we learned in Kindergarten: take turns, be curious, and be respectful.

Looking to go a bit further? These five simple tips from Common Ground Committee co-founder Bruce Bond, Living Room Conversations co-founder Joan Blades and Bridges USA co-founder Manu Meel will set you up for more successful conversations with loved ones on some of today’s most divisive issues.

  1. Examine your motives. Before engaging in conversation on a politically charged topic, be honest with yourself about what you hope to achieve. Is your goal to change the other person’s mind, or to understand them better so you can begin to bridge divides? (The latter, as you might guess, has a much greater chance of success.)
  2. Don’t go in cold. The first step in any successful conversation is relating to the other person as a human being. Before delving into a politically sensitive topic, look for a way to break the ice and reinforce your personal connection.
  3. Listen to understand, and show it. When it comes to political conversations, are you simply listening for points you can successfully argue? Or to truly understand the other person’s motivations and perspective? To have a productive discussion, you must first understand the personal reasons someone holds a certain view; then show you’ve really heard their contribution to the conversation. That can open the door to an “a-ha moment.”
  4. Look for shared values. Conflict resolution experts who utilize interest-based bargaining offer a good lesson on navigating high-stakes issues. Rather than delving into where each of you stand on specific policy positions – for instance, immigration reform – go deeper. Try to identify shared values, such as your support of an inclusive society or the pursuit of the American dream. From there, it can be easier to find areas of common ground.
  5. Know when to redirect. The ability to use and accept facts is a prerequisite for productive conversation. So, if your trusted experts are different and there are no shared facts, it may not be possible to have healthy discussion with someone on a divisive political issue. Accept that we all must live with and love people with different viewpoints, and that de-escalating a heated situation may be the most constructive action you can take.

In a polarized political atmosphere and heated election season, we can each play a role in bringing light, not heat, to the nation’s civil discourse. Get more insight on how you can heal the divide (and talk politics) by watching our full webinar with Living Room Conversations and Bridge USA, and by downloading our Common Grounder guide.