Power & Politics: A News 12 Interview with Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen

Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen were featured on News 12 Connecticut speaking about our country’s crisis of political polarization and how we can fix it.


“Honor Bush’s legacy by forgoing tribalism”

Common Ground Committee co-founder, Bruce Bond, shares and memorializes the late President George H.W. Bush by urging readers to honor his legacy by forgoing tribalism and support candidates who do the same through civility and common ground methods.

President George H.W. Bush could have chosen to “spike the football.” It was 1991, and the Berlin Wall had fallen. I remember feeling, like so many Americans, elation. The United States had won, and the world seemed to be a safer place. But instead of taking a boastful tone to mark what would be the end of the Cold War, Bush kept a low profile and let the German people do the celebrating.

Instead of claiming victory, he worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, helping to secure a peaceful transition after decades of tension between the two superpowers.

I didn’t know President Bush. The closest I came to him and his family was riding on the school bus with his sons Jeb, Neil and Marvin when I lived in Houston. But his decisions and actions in one of the most critical times of our country told me everything I needed to know about the man.

As the country celebrates the life of our 41st president, many are wondering how to best honor his legacy. I’d say it begins with each of us, citizens and leaders, refusing to participate in the destructive tribalism that has dominated our politics in recent years.

That tribalism is hardly news. We see it every day from both sides of the aisle. In Texas, supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz at a rally personally attacked his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, for his physical appearance. O’Rourke’s fans returned the favor…

The country is taking notice. Only 38 percent of Americans say the United States is heading in the right direction, and an annual poll tracking discourse shows 93 percent say America has a civility problem. During the course of his presidency, Bush frequently represented our better instincts as a nation when it came to how we engaged in our politics.

To be sure, Bush had his moments of bitter partisanship. The infamous 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad is still viewed as one of the lowest moments in modern politics. But more often than not, he chose country over party. There was no greater example of that than during his campaign for re-election. Bush famously promised no new taxes before he took office, a message that appealed to his conservative base. But in 1990, facing the prospects of a government shutdown, he struck a deal with congressional Democrats that ultimately raised taxes.

Bush himself would say that cost him the election, but he did it for the good of the country. He wrote in his memoir, “…when you’re faced with the reality, the practical reality of shutting down the government or dealing with a hostile Congress, you get something done.”

As the nation faces the reality of a divided government after the midterms, the new Congress would be wise to heed Bush’s words. If politicians truly want to honor his legacy, they should do so by following his inclination to work with and respect the other side, even if it’s not politically expedient. That doesn’t mean sacrificing core values for the sake of compromise. It does mean having the determination to work with political opponents to make progress on the tough issues.

In praising his former boss, Vice President Dan Quayle told Fox News that a divided government can work “if you reach across the aisle and work hard.”

We’ve seen examples of this over recent years.

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold joined forces in regulating the financing of political campaigns. More recently, Ohio politicians reached across party lines to create the Congressional Civility Caucus. Politicians like Donna Brazile, Michael Steele, John Sununu, and Barney Frank took part in public forums hosted by the Common Ground Committee, an organization I co-founded that inspires action on polarizing issues by bringing prominent leaders with opposing views together to find common ground.

But we can’t remove the rancor and polarization that plague our halls of leadership unless each citizen decides that rewarding that behavior with a vote on Election Day is no longer acceptable. As the 2020 presidential election ramps up, every American should keep George H.W. Bush in mind when they go to the polls. Which candidate has the qualifications and strength of conviction to put politics aside and do what’s best for the country? Who has the decency, grace and kindness that our 41st president demonstrated throughout decades of public life? Whoever best demonstrates those qualities, put party aside, and vote for that person.

President Bush’s passing has brought about a temporary return to civility, as leaders from both sides of the aisle have come out to rightly praise his dignity as a leader. We’ll be doing him a disservice if we once again return to the toxic partisanship that divides rather than unites. I’m confident we can continue his legacy if we, as citizens, resolve ourselves to support politicians who prioritize country over party so that our leaders can move out of the polarization rut and more consistently make the choice to work toward common goals. George H.W. Bush set the example. Now, let’s all follow it.

— This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on December 5, 2018

Thoughts from our President on July 4th and how it should inspire us.

As is my family’s custom, on the morning of July 4  we attended a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the original Bill of Rights to a packed house at the iconic Unitarian Church on Nantucket. The reading was preceded by audience participation in the singing of patriotic American songs including “America The Beautiful”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “It’s a Grand Old Flag,”, and others. It was a rousing event, one that amid the celebration reminded me of how hard it was to get where we are today as a country.

But for the first time, I can remember, it wasn’t all rah-rah. Two passages from the Declaration generated specific applause from many in the audience who saw  them in the light of our current political situation:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

“He (the King) has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the reasons for it, there was great significance in that applause. The fact that Americans can freely and openly express their grievances with not just our government but the person leading it and not fear repercussion is a freedom that enables our country to continue to not just survive but thrive.

I happened to sit next to a young woman from Chile who is doing a summer internship involving historic preservation here on the island. We had a great conversation. It was exciting for me to see her thoroughly engaged and enjoying the experience of witnessing how Americans feel about their country, even when they express their displeasure.

As inspired as I was by the festivities I, too, felt emotions this year I had not previously experienced at these Declaration readings. Recalling my visit to Charlottesville earlier this year I found myself wondering how the Black Americans in the Nantucket audience were feeling during the reading. They were there and fully participating in the celebration. But do they feel differently about the country than I do? What was in their thoughts when they heard these words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

America has its challenges, but July 4th reminds me that living Americans have more fundamental things in common than they have differences. My hope is that we can increasingly work outward from those common elements and shared culture. If we can each harness the spirit and deep resolve behind the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in our civic engagement we can find common ground, make progress on the issues that divide us and make this already great nation even better.

Conversation Watch: Police and Community

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

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

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

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

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

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


Links to the three-part video series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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

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

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

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

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