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Common ground in politics is possible. It just needs coverage.

Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen co-founders of Common Ground Committee seek to promote productive public discourse in this op-ed discussing the big picture of politics and civility in our events. 

Turn on any cable news channel and you’ll likely hear talk about the divisiveness of our politics, and there are numbers to back that up. 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. As discouraging as these numbers seem, the tide may be turning.

A recent poll from Georgetown University found that 85 percent of voters want finding common ground to be a main goal of politicians. A survey from Hidden Tribes of America found that 77 percent of Americans believe that the differences between us are not so big that they cannot be bridged.

As the co-founders of Common Ground Committee, we’ve repeatedly seen this shift first-hand. Whether it’s at one of our forums with political leaders or in conversations with family, friends and colleagues, we’ve found that people actually agree on more than they realize. They just have to engage in the conversation. What’s more, people will often share experiences of seeking and finding common ground with those who hold different political beliefs.

Unfortunately, we rarely get the chance to witness agreement between political leaders from different parties. The media portrays politicians as constant adversaries rather than collaborators. This representation has consequences: Research suggests that negative feelings toward the opposite party’s leadership are much stronger than those directed at individuals.

That’s why it’s important to show the country that leaders from the two parties can agree — and not just on “little stuff.” When that happens, you can instantly see people light up. When we held a public forum earlier this year at the University of Notre Dame, the campus was abuzz after seeing former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice find consensus on a wide range of issues. Students walked in prepared to see them search for grains of agreement, but instead saw consistent agreement on issues including North Korea, climate change and Middle East policy. Following the event, students told us they would have assumed the Democrat Kerry and the Republican Rice were from the same political party if they hadn’t known better.

At a striking point in the forum, Rice provided an in-depth explanation of her views on immigration policy. Kerry had a two-word response: “I agree.”

Mainstream media rarely represents this aspect of our political leaders’ lives: the vast areas of agreement, compromise, and collaboration that go into productive governing.

We recognize that healthy debate is necessary for democracy; Kerry and Rice certainly didn’t agree on everything. Their perspectives differed sharply when the conversation turned to what to do about voter suppression. Still, the respect and rapport they had established earlier remained firmly intact and they kept their disagreement focused on the issues, not each other.

There’s very little of this type of collegiality found in discussions that focus on rapid-fire debates, and this colors the way citizens view politics.

The more we see political leaders engaging civilly and empathetically with ideologies different from their own, the more the American people will be inspired to do the same. Earlier this year, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, In., participated in a town hall on Fox News, even though the Democratic presidential candidate knew he was communicating his policy stances not to a partisan base, but to an audience of over 2.5 million assumed to be completely antithetical to his approach. Former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona started a series for CBS highlighting areas of political unity for Democrats and Republicans. What this signals: Viewers from both sides of the aisle want to see more than polarization from their news sources.

When we get lost in the rhetoric of polarization, we forget that we’re all on the same team. We’re all Americans. While we have different ideologies and beliefs that should not be compromised, there is more that brings us together than drives us apart. The more those points of common ground are found by leaders — and highlighted in the media — the better chance we have to heal the anger and polarization that weaken our nation.

— This article was published in The Fulcrum on October 24, 2019

Avoiding the snake in the grass: Let’s not allow impeachment to divide us

Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen co-founders of Common Ground Committee seek to promote productive public discourse on the upcoming impeachment talks and hearings in this op-ed


Say you’re at a race track, watching a horse come around the bend when, all of a sudden, the rider is thrown off. You may be tempted to jump to any number of conclusions about what happened — the rider was careless, the horse was not sufficiently trained. But if you look closer, you’ll see the real problem: There was a snake in the grass.

Whether one supports or opposes the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, we should all agree that we need to avoid that snake in the grass — in this case, the demonization of the other side. Former UN Ambassador Susan Rice said it best in an appearance on MSNBC last week: The biggest threat to our national security is domestic political divisions.

Unfortunately, what we have seen thus far are conversations packed with vitriol. Recently, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) stated that the president needs to be “imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement.” Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, said “What we are in the middle of now, folks, is a Cold Civil War,” in describing how he sees Democrats’ approach to the president. This kind of rhetoric doesn’t just throw gas on the fire. It throws a tanker truck on it.

While it may be tempting to become absorbed by the disdain and cynicism that fuels our politics and the growing arguments over impeachment, Susan Rice’s comments about the impact of our political divides reinforce what we have believed for years: We must stop demonizing those with whom we disagree and shift our default model for public discourse from immediately degrading the other side to engaging with them respectfully to better understand their positions and why they hold them.

That means opening our thinking to accept facts that might not fit our narratives. It means disciplining ourselves not to let our favorite pundits reinforce our views without questioning if they are supported by facts. By doing those things, we can engage in more productive, less tense conversations with others about the serious issue of impeachment — an important consideration as the holiday season approaches.

The openness to facts and resistance to demonization are attributes of what we call “common grounders.” We describe common grounders as those seeking points of agreement on social and political issues through listening and productive conversation. Rather than shutting down friends or family members with differing opinions, common grounders listen to others in order to understand them. The goal is not necessarily to come to an agreement but to have a discussion based on facts, not insults. There will be much less risk of damaging relationships and you will be setting an example for others about what good looks like when it comes to political conversations.

While much of the discussion in D.C. has been toxic, there have been some politicians willing to favor facts over rhetoric. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) caused an uproar when he appeared to support an impeachment inquiry. While he later clarified those remarks, he still insisted we “have to respect the process.” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) promised her constituents that she would “look at the facts as they come and… do what my conscience calls me to do.”

Reps Amodei and Slotkin aren’t the only examples of politicians avoiding the trap of demonization. Recently, former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice shared a stage during a forum hosted in part by Common Ground Committee, the nonprofit we founded dedicated to bringing light, not heat, to public discourse. The leaders passionately but respectfully discussed high-stakes issues from North Korea to climate change and even found points of consensus.

All of these examples serve as models for our own public discourse as we continue to move deeper into the impeachment process.

We also implore media professionals to make a more concerted effort to not amplify party feuds and follies just for views and clicks. According to a late-2018 Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans trust that mass media reports the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” Journalists are supposed to be a check on government power, but fanning the flames of hostility for ratings and subscriptions makes it harder for people to thoughtfully assess the situation.

The snake in the grass that is demonization will always be present, but it’s within our power to avoid it.

As the impeachment inquiry continues, let us not become victims of its bite. Instead, refuse to demonize those with differing opinions. I sincerely seek to remain open to accepting facts as they become available and to understand our associates, friends, and family who disagree with us on the impeachment question.

This way we can heal the anger and polarization that pits us against each other and, as Susan Rice has warned, opens us up to trouble at the hands of America’s adversaries.

–This article was published in The Hill on October 22, 2019.

Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz’s dialogue shows common ground isn’t just for moderates

Common Ground Committee co-founder, Erik Olsen, shares his thoughts and views on two of the countries current most polarizing political figures Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and  Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) coming together through an unlikely dialogue and shows how common ground can be found between both sides of the aisle.


The week of May 27, 2019, seemed like a typical one for U.S. political discourse. Fox News Host Sean Hannity accused Special Counsel Robert Mueller of being “full of crap” while a columnist for the Nation referred to President Trump as the “narcissist-in-chief.” One simple Twitter exchange stood out among the noise.

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) made a call on Twitter to ban former members of Congress from lobbying. Not long after, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) chimed in, suggesting the two start a dialogue and team up for a bill. It was a rare moment of civil dialogue and agreement between two leaders typically seen as the most extreme in their respective parties. It was followed by the two also finding some agreement on the issue of birth control and beginning to collaborate outside Twitter.

It shows that common ground is not just for moderates.

Banning members of Congress from going into lobbying is something that should have bipartisan support. But action hasn’t been taken since 2007 when the Senate passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. This fact is a reflection of a toxic culture of polarization that has plagued our politics — both inside and outside of DC — and has caused members of the opposite party to be viewed first with suspicion, and then as enemies rather than potential partners.

The numbers back this up. The percentage of Americans who view the opposing side as unfavorable has doubled in the last two decades. And a recent poll from Georgetown University found that 90 percent of voters are concerned about incivility in politics.

To be sure, dialogue between Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Cruz will not solve our country’s civility problem. In fact, since their initial dialogue, Sen. Cruz called a critic from The New York Times a “leftist” and accused her of racist tweets. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, dismissed a presidential candidate who disagreed with her about Medicare for All. But while the agreement between the two may not solve all our problems or lead to a substantive policy change, it sets the stage for less vitriol and more civil dialogue.

It’s true that the ultimate goal of finding common ground is to find agreement on policy issues. But before that can happen, you have to understand and empathize with the other side. Conversation in and of itself will not solve all our problems, but without it, we eliminate an important step towards tearing down the stereotypes that exist about the other side.

Conservative media has denigrated Rep. Ocasio-Cortez as a “little girl” and compared her policies to Joseph Stalin. Sen. Cruz has been on the receiving end of his share of attacks, too. Beto O’Rourke echoed President Trump by calling him “lyin’ Ted” during Cruz’s successful re-election campaign. Perhaps by having this dialogue on lobbying, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Cruz will see beyond these negative portrayals of each other and find areas of agreement.

There has been a long and fruitful history of ongoing civil dialogue between opposite sides in government. During a recent forum held by Common Ground Committee, a nonprofit I co-founded to promote civility in politics, former Secretary of State John Kerry reflected on a time when he and his Republican colleagues could have dinner at Sen. Ted Kennedy’s house and have thoughtful civil discussions. At another event, Chris Matthews and David Gergen detailed how Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and President Reagan, despite their tremendous differences, maintained a robust friendship with open lines of communication.

We know open and productive dialogue is possible, even between politicians who are on the far left and right of their parties. So how do we ensure that it’s more of a common occurrence than a pleasant surprise? It starts with getting out of our own echo chambers. Accept the truth that including more than one view contributes to a stronger position and a better, more effective solution. Be open-minded to facts that might conflict with your narrative, listen to others without rushing to judgment and seek to understand why those we disagree withhold the views they do. You may discover there are areas where you actually agree.

Change can also come from citizens. Elected officials represent the mindset of their constituents. They see there is little to no consequence for disparaging and refusing to engage with the other side. We can change that with our actions and votes. Cast ballots for candidates with strong track records of working with those holding different political views. Regardless of their party, choose candidates who speak out against the speech and policies designed to divide us.

It’s too early to say whether the dialogue between Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Cruz will lead to a change in tone in our politics, let alone a change in policy. But even if this interaction doesn’t move beyond Twitter, it highlights an important point: If members of the far left and right can find a way to put their differences aside, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t as well.

— This article was published in The Hill on June 15, 2019

“If you want to fix the polarization crisis, use your vote to shift the political climate”

Common Ground Committee co-founder, Bruce Bond, shared his thoughts on how and why we should vote for common ground this election in an op-ed for USA TODAY.

As you research candidates before heading to the polls, look for those with a track record that demonstrates a bias toward making progress on issues, not destroying the other side.


If you want to fix the polarization crisis, use your vote to shift the political climate

Polarization has reached a tipping point. To fix it, start by voting for candidates with a record of bipartisanship, regardless of their party.

The spate of suspicious packages and pipe bombs targeting prominent Democrats and the recent hate crimes have been horrifying. As someone who works full-time on mitigating the increasing polarization that divides our nation, I see intense disagreement every day. This was something else entirely — heartbreaking, appalling and shocking. These attacks and an increase in incendiary rhetoric have further exposed the festering divisions in our country. But they also spurred a bipartisan call for civility.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, expressed how we need to “tone down the rhetoric. Both sides. We’ve got to see people as opponents, not enemies.” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tweeted a statement saying, “Despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum — not just by one side. Regardless of who is responsible, these acts are wrong and must be condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Period.”

On Tuesday, I will join Americans in voting for members of both chambers of Congress. In 36 states, my New York included, we are voting for governors as well. 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. It is evident. The divisive, angry tone of our public discourse is increasingly dangerous and too often perpetuated by those we elect to public office.

Vote for those who will find common ground

Your vote has the power to reverse the deepening abyss of destructive politics if you divert from voting along ideological lines and choose candidates who prioritize making progress on key issues over attacking the opposition. Cast a ballot for those who are not only capable of finding common ground but who also seek opportunities to repeatedly reach across the aisle.

If we don’t vote common ground before party, the pernicious effects of incivility following the midterm elections will only intensify.

To be sure, I am not advocating voting for “nice” people. The best leaders never compromise their fundamental principles. But our country needs leaders who are aware that their default approach needs to be finding common ground, not solely standing their ground. When they do dig their feet in on an issue, good leaders attribute their firm stance to their principles, not flaws in their opponent’s character.

As you research candidates before heading to the polls, look for those with a track record that demonstrates a bias toward making progress on issues, not destroying the other side. Utilize the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index and the Allegheny College’s Prize for Civility in Public Life to learn more about politicians known for working civilly with their opponents to find common ground. Ask candidates to describe how they work with members of other parties to move forward on issues you care about — whether that is health care, guns or immigration — then cast your ballot for those you believe will work across party lines to solve those problems. In other words, vote common ground.

Use your vote to shift our political climate from destructive to constructive. Vote for candidates who understand that impactful and long-lasting solutions come only from a wealth of input from voices who bring different experiences and views to the table. Today, our politics are rooted in the mindset that the other’s perspective is, at best, a “check the box” consideration. This approach is unproductive. Just look at how the Senate voted along party lines for the Affordable Care Act and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The minority party vowed to significantly change or repeal these bills once they resumed power. In the case of ACA, they did just that.

We need leaders in office who will stand tall on the two or three issues that matter most to them and their constituents yet prioritize working with others with differing views, not to check a box but because it is necessary to bring lasting change.

Historically, politicians have worked across party lines. President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich found common ground on welfare reform. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold joined forces in regulating the financing of political campaigns. Though harder to find, it’s happening today, too.

A Democratic gubernatorial candidate in South Dakota chose a Republican as a running mate. Ohio politicians reached across party lines to create the Congressional Civility Caucus so Congress can reach results, not fight. 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.

We can still fix polarization

We are not past the point of no return. According to a recent study on polarization, 77 percent of Americans say the differences between us are not so big that we cannot come together. Regardless of your political affiliation, it is crucial to your vote. Vote and help others vote common ground as well.

In a recent heated election, rather than vote for ideology, I decided to vote for the candidate who earned my respect for the strength of character, and in previous positions, demonstrated an ability to work with opponents. Fighting along ideological lines has buried us deep in this political quagmire. Let’s wield the power of our democracy and use our vote to move in a new direction, one that puts the country’s need for common ground and progress before ideology and party.

— This article was published in USA TODAY on November 5, 2018

“The Kavanaugh debate was destructive tribalism on steroids. Here’s how we can stop it from happening again.” 

Common Ground Co-Founder Bruce Bond reacts to recent displays of incivility and tribalism in American politics for The Hill


As someone who works full-time on healing the angry tone of our public discourse and polarization that divides our nation, the Kavanaugh hearings and searing debates that followed were difficult to watch. The depth of hate and personal vilification expressed by both sides was overwhelming.

An hour after Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) delivered her speech explaining why she would vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a good friend of mine called. She strongly disagreed with the Senator’s decision but was impressed with Collins’ tone, scholarliness and how she respectfully spoke of her Democratic colleagues who opposed her position.

Our conversation echoed the findings of a recent Axios poll. It found that more than half of Americans have had conversations about the Kavanaugh confirmation battle at work, and almost three-quarters of Americans, like myself, have been talking about it with friends and family. Most significant and surprising, over three-quarters of Americans say their discussions about the Supreme Court appointee have been civil.

These poll results are in stark contrast to an annual poll tracking discourse in the United States, where 93 percent of Americans think the U.S. has a civility problem. The percentage of Americans viewing the opposite party unfavorably has doubled in the last two decades, and 86 percent of Americans say conflicts between Democrats and Republicans are strong or very strong.

In the Virginia Senate race, a Republican challenger pledged “the most vicious, ruthless campaign” to unseat the Democrat incumbent and in a series of exchanges, implied without evidence, that his opponent committed sexual assault.

A Democratic representative from California warned members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet to be prepared for an onslaught of heckling and public shaming if they continue to support the president’s policy on undocumented immigrants.

Notables from across the political spectrum are sounding the alarm, warning us of the perils of our current path. Michelle Obama said in a recent speech at a voter registration rally in Las Vegas she is “sick of the nastiness of our politics.” Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) during the Kavanaugh hearings expressed how tribalism is ruining us, going so far as to say that “it is tearing our country apart.”

It is evident: our civility problem is increasingly viewed as a serious threat to our nation. We need to shift our default model for public discourse from immediately employing fact-light, talking-point-based and anger-laced argument to willingly seeking, and finding, common ground with the other side.

To be sure, individuals with strong convictions should not be expected to compromise their values for the sake of civility. But in today’s bitterly divided political climate, finding common ground is paramount to reducing toxic polarization and evoking civil dialogue.

Elected officials leverage and reflect the mindset of those who elect them. We as citizens can drive this change by changing our mindset. Here’s how. Accept the fundamental truth that including more than one view contributes to a stronger position and a better, more effective solution. Be open-minded to facts that might conflict with our narrative, listen to others without rushing to judgment and seek to understand why those we disagree withhold the views they do.

With midterm elections rapidly approaching, cast ballots for candidates with strong track records of working with those with different political views. Regardless of their party, choose candidates who speak out against the speech and policies designed to divide us.

We need to support organizations working to remove the threat. The blatant disregard for civility and a desire to find a solution led to the creation of Common Ground Committee (CGC), which inspires action on polarizing issues by bringing prominent leaders with opposing views together in public forums to find common ground.

After the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Donna Brazile (former interim DNC chairwoman) and Michael Steele (former RNC chairman) participated in a CGC public forum to discuss government’s role in bridging racial divides. Brazile and Steele engaged with respect and a sense of conviction that we can all move beyond deep, destructive tribalism.

They disagreed on the use of racial profiling and affirmative action but found common ground on the need for police to live in the communities they serve, election funding transparency and that voting districts should be drawn by citizens’ commissions, not politicians. They agreed America is a government of the people and encouraged the audience to get involved, to campaign, write letters and run for office — not so much for President or State Representative, but for the School Board, the Finance Board, any place where the local community needs help.

There is a growing movement for civil discourse, finding common ground and focusing on solutions rather than arguments. Living Room Conversations and Better Angels cultivate positive, constructive conversations within our divided society. The Bridge Alliance is a consortium of more than 90 civic action organizations working individually and together to transform the political terrain. They stress listening, accepting nuances, putting country before self-interest and asking Americans with varying political beliefs and backgrounds to do the same.

We are in this together. If enough of us can demonstrate the value and power of civil discourse, we can shift the cultural norm from winning at all costs to finding common ground whenever possible. We’ll still see our leaders engaged in vigorous debate. But we’ll also see them make progress quicker and more frequently on the issues that matter.

— This article was published in The Hill on October 10, 2018