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Depolarizing America: Building Consensus Step-by-Step

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These political veterans disagree on many issues, except that now is the time for bridge building. Here’s why.

Kelly Johnston and Rob Fersh disagree strongly on many issues, and voted differently in the 2020 presidential election. But they are friends and “agree on major steps that must be taken for the nation to heed President-elect Biden’s welcome call for us to come together.”

Both believe that constructive steps must be taken to help build trust among Democrats and Republicans, despite deep polarization and a firm resistance to bipartisanship from both ends of the political spectrum. They encourage open dialogue between sectors and interest groups whose views diverge in an effort to deal with divisive political discourse.

Rob Fersh founded Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, and previously worked for Democrats on the staffs of three congressional committees. Kelly Johnston, also a founding board member of Convergence, is a committed Republican and former Secretary of the U.S. Senate. In this episode of Let’s Find Common Ground produced in partnership with Convergence, we talk with both Fersh and Johnston about bridge building and why this work is so urgently needed in an era of political gridlock.

Rob Fersh

Rob Fersh is a Senior Advisor and the Founder of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 to promote consensus solutions to issues of domestic and international importance. Immediately prior, Rob served as the United States country director for Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization. While at SFCG, he directed national policy consensus projects on health care coverage for the uninsured and U.S.-Muslim relations.

In the 1986-98 period, Rob served as president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a leading NGO working to alleviate hunger in the United States. Rob also served on the staffs of three Congressional committees, working for U.S. Representative Leon Panetta and for Senators Patrick Leahy and Edmund Muskie. While a Congressional staff member and at FRAC, he was deeply involved in shepherding passage of bipartisan legislation to reduce hunger in the United States. Rob has held additional positions in the federal executive branch and non-profit sector. He was a 1994 recipient of the Prudential Foundation Prize for Non-Profit Leadership. Rob holds a law degree from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, where he has served as a guest lecturer and co-instructor of a course on collaborative decision making and public policy. He is married, has four children, and two grandchildren.

Kelly Johnston

Kelly Johnston retired from the Campbell Soup Company in October 2018 after a 16-year career as Vice President-Government Affairs. Previously, Kelly spent nearly 25 years in Washington, DC in several leadership positions within the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, politics, and the trade association world. He was Executive Vice President for Government Affairs and Communications at the National Food Processors’ Association (NFPA), serving as the organization’s chief government affairs and communications officer for nearly 6 years.

From 1995 to 1997, he was the Secretary of the US Senate, the Senate’s chief legislative, financial and administrative officer. Kelly has also served as Staff Director of the Senate Republican Policy Committee; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of Transportation; and chief of staff or press secretary to three Members of Congress.

Kelly remains active in the non-profit community. He is a founding board member of the Bonnie and Bill Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communication at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. He also currently serves on the board of Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), which is dedicated to helping employers educate their employees on public policy issues of importance to their jobs. He is a former chairman of the Canadian American Business Council and former co-chair of the Congressional Management Foundation. He blogs on public policy issues, history, and politics at Against the Grain.

A native of Oklahoma, Kelly earned his B.A. degree in Communications in 1976 from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, where he has been named to the Alumni Hall of Fame. He attended Georgetown University’s Graduate School of Demography in Washington, D.C. He has guest lectured on politics, government, lobbying and communications at several universities, including Yale University, the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Shepherd University, and Burlington County College in New Jersey.

He and his wife, Adrienne, live in Arlington, Virginia. They have two sons.

WATCH: Bridge Builders in Congress

In this moment of rising inflation and global conflict, an emerging story offers reason for hope: the movement to heal political polarization in America is gaining fresh momentum.

And, signs show, it comes just in time.

Recent polling by Fox News showed that 78% of all respondents said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned about political divisions within the country, ranking the issue among their top three concerns. Other outlets, too, are hearing alarm from citizens across the political spectrum about polarization’s threat to democracy. And with trust in government near an all-time low, this polarization threatens America’s strength both domestically and overseas.

In response, a growing movement of community groups across the country are working to bridge the divides. As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that is a prominent part of this movement, Common Ground Committee has been honored to highlight the work of elected officials who also recognize this troubling discord, and are undertaking the work of crafting bipartisan solutions.

Listen now: “Seeking Common Ground in Congress,” featuring Rep. Bryan Fitzpatrick (R) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D).

In a series of podcast and video interviews, we have explored approaches for breaking gridlock with legislators who are part of the Problem Solvers Caucus. This independent member-driven group in Congress is comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans who are committed to finding common ground on key issues facing the nation.

Two weeks ago, members of the Problem Solvers Caucus joined other legislators who support bipartisan solutions to put forward the Building Civic Bridges Act. Introduced by nine Republicans and nine Democrats, the bill aims to establish the federal government as a key partner in the deliberate effort to bridge divides and strengthen American democracy.

Listen now: “How Problem Solvers Caucus Attacks Gridlock in Congress,” featuring Rep. Don Bacon (R) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D).

The legislation would empower communities to tackle sources of division through a new non-partisan pilot program, led by an Office of Civic Bridgebuilding within AmeriCorps, that would allocate competitive grants to civic and community organizations working to build relationships across lines of difference.

From interfaith groups working to build community understanding after attacks on religious institutions to local YMCAs partnering with conflict resolution experts and sponsoring community events, these community organizations are doing the on-the-ground work of building understanding across differences.

Backing their work is an entirely new way for Congress to look at improving bipartisanship and collaboration to help overcome deep ideological division across the country.

And, with the bill introduced just before President Biden’s first State of the Union address at which he introduced a Unity Agenda for the Nation with policy goals that enjoy broad bipartisan support, it’s a concept for which the time may have arrived at last.

“While it often appears that we never agree, that isn’t true,” Biden reminded the public, noting that he signed 80 bipartisan bills into law last year.

From sending emails or letters of gratitude to co-signers of the bill to asking your representatives to support these bipartisan efforts, we all have a chance to be part of the “healing polarization” wave that is building across the nation. We encourage Americans of all political persuasions to join in supporting this work.


Stay tuned for the next episode of our “Let’s Find Common Ground” podcast featuring Rep. Derek Kilmer (D) and Rep. William Timmons (R). As Chair and Vice-Chair of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, they are the author and co-sponsor respectively of the Building Civic Bridges Act. If you haven’t already, subscribe now to be notified of upcoming episodes.

How Problem Solvers Caucus Attacks Gridlock in Congress

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Is Congress as dysfunctional as it seems? Hear from two legislators in this candid conversation.

From the outside, Congress appears broken. Bills get bogged down in partisan fights, leaders openly smear each other, and animosity between members is at an all-time high. But our guests on today’s show demonstrate that if you look a little closer, you’ll find a group of dedicated politicians working together across the aisle to craft workable legislation and get things done.

Republican Congressman Don Bacon represents Nebraska’s 2nd District. Democrat Kurt Schrader represents Oregon’s 5th District. Each man is a member of the congressional Problem Solvers Caucus, a group equally split between Democrats and Republicans who are committed to finding common ground on key issues facing the U.S.

In this surprisingly candid conversation listeners get a peek behind the curtain at what’s really going on in Congress, how the infrastructure bill was passed into law, and the harmful effect the media has on Americans’ view of politics. On this episode of “Let’s Find Common Ground.”

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep 49 – How Problem Solvers Caucus Attacks Gridlock in Congress

Don Bacon

Growing up and working on a farm in Illinois, Congressman Don Bacon learned first-hand how the value of hard work and commitment contributes to the success of a small business. He moved from the family farm to attend Northern Illinois University, from which he graduated with a Bachelors of Political Science in 1984, the same year he married Angie, the love of his life. They have three sons, one daughter, and six grandchildren. One year later, he began his military career by joining the U.S. Air Force and serving nearly 30 years, ultimately retiring as a Brigadier General.

During his career in the Air Force, Congressman Bacon specialized in electronic warfare, intelligence, and reconnaissance. His career highlights include two tours as a Wing Commander, at Ramstein Airbase in Germany and Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska; group command at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona; squadron command in Arizona, and expeditionary squadron command in Iraq. In total, Rep. Bacon served 16 assignments including four deployments in the Middle East to include Iraq in 2007 to 2008 during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Congressman Bacon’s military decorations include the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, two Bronze Stars, two Legion of Merits, five Meritorious Service Medals, and the Aerial Achievement Medal. Additionally, he was selected as Europe’s top Air Force Wing Commander for his time at Ramstein Airbase, as well as recognized as a distinguished graduate of the Air Command and Staff College, Navigator-Electronic Warfare School, and Officer Intelligence School. Further, Congressman Bacon has earned two Masters Degrees, from the University of Phoenix in Arizona and the National War College in Washington D.C.

Upon his retirement from the Air Force in 2014, Congressman Bacon served as the military advisor to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01), where he specialized in military affairs focusing on Offutt Air Force Base and the Nebraska National Guard. He also was an Assistant Professor at Bellevue University where he taught Undergraduate Leadership along with American Vision and Values (The Kirkpatrick Signature Series), until his 2016 election to Congress, representing Nebraska’s Second Congressional District.

Presently, Congressman Bacon serves on two committees within the House of Representatives: the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Agricultural Committee.

Kurt Schrader

Congressman Kurt Schrader is currently serving his seventh term in the United States House of Representatives. He represents Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, which includes all of Marion, Polk, Lincoln and Tillamook Counties as well as the bulk of Clackamas and small portions of Multnomah and Benton Counties. Before being elected to Congress, Schrader, a farmer and veterinarian for more than thirty years, established and managed the Clackamas County Veterinary Clinic in Oregon City and operated his farm where he grew and sold organic fruit and vegetables.

In 1996, Congressman Schrader was elected to the Oregon State House of Representatives. There he served as a member of the Joint Ways & Means Committee. Schrader was one of five legislators asked by their peers to guide Oregon through the budget crisis of 2001-2002. Schrader was elected to the Oregon State Senate in 2003 and was immediately appointed to chair the Joint Ways & Means Committee. He continued to serve in that capacity until he was elected to U.S. Congress in 2008.

Congressman Schrader attended Cornell University where he received his BA in Government in 1973. He received his veterinary degree from the University of Illinois in 1977.

Congressman Schrader currently serves as a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (E&C), which oversees a wide portfolio of issues ranging from health care to the environment. Prior to joining E&C, Congressman Schrader served on the House Committee on Agriculture, where he served on the Farm Bill Conference Committee that successfully passed a five-year farm bill, the House Committee on Small Business and House Budget Committee. In the 117th Congress, Congressman Schrader serves on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, the Subcommittee on Energy, and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Schrader is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, New Democrat Coalition, and the only bipartisan working group in the House, the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Want to hear more? Check out our podcast page to see all the discussions!

Convergence Center for Policy Resolution

How the Budget Mess in Congress Hurts All of Us

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Liberals and conservatives agree: the federal budget process is a mess. Can it be overhauled?

One of the key functions of Congress is to pass a budget. But often that seems close to impossible. Lack of agreement over federal spending regularly threatens to bring about government shutdowns, which affect millions of Americans. Yet few of us can even begin to understand the byzantine budget process.

Our guests on this week’s episode of Let’s Find Common Ground want to change that.

In this show, we meet two experts from different sides of the political aisle who came together with other policy experts to make the budget process simpler, more efficient and more transparent.

At the time of the Convergence dialogue, Alison Acosta Winters was a Senior Policy Fellow at Americans for Prosperity. Emily Holubowich was Executive Director of the Coalition for Health Funding. Alison is a fiscal conservative while Emily is an advocate for greater government support for health care. Still, each agrees that the current budget process is a mess and keeps Americans in the dark about how their money is being spent.

Brought together by Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, Alison, Emily and other stakeholders from diverse backgrounds spent months working together to come up with several major proposals for overhauling the budget process – proposals they hope will shine some light on how our government works. These proposals are currently being considered in Congress and enjoy bipartisan support.

This podcast was co-produced in partnership with Convergence Center for Policy Resolution and is one of a series of podcasts that Common Ground Committee and Convergence are producing together. Each highlights the common ground that resulted from one of Convergence’s structured dialogues-across-differences. Learn more about the Convergence budget dialogue and read more about the Convergence dialogue recommendations.

Join us for an interesting lesson in simplifying the arcane process of federal budgeting on “Let’s Find Common Ground.”

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep 48 – How the Budget Mess in Congress Hurts All of Us

Alison Acosta Winters

Alison Acosta Winters was most recently a Senior Policy Fellow at Americans for Prosperity and the Charles Koch Foundation where she worked on trade, economic, and fiscal policy. While there, Winters participated in the Convergence Building a Better Budget Process dialogue with a broad array of stakeholders that resulted in a series of policy recommendations that have received attention in Congress.

Prior to that, Winters was the Director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation. She wrote on a wide variety of economic issues, including co-authoring the Heritage Fiscal Plan Saving the American Dream. While at Heritage, Winters participated in the Fiscal Wake Up Tour which brought together policy experts from different perspectives to educate Americans about the unsustainable fiscal path the nation is on and policy choices that could address the problem.

Winters has appeared in numerous media outlets including Bloomberg, CNN, Fox, PBS and NPR. Her work has been seen in USA Today, Politico, The Hill, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and more.

Emily Holubowich

Emily joined the American Heart Association in 2019 as the Vice President of Federal Advocacy with more than twenty years of experience in health and fiscal policy, government relations, strategic communications, and coalition management. She is frequently sought out by the media for her expertise on public health and fiscal policy, serves as a lecturer in health policy and management at The George Washington University, and is called upon by national organizations to lecture on the policy environment and best practices in strategic communications and advocacy. In a volunteer capacity, Emily serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Previously, Emily was a senior vice president at CRD Associates, where she worked with several clients in the public health community—including the Coalition for Health Funding as its Executive Director. Prior to CRD Associates, Emily was the director of government relations for AcademyHealth and a senior health policy analyst with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Emily holds a Master of Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and English from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Want to hear more? Check out our podcast page to see all the discussions!

Infrastructure bill won’t end Washington’s problems. Neither would ending the filibuster

In this piece written for Roll Call, Common Ground Committee co-founders Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen make the case that the only real way to fix America’s political system is to focus on electing leaders committed to bipartisan solutions. 

Proponents of common ground — like ourselves — received some welcome news earlier this month with the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It’s the largest investment in infrastructure since the 1950s, and it passed with 19 Republican votes. It’s a rare sight to see major legislation pass on a bipartisan basis, but, unfortunately, it does not necessarily signal a change in Washington.

Democrats seem intent on going it alone, using the budget reconciliation process to push a separate multitrillion spending package, partially due to the threat of the filibuster. For such a hotly debated rule, it’s notable that the filibuster was essentially created by accident. As vice president, Aaron Burr argued in 1805 that a Senate procedure allowing a simple majority of legislators to end debate and move to a vote was redundant and should be removed. He got his wish when he left office, and the filibuster was born.

Whether or not a political party is in favor of the filibuster seems to hinge on its position of power in the Senate.

Before he called it a “relic of Jim Crow”— and it must be acknowledged that the modern filibuster was a favored tool of opponents of civil rights legislation — a young Sen. Barack Obama argued passionately in favor of the procedural maneuver when his party was in the minority. President Donald Trump wanted Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to eliminate the rule in 2018 to easily pass his agenda — much in the same way Democrats are now pressing President Joe Biden. Opponents of the filibuster say it’s an affront to how the Founders intended government to work and silences the will of the people. Proponents say it’s the one tool legislators have left to force bipartisan solutions and that its elimination would give the majority complete control to force through its agenda.

As heads of Common Ground Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing political polarization, we welcome any tool that would encourage Democrats and Republicans to come together and find solutions. But the filibuster is neither the solution nor the problem. What needs to be changed is the mindset of our leaders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House wouldn’t vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed the  reconciliation measure. (In an agreement reached with Democratic moderates, both bills are now expected to receive votes in the House by the end of September.) In the Senate, McConnell has threatened “zero input” from Republicans if the filibuster is eliminated. We cannot afford this prioritization of conflict over solutions any longer.

We’re at a critical juncture as a nation.

If the filibuster is indeed removed or reformed, there will be little incentive for Democrats and Republicans to work together. If it remains, it will continue to be used as a tool to block legislation and stifle debate. Reforms such as a proposed plan to exempt voting rights laws from the filibuster would only slap a Band-Aid on the problem. The only path forward is to change the culture in Washington.

While there is evidence Americans want to see their leaders compromise, that sentiment isn’t reflected in who we elect to office. Prior to the 2020 elections, our organization released the Common Ground Scorecard, a tool to help Americans see how likely members of Congress and candidates were to find common ground. The average score for members of Congress and governors was only 25 out of a possible 110. There are exceptions, such as members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, but when the vast majority of our government leaders are incentivized to pursue partisan agendas, it’s clear we as citizens have not done enough to encourage them to work together. Our votes give us the power to make them listen.

It’s time to end this back-and-forth on the filibuster and put governing back in the hands of the legislative branch.

Rather than pressure our elected leaders on a Senate mechanism, we should focus our energies on backing candidates committed to bipartisan solutions — members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, for example. Tools like the Common Ground Scorecard and the Bipartisan Index from the Lugar Center can help voters identify those candidates.

The best policies are those that include the input of multiple points of view, that won’t be reversed when there is a change in power, and that are representative of the majority of Americans. That requires bipartisan work and support. Until elected officials feel political pressure to work together, we will fail to make that kind of badly needed progress on the most pressing issues facing our nation, regardless of whether or not the filibuster exists.

The filibuster may have been created by accident, but it’s now become a favored tool of whichever party is in the minority. Its elimination will not end the dysfunction in Washington. That will only happen when we as citizens decide we’ve had enough of fighting and gridlock, and support politicians who put country over party.

– This article was originally published in Roll Call on August 25, 2021.

American Bipartisanship

Introducing: Spotlight on Common Ground

Polarization makes headlines. But what about the hard, yet hopeful work of finding shared solutions? We’re excited to introduce Spotlight on Common Ground, a new initiative that highlights instances of bipartisan cooperation across the nation, and the individuals who made them possible.

August Honorees: Infrastructure Bill Legislators

The first honorees of Spotlight on Common Ground are the 10 U.S. senators who helped craft the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed in the Senate 69-30. After months of negotiations this bipartisan group of senators — composed of five Democrats and Republicans — helped shepherd through a bill that could easily have been derailed given ideological differences and the forces driving the nation’s divided politics.

These legislators were among those included in our Common Ground Scorecard, which ranks candidates for office and elected officials on their likelihood to work with the opposite party. The 10 senators have an average score of 49/110, higher than the average score of 31/110 for all current U.S. senators.

Their individual scores are as follows:

  • Susan Collins (R-ME): 60/110
  • Rob Portman (R-OH): 50/110
  • Mitt Romney (R-UT): 25/110
  • Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): 50/110
  • Bill Cassidy (R-LA): 59/110
  • Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ): 57/110
  • Joe Manchin (D-WV): 75/110 (15th highest in the country)
  • Mark Warner (D-VA): 47/110
  • Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): 34/110
  • Jon Tester (D-MT): 42/110

“Too often, politicians are more focused on scoring political points than finding real solutions for the American people,” said Bruce Bond, co-founder and CEO of CGC. “These 10 senators reminded Americans what good can look like in the legislative process. We’re hopeful the Senate’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can be a foundation for future cooperation between the two parties.”

Follow #SpotlightOnCommonGround on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn to stay up to date on future highlights.

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.

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.

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.

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Is Common Ground Committee Biased?

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We need to talk with you about something important.

We at Common Ground Committee (CGC) have taken some heat from time to time about an issue that cuts close to home. We’re coming right out and addressing it head-on because it’s something we care deeply about and strive hard to get right.

It has been suggested that CGC appears biased toward a particular political ideology based on the type of content it presents. For an organization that is wholly dedicated to bridging the divide between left and right, committed to the importance of active listening and dealing with objective facts, it is crucial to us and to our mission that we not have a political agenda, nor that we be perceived as having one. We can say without reservation that as an organization we do not have a political agenda. We lean neither right nor left, having purposely built a board whose members span the political spectrum. But sometimes people of good faith and discerning minds perceive that we are biased in some way. We have been accused of having a conservative agenda and at other times a progressive one.

Working through Biases

Let’s consider for a minute what it means to be unbiased. As a concept, and as an organization, Common Ground Committee has no bias. It was formed expressly in the service of shared communication, in hopes that shedding light on the issues that divide us—turning it in the light like one would a gem to see from all sides—so that we can better understand one another. While there is no guarantee, understanding can lead to common ground or compromise, and finally to progress on the issue. Certainly, it can lead to increased civility.

Individuals, however, have bias. Everyone, no matter how hard they work to behave with impartiality, has a way they naturally lean, a set of beliefs that influences their perspective, the decisions they make, and the votes they cast. The most impartial of journalists have the moment where they step into the voting booth and pull the lever. But it’s how aware you are of your biases, and how you work to recognize and handle them, that makes you effective at objective discourse and achieving common ground.

Sometimes the biases slip out. In a recent podcast, former Senate Secretary Kelly Johnston, a Republican and founding board member of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, discussed a moment of his own “intemperance” – a message he regrets tweeting in 2018 that fanned the conspiracy flames about left-leaning financier George Soros helping immigrants bound for the U.S. border.

“I did campaign work, 35 campaigns in 25 states. That’s combat. So my instincts and my experience and my work was all about doing battle. Then, when I got into the private sector about two decades ago, Rob Fersh (a Democrat and Co-Founder of Convergence) actually inspired me to look at bridge-building as a much more productive activity. And I realized that I was part of the problem because I was busy tearing other people down and fighting on issues, and I was accomplishing really nothing to advance the ball,” he said. “And I realized, ‘You know what? I would like to really solve some of these problems.’ Do I fall off the wagon on occasion? Yes, guilty as charged. But I try to get back on, which is important.”

This sticks with us from that podcast, as it is a tremendously good point. We each have our biases and they can surface from time to time. We know we have differences because that’s why one person is a Democrat and another is a Republican.

Occasionally, we have found that something as simple as a slight difference in the choice of words — for example, the murder of George Floyd, rather than the death of George Floyd; or equality instead of equity — signals bias to readers of different parties. Such is not our intent, and we appreciate hearing your feedback on the nuances of language.

We also find that, every now and then, referencing buzzwords that are commonly used to frame issues to appeal to the values of a particular party — for example, voting access versus voting security, or immigration reform versus border security — can serve as a dog whistle in and of itself. But that shouldn’t make the topic itself taboo in our journey to reach common ground. It makes it all the more important.

Continuing to Find Common Ground

We hope we’ve shed enough light on this question of bias so that you’ll accept that we do strive very hard to keep Common Ground Committee on a track that leans neither right nor left. We know words matter. You might read a “trigger” word or phrase in our content, but we hope you’ll recognize that we use it in our effort to build the understanding that can bridge the particular divide we are discussing, not to take a position. And should that happen, we invite you to partner with us in this process of discussion and transparency, by giving us feedback so that we can continue to build Common Ground Committee’s brand as an unbiased, nonpartisan organization. Our emails are bruce.bond@commongroundcommittee.org and erik.olsen@commongroundcommittee.org.

Thank you for listening to us on this question that is so crucial to our work!