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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!

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 2: Implementing Strategy

Despite President Biden’s vow to unify America, legislation in the new Congress appears poised to continue along strictly partisan lines. Is common ground really possible – and what will it take to get there?

In this second installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, Common Ground Committee sat down with its co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about strategies that can lead to more progress and less division.


Your work focuses on inspiring the exhausted majority to seek common ground. Once you’ve gotten their attention, what do you do from there?

Bruce Bond: There are lots of different things. There are a lot of groups out there, including us, that have put out positions on, “Here’s how you have good, productive conversations with people that you disagree with.” We can really look into moving the ball forward when it comes to finding a solution or, at the very least, engaging with people to understand what’s really involved in solving a problem.

You have these conversations with people you disagree with to understand what their position is and why they have them. And when you do that, you learn a lot, you have a certain empathy for the people that you’re speaking with, and it just puts you in a completely different position to have a conversation.

We explored this dynamic in a recent podcast episode with two young men from different sides of the aisle who took a cross-country roadtrip together. Ultimately, their commitment to connecting at a human level transcended their differences.

So knowing how to have the conversation is a key element in solving the polarization problem. It’s been said “It’s hard to hate up close.”

Does this apply to the general population, or the leadership?

Erik Olsen: Both. That is the next thing: what we can do from a leadership level? How can we convince our leaders at the top, particularly at the federal level, who really set the tone for this? If you can solve the problem of Congress in particular being so divided, then you would see a much different view by the public about the value of Congress, and the value of engaging in productive debate — as opposed to debate to win the argument.

So, you’re talking about getting folks to value productive debate instead of the art of winning, or the art of the food fight. Does that also mean electing people who have that mindset already?

Bond: Yes. Along these lines, we developed the Common Ground Scorecard, which is a tool that helps voters identify the person running for office that are most likely to reach across the aisle and find common ground with those that are the other side of the aisle, so to speak.

On paper, these are little things, but they are significant. If you can learn to have a conversation, and you can keep an eye out for people in or seeking office that are likely to work to find a solution rather than win an ideological argument or not engage in the debate for fear of being primaried, for example, which is a problem that we have now.

If you can get those leaders to say, Finding common ground is a better way, now you’re on to something. Leaders tend to fear the voters more than anything else. If the voters start voting with favoritism toward those who are common grounders, as we like to call them, you start to see some change.

Olsen: We’ve been offering new members of Congress the opportunity to take a pledge we call the Common Ground Commitments. And they’re saying, “Yeah, we do want to make these commitments,” because they’re now interested in trying to make Congress more common-ground-oriented.

They need to somehow deal with the leadership on this, and I don’t know exactly how that will happen. But one way that it will happen is if people, representatives, and legislators who are in power have more interest in returning Congress to a more balanced body. They see that polarization as not acting in their best interest.

Congress needs to be returned to a governing body that recognizes that the best interests of the country lie in finding legislators who are willing to work together to try to find common ground. And they’re more likely to stay in office because they’ve worked to solve the problem instead of just creating more problems.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of what it will take to dial back America’s political division. Coming soon!

Depolarizing America: Building Consensus Step-by-Step

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These political veterans disagree on many issues…but agree 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.

Read more from Johnstone & Fersh in an op-ed for The Hill: “We agree on almost nothing except how to solve problems across the political divide.”

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.

Click here for bonus audio: Rob Fersh describes the process at Convergence.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 23- Depolarizing America: Building Consensus

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.

American Flag Divided

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 1: Taking Stock

Inauguration day has come and gone, and we’ve had a more peaceful transition of power than many thought possible. There was no violence; the ceremony was beautiful, reverent, and calm; and the mittened Bernie memes might be the most bipartisan political laugh we’ve seen in years.

But that doesn’t mean “problem solved”; far from it. We have a tremendous job ahead of us—as a nation, a President, a Congress, and an electorate—to find a way across the aisle that’s become an abyss, and have productive legislative conversations. There isn’t a mandate of a clear majority in favor of Biden’s goals, policies, and views, and there’s even significant division within each party when it comes to how to move forward.

Common Ground Committee turned the microphone on its own co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about what it’s going to take to fix our polarization problem.


So here we are post-inauguration, a place that glowed on the calendar with the expectation of progress toward unity. But so much has happened in January alone. Are we in a different place than we were in 2020?

Erik Olsen: Yes. Some Democrats are reaching out to engage with their Republican colleagues to find common ground despite the violence on January 6th. However, the two parties are currently fractured, with three quarters of lawmakers still in the middle.

The country is tired and looking for a way forward. As we move past the inauguration and the news cycle moves forward, the President has expressed a desire for more unity. Now Congressional leadership has an opportunity to emphasize such unity. However, they need to strike the right tone. We are concerned that with the significant use of executive orders and the impeachment trial, we aren’t getting off to a great start.

How do we begin to approach fixing the polarized situation we’ve been steeped in for years?

Bruce Bond: It starts with people thinking, first, that we need to have a change, that polarization needs to be fixed. While there’s been a general view that polarization is a bad thing, until Jan 6 there was no sense of urgency. What we’re seeing since the occupation of the Capitol is that it’s becoming more important — that people are becoming more and more concerned about it.

There is a study done by More in Common in 2018, which essentially described 77 percent of the electorate as what they called the “exhausted majority.” And that’s significant, because that group wants change, wants leaders to work together, unlike the 23%, some from the left and some from the right, who are entrenched in their positions.

But with a closely divided Senate and House, the common grounders have an opportunity because they will be courted by both sides. That gives us hope for finding common ground and thereby making real progress.

What effect does an exhausted majority have on polarization?

Bond: That group used to be called the silent majority, and now it’s called the exhausted majority. That’s profound because what it says is that there’s now an emotional element attached to this not being on the extremes. The extremes are becoming irritating to people, and also, some are seeing that they’re not helpful but destructive. So that’s a start, and we see that as one of the first steps.

The next problem is that you have people in the exhausted majority, who may have hope that things can change, but they don’t know how it will happen or what they can do about it. One of the things that we’ve been working on here with our events, and our podcasts, and much of our programming has been demonstrating what good looks like – demonstrating people of note engaging in passionate but constructive conversation that exposes common ground.

And if you can do that, if you can show people how common ground is found, we validate their hope, confirm there is reason to believe that we can change this, and inspire them to make the effort to find common ground in their own experiences with family, friends and colleagues. And, to begin to expect their leaders to do the same.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of strategies that can lead to more progress and less division. Coming soon!

Tania Israel - common ground

Depolarizing America: What Can We All Do?

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Finding common ground is more vital than ever. How can we reach across deep divides?

The important task of finding common ground in American politics became much more difficult and vital in the wake of the traumatic violence and mayhem at the U.S. Capitol. While most Americans viewed the pro-Trump crowd as thugs, many thought of them as patriots.

This podcast is the first in a new series that deals with the issue of polarization. We speak with professor Tania Israel, author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work. Dr. Israel is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and past-President of the Society of Counseling Psychology.

We discuss practical, concrete steps listeners can take to conduct meaningful conversations that reach across deep divisions. “One of the things I recommend is being curious. Try to find out more about what’s behind what somebody says,” she tells us. Join us as we examine the means and methods for de-polarizing America.

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Ep. 22- Depolarizing America

Tania Israel

Tania Israel is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Israel teaches about helping skills, leadership, and community collaboration, among other things. She has facilitated educational programs and difficult dialogues about a range of topics, including abortion, law enforcement, religion, and sexual orientation. Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work (APA, 2020) grew out of Dr. Israel’s skill-building workshop that she developed and delivered to hundreds of participants following the 2016 election. It draws on her strengths as a psychologist and community organizer to prepare people to engage in dialogue across political lines. Dr. Israel’s honors include 2019 Congressional Woman of the Year (CA 24th District), Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Award for Excellence in Mental Health from the California Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, and Emerging Leader Award from the APA Committee on Women in Psychology. To learn more, visit taniaisrael.com or connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

The Art of Compromise and Pragmatism

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In a fractured and anxious moment, what can we learn from “The Man Who Ran Washington”?

James Baker was at the center of American political power for three decades. His resume is exceedingly impressive — Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff twice. Baker’s accomplishments were far-reaching — he helped end the cold war, reunify Germany, assemble the international coalition to fight the Gulf War, negotiate the rewriting of the U.S. tax code, and run five presidential campaigns.

Quite simply he was “The Man Who Ran Washington,” which is the name of the highly-praised new book co-authored by our guests, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker (no relation) and his wife, Susan Glasser, staff correspondent for The New Yorker.

In this episode, we discuss how Washington has become a more angry, anxious place in recent years, Baker’s steely pragmatism and remarkably successful approach to power and governance – an approach that stands in stark contrast to the fierce tribalism that led to violence in our Capitol this week – and why the art of compromise is crucial to almost any negotiation between powerful rivals.

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Ep. 21- The Art of Compromise

Peter Baker & Susan Glasser

Peter Baker and Susan Glasser are longtime Washington journalists who have written about the intersection of politics and the world. Baker is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and an MSNBC political analyst. He has covered four presidents and is author or co-author of six books, including Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Glasser is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the weekly “Letter from Trump’s Washington” as well as a global affairs analyst for CNN. She previously was the editor of POLITICO and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine.

Episode 20 - Let's Find Common Ground Podcast

2020 Special Moments: Our Search for Common Ground

Episode 20 - Let's Find Common Ground Podcast

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In a year marked by crisis, we look back at remarkable moments of hope, collaboration and healing.

From the tragedy and disruption of COVID-19 through impassioned pleas for racial justice heard across the country, to the deep divisions in our politics, 2020 was a year like no other.

In the first year of our “Let’s Find Common Ground” podcast, we’ve enjoyed a mix of thoughtful, personal and surprising conversations about some of the most important topics of our time. We revisit a few of the most memorable and special moments in this year-end episode.

Among the highlights: Houston’s Chief of Police Art Acevedo, and New York City civil rights activist and mayoral candidate, Maya Wiley, discuss ways to find common ground on police reform. Eva Botkin-Kowacki of The Christian Science Monitor talks about how environmental activists and farmers use different language to discuss the threat of a changing climate. Republican Brian Fitzpatrick and Democrat Abigail Spanberger reveal how they work together to pass laws and find solutions to controversial issues in a dysfunctional Congress.

We also listen to remarkable insights from an inter-racial couple, Errol and Tina Toulon, about their marriage and the story of Jordan Blashek and Chris Haugh, two young men with different political backgrounds who took a cross-country road trip across an ideologically divided nation  to explore an important question – how far apart are we really?

Join us for our special moments of 2020 in the search for Common Ground.

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Ep. 20- Special Moments