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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!

The Case for Black Lives Matter: Hawk Newsome

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As the Black Lives Matter movement grows, are there opportunities for common ground and solutions?

“All lives will matter when Black lives matter,” says our guest, Hawk Newsome, in this passionate, challenging, and fascinating podcast episode.

The co-founder and Chair of Black Lives Matter Greater New York answers the skeptics and makes the case for a movement that has grown in scale and significance since widespread protests erupted last summer after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

A devout Christian who has spent much of his life campaigning for racial and social justice, Hawk Newsome, discusses his views on love versus violence, systemic racism, and how he reached out to Trump supporters during a tense rally in Washington in 2017. The conversation transcends the simple designations of left and right and seeks to find meaningful solutions that respond to the realities faced by people and communities. This conversation is part of our podcast series that builds on the case for finding common ground.

Read more about Hawk Newsome and how he spends his weekends in this New York Times article.

Hawk Newsome

Hawk Newsome is a former candidate for New York City Council, a cast member on Cop Watch America on BET, and a political activist working at the forefront of the New Civil Rights Movement who has dedicated his adult life to the betterment of his community and our nation as a whole. Mr. Newsome previously served as Special Projects Coordinator at the Bronx County Office of the District Attorney, partnering with tenants’ associations and social service organizations throughout the Bronx. He is co-founder and Chairperson of Black Lives Matter Greater New York.

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

De-polarizing 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.

Read the Episode Transcript

Ep. 22- Depolarizing America

About 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.

Dreading Election Season? Get 5 Tips for Better Political Conversations

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

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

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

5 tips for better political talks

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

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

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

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

Want to Help Heal Racial Inequity? Start With These 5 Questions

Our series of monthly actions invite Common Grounders to bring light, not heat, to the work of leading progress on America’s most pressing issues. This month: reach out to a local leader to ask how their organization is addressing racial justice and equity – and how you can help.

July 2020 Action: Talk to a Local Leader About Race & Equity

As protests for racial justice and equity continue across the nation, how is our own community leading change? To move beyond the status quo, citizens need to be at the forefront of calling for progress. And to become an effective force for transformation in our own neighborhoods, the first step is listening to understand.

This month, reach out to ask one local leader how their organization is taking action to address racism in this moment of crisis and opportunity.

5 questions to spur action & gain insight

Asking local leaders what they are doing to address racism demonstrates a desire for action in the the community, while giving you valuable insights on how to serve as a more effective advocate. Here are five questions to help start the conversation:

  1. What is your organization’s stance on racial justice and equity, and the current protests?
  2. How has this been communicated to the public and discussed with your team?
  3. How is your organization taking steps to support people of color in our community during this difficult time?
  4. How are people of color represented in leadership roles at your organization?
  5. What action can I take to help your organization move this issue forward?

Making connections to influence change

Race is entwined through all aspects of our society. And leaders across all sectors can play a role in influencing change – from educating and legislating, to innovating and networking.

Consider reaching out to a leader in a sector where you can offer valuable insights, or where you feel passionate about the opportunity to make progress. Leaders who are positioned to influence change can include:

  • Chief of Police
  • Mayor or Town Supervisor
  • State representative
  • School or university administrator  
  • Local business leader
  • Pastor or faith leader

Reaching out to board chairs and board members can help ensure your communication is considered at an organizational level.

And, don’t forget the critical piece of asking for the opportunity to connect and talk personally about your inquiry. One-on-one conversation is the best path to find common ground and opportunities to take action. Be prepared to learn about other perspectives and experiences, and to ask questions to clarify rather than assuming you know the other person’s intentions.

No matter who you are or where you live, your voice and participation is vital to help heal racial tension and inequities. Let’s start by reaching out – and listening to understand – in our own communities.

Black Lives Matter: 5 Tips For Holding Better Conversations on Racial Justice

Our series of monthly actions invite Common Grounders to bring light, not heat, to the work of leading progress on America’s most pressing issues. This month: commit to holding a conversation on the importance of making progress toward racial justice.

June 2020 Action: Hold a Conversation on Racial Justice

In this watershed moment for modern civil rights, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has reached new levels and opened up an opportunity for lasting change. Achieving such change will require many engaged citizens – especially white allies – to boldly acknowledge the need for progress, and bring light not heat to the national exploration of a common path forward.

This month, commit to taking action by holding at least one conversation about racial justice with a friend, neighbor or family member. Much of the work of holding a productive discussion happens before we start talking. Here are five quick tips to help prepare you for a better conversation.

1.) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Our country’s painful history of racial injustice and varying world views we all bring to the table can make conversations on race emotionally fraught. Fear of “saying something wrong” also dissuades many from engaging in conversations on race. Be prepared for moments of discomfort, and stay committed to the importance of continuing to talk about the issues.

2.) Prepare by doing your own work.

We all bring personal experiences and opinions to conversations on race. Take some time to reflect and identify your own biases, and how your assumptions have been shaped by education and personal experiences. Explore, too, how these experiences may vary for people of color. Get started with the Race and Ethnicity series from our partner, Living Room Conversations.

3.) Reframe your end goal.

One essential key to holding a more productive conversation? Let go of the end goal of winning an argument. Instead, focus on making progress toward solutions. Seek areas of common ground using a “let’s work it out” attitude.

4.) Listen to understand.

Each person brings unique concerns, hopes and fears to conversations on race. Some may fear the police; others may fear defunding the police. Some may be focused on social justice; others on law and order. Active listening to understand motivations and intentions – and to show that you hear and acknowledge those concerns – is the first step to create an opportunity for solutions to be considered.

5.) Seek common ground, but don’t compromise principles.

Be prepared to be flexible in your conversations and work to find an approach that addresses the concerns of all parties. But don’t feel obligated to go along with something that violates your principles. Finding common ground isn’t about “being nice” or losing values. It’s about holding conversations that lead to understanding.

#InThisTogether During Covid19

By Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen

#InThisTogether. That’s a “hashtag” circulating widely through social media right now. 

We love the spirit of that phrase and the message of reassurance it sends. We consider this not from the view of being “in a crisis” but rather the idea that when problems in a community arise, people’s natural reaction is to help and support rather than exploit the situation to serve a personal agenda or opportunity. This is why so many of our leaders are making the firm declaration that we will get through this current challenge even as they update us on the problem.

This conviction that we’ll be ok is not mere wishful thinking. Helping and supporting each other is one of America’s great strengths. It has enabled Americans to accomplish great things both nationally and internationally, seize previously unseen opportunities, and successfully navigate through extraordinarily difficult times.

In that spirit, and the spirit of Common Ground Committee’s motto, “bringing light, not heat to public discourse” we hope you and all of America will set aside any political differences and let your ability to help and support shine brightly in all that you do as you navigate through this situation in your own experience. As you do so, we encourage you to follow the requests of authorities, be present for your family and consider how you can help those around you and in your community who might be dealing with more disruption than others.

This is, indeed, a time of great challenge. But we can be confident that we will emerge from this experience stronger, wiser and closer as a people because, in the end, we are all #InThisTogether.

Common Ground Media Roundup: January 2020

Looking for a fresh take on finding common ground? Start with our January 2020 news roundup.

From calls for bipartisanship and better listening from new and old, how an age-old rule could be a tool to help political divisiveness and two books for you to start your common ground reading journey. Here’s a look at the top five stories and two books from our January 2020 reading list.


Articles

1: GOP Senator Isakson called for bipartisanship in farewell speech

USA Today – Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson made a plea for bipartisanship in his farewell speech Tuesday, December 3 as the U.S. Senate bid farewell to the lawmaker from Georgia.

2: Let’s fight for America by learning to listen first

USA Today – Pearce Godwin of Listen First Project and scholar Graham Bodie share insight for The Hidden Common Ground project on the need for better listening behavior as a way to combat the growing issue of polarization.

3: In 2020, Our bitterly divided America needs to recommit to The Golden Rule | Opinion

Newsweek –  The Golden Rule’s lesson of “teaching us to treat others as we would like to be treated” may be a beacon of hope in teaching others in this opinion piece from Joan Blades Co-founder of MoveOn and Living Room Conversations and Reverend Richard L. Tafel is Minister at Church of the Holy City & Founder of Log Cabin Republicans.

4: Talk Less. Listen More. Here’s How. 

The New York Times – Lessons in the art of listening, from a C.I.A. agent, a focus group moderator and more.

Book recommendations

1: American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves

Amazon – Do you fear for our democracy? Are you perplexed by Trumpism? Are you ready to throw in the towel? Don’t! This is your guidebook to reassembling our hyperpolarized American society in six (not-so-easy) steps, written by co-host of WNYC’s On the Media Bob Garfield.

2: Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For 

Amazon – Recalling pivotal moments from her dynamic career on the front lines of American diplomacy and foreign policy, Susan E. Rice—National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to the United Nations—reveals her surprising story with unflinching candor in this New York Times bestseller.