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

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

Turn on any cable news channel and you’ll likely hear talk about the divisiveness of our politics, and there are numbers to back that up. Only 38 percent of Americans say the United States is heading in the right direction, and an annual poll tracking discourse shows 93 percent say America has a civility problem. As discouraging as these numbers seem, the tide may be turning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Honor Bush’s legacy by forgoing tribalism”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve seen examples of this over recent years.

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

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

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

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