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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump administration is in a unique position to make real change on gun control policy

This month co-founders, Bruce Bond and  Erik Olsen, shared their thoughts in this poignant piece about gun control.

Bruce and Erik identified that the Trump administration is in a unique position to implement measures to reduce the prevalence of mass shootings and that preventing this type of tragedy is somewhere the nation can find common ground.

As we continue to struggle with the events in El Paso and Dayton, we all must face the fact that the problem of mass shootings in America has been in the headlines for over 30 years, through numerous administrations, with virtually no progress made. In fact, the situation has never been worse.

That shouldn’t be. Virtually all Americans, regardless of demographic characteristics, political views, positions on gun ownership and regulation, political party or political office want to see this escalating violence come to an end.

In our work to “bring light not heat to public discourse” and to demonstrate that people can come together in passionate but respectful debate to find common ground on issues that matter, we see clearly that the lack of progress on this issue is caused by its complexity and the fact that the divisive issue of guns is at the heart of the debate.

The Trump administration is in a unique position to make tangible and significant progress on this problem and move us down the path to eliminating mass shootings. We believe this because:

  • Law-abiding gun owners often do not trust that their government will allow them to keep their weapons — but the support of the Trump administration among gun owners is strong. Gun owners recognize this administration as someone looking out for their interests.
  • The Trump administration demonstrated work to reduce mass shootings when President Trump issued an executive order in December 2018 effectively banning bump stocks.

We believe this administration is in much the same position as President Richard Nixon, a staunch anti-communist, was when presented with the opportunity to open relations with Communist China. That apparent conflict was key to his success, ultimately cooling tensions between the two countries and getting American businesses to access the China market. As the Nixon administration did, we urge our current leaders to seize the opportunity.

But the 30 years of no progress mandate that a new approach is needed. Specifically:

  • The conversation cannot be a referendum on guns and the 2nd Amendment because gun owners and their representatives will not engage.
  • It must acknowledge the complexity of the problem. Researchers and law enforcement are working to determine why individuals become shooters, but there is as yet no consensus. And there are different types of mass shootings. Gang-related killings are not the same as what happened in El Paso and Dayton.
  • It needs to include these four basic principles:
  1. Hear from all sides of the issue, including mass shooting victims and those dedicated to saving lives through strict gun control as well as gun owners who are concerned that their Constitutional right to ownership will be effectively eliminated. Seek to understand and account for the different perspectives, particularly of these two groups.
  2. When forming solutions, set ideology aside in favor of facts presented by credible experts.
  3. Outside of assailants, do not assign blame. Instead, seek to identify what individuals, organizations, companies, etc. can do to address the parts of the problem they contribute to. (Note to the media: We believe that assigning blame without reporting on potential solutions or points of progress serves to further divide the nation, making it more difficult to achieve the goal, which is to save innocent lives).
  4. Focus on what is possible and what can be done now. Find the 10-20 percent of the issue the different sides can agree on and take action accordingly. Build on that momentum moving forward.

There are probably a few mechanisms that could work, and we hope our elected officials choose one and get it going. When the findings and recommendations are delivered, we encourage the Trump administration to be the leading and loudest voice convincing citizens and elected officials to embrace the results and support them in speech and action.

We believe this administration has a substantially better opportunity than previous presidents. We implore them to seize it and set us on the path to the elimination of this horrific problem. They will be saving the lives of those who, through no fault of their own, may otherwise be included on the list of mass shooting victims.

— This article was published in The Hill on August 21, 2019

 

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

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


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

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

It shows that common ground is not just for moderates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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