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Is Common Ground Committee Biased?

Magnifying glass with bias text words

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!

Monthly Action: Make Your Plan for Voting Now – May 2020

Though social distancing might have you staying at home, you’re still empowered to make change. We’re excited to introduce a new series of monthly actions that invite Common Grounders to bring light, not heat, to the work of leading progress on America’s most pressing issues. First up: get educated on your options for voting during COVID-19.

May 2020 Action: Make a Plan for Voting

As the global pandemic impacts America’s economy, education system, healthcare and more, the stakes are high for voters to make their voices heard to reimagine our collective future. But with states making varying decisions on how to conduct elections during an unpredictable health crisis, it’s key for voters to act well in advance to understand how they can weigh in – not just in November, but in any primaries and special elections.

This month, make a plan for voting by visiting your state’s election office website and answering five quick questions:

1.) What is your state’s vote-by-mail policy for COVID-19?
Every state has some method of voting by mail, but some state’s laws require a voter to meet eligibility criteria to receive an absentee ballot. See if your state requires an excuse, and/or has made temporary procedural changes to increase access to voting by mail. 

2.) What do you need to do to get an absentee ballot?
Some states will automatically send ballots to registered voters. Others will send voters an application to request an official ballot. Or, voters may need to reach out to request a ballot for voting by mail. Do your research now to determine the process, and keep an eye out for changes between now and November.

3.) Is there a primary or special election coming up?
Though the general election may still seem far off, some states rescheduled their primaries and special elections from the spring to early summer – so your next opportunity to vote may be just around the corner. Find out what state and local elections may be coming up, and when.

4.) What is your deadline to act?
Often, absentee ballots must be requested well in advance. They may also need to be received or postmarked by a specific date in advance of Election Day. Find out these dates – then make a reminder on your calendar well in advance.

5.) And make sure you’re registered to vote!
Not yet registered? Act now to give yourself enough time to complete the process. (Some state’s deadlines are up to 30 days before an election.) Haven’t voted recently? Check your registration status to ensure your name has not been purged. If you are no longer showing as an active voter or have moved to another state, it’s time to re-register. It’s always a good idea to check your registration to ensure it’s current, even if you’ve voted recently.

“If you want to fix the polarization crisis, use your vote to shift the political climate”

Common Ground Committee co-founder, Bruce Bond, shared his thoughts on how and why we should vote for common ground this election in an op-ed for USA TODAY.

As you research candidates before heading to the polls, look for those with a track record that demonstrates a bias toward making progress on issues, not destroying the other side.


If you want to fix the polarization crisis, use your vote to shift the political climate

Polarization has reached a tipping point. To fix it, start by voting for candidates with a record of bipartisanship, regardless of their party.

The spate of suspicious packages and pipe bombs targeting prominent Democrats and the recent hate crimes have been horrifying. As someone who works full-time on mitigating the increasing polarization that divides our nation, I see intense disagreement every day. This was something else entirely — heartbreaking, appalling and shocking. These attacks and an increase in incendiary rhetoric have further exposed the festering divisions in our country. But they also spurred a bipartisan call for civility.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, expressed how we need to “tone down the rhetoric. Both sides. We’ve got to see people as opponents, not enemies.” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tweeted a statement saying, “Despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum — not just by one side. Regardless of who is responsible, these acts are wrong and must be condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Period.”

On Tuesday, I will join Americans in voting for members of both chambers of Congress. In 36 states, my New York included, we are voting for governors as well. 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. It is evident. The divisive, angry tone of our public discourse is increasingly dangerous and too often perpetuated by those we elect to public office.

Vote for those who will find common ground

Your vote has the power to reverse the deepening abyss of destructive politics if you divert from voting along ideological lines and choose candidates who prioritize making progress on key issues over attacking the opposition. Cast a ballot for those who are not only capable of finding common ground but who also seek opportunities to repeatedly reach across the aisle.

If we don’t vote common ground before party, the pernicious effects of incivility following the midterm elections will only intensify.

To be sure, I am not advocating voting for “nice” people. The best leaders never compromise their fundamental principles. But our country needs leaders who are aware that their default approach needs to be finding common ground, not solely standing their ground. When they do dig their feet in on an issue, good leaders attribute their firm stance to their principles, not flaws in their opponent’s character.

As you research candidates before heading to the polls, look for those with a track record that demonstrates a bias toward making progress on issues, not destroying the other side. Utilize the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index and the Allegheny College’s Prize for Civility in Public Life to learn more about politicians known for working civilly with their opponents to find common ground. Ask candidates to describe how they work with members of other parties to move forward on issues you care about — whether that is health care, guns or immigration — then cast your ballot for those you believe will work across party lines to solve those problems. In other words, vote common ground.

Use your vote to shift our political climate from destructive to constructive. Vote for candidates who understand that impactful and long-lasting solutions come only from a wealth of input from voices who bring different experiences and views to the table. Today, our politics are rooted in the mindset that the other’s perspective is, at best, a “check the box” consideration. This approach is unproductive. Just look at how the Senate voted along party lines for the Affordable Care Act and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The minority party vowed to significantly change or repeal these bills once they resumed power. In the case of ACA, they did just that.

We need leaders in office who will stand tall on the two or three issues that matter most to them and their constituents yet prioritize working with others with differing views, not to check a box but because it is necessary to bring lasting change.

Historically, politicians have worked across party lines. President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich found common ground on welfare reform. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold joined forces in regulating the financing of political campaigns. Though harder to find, it’s happening today, too.

A Democratic gubernatorial candidate in South Dakota chose a Republican as a running mate. Ohio politicians reached across party lines to create the Congressional Civility Caucus so Congress can reach results, not fight. 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.

We can still fix polarization

We are not past the point of no return. According to a recent study on polarization, 77 percent of Americans say the differences between us are not so big that we cannot come together. Regardless of your political affiliation, it is crucial to your vote. Vote and help others vote common ground as well.

In a recent heated election, rather than vote for ideology, I decided to vote for the candidate who earned my respect for the strength of character, and in previous positions, demonstrated an ability to work with opponents. Fighting along ideological lines has buried us deep in this political quagmire. Let’s wield the power of our democracy and use our vote to move in a new direction, one that puts the country’s need for common ground and progress before ideology and party.

— This article was published in USA TODAY on November 5, 2018