While the Senate struggles this summer to move beyond gridlock on issues from economic recovery to policing reform, each party focuses on blaming the other instead of seeking the common ground where progress could be made. Whether you're watching Fox News, CNN or MSNBC right now, it is hard not to conclude that American institutions — and the American people — are fracturing.
The simple act of getting through each day has felt like a slog through news of pandemics, racial unrest, economic collapse and polarization. The divisiveness we see from our leaders is being echoed in the national news and our everyday lives. We know of one couple living in fear that one more politically charged conversation with some of their friends could ruin that relationship.
This vitriol reflects a dangerous acceptance of the view that it's acceptable to demonize and hate, without taking any sincere interest in seeing real progress on the issues at hand. Surely, as a people, we are better than that.
The organization we co-founded and now operate is focused on bridging our divides, and over the past decade we've found that Americans ultimately want the same things. Almost four out of five Texans and three in four Californians, for example, have expressed their confidence in social distancing measures to slow down the spread of Covid-19. And all across the political spectrum, we have seen wide condemnation of the murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and a desire for major changes to the American criminal justice system.
We may differ on the best methods to slow the spread of the coronavirus or how to reform policing, but too often we hone in on our disagreements and lose sight of where we already agree. We are letting the toxic discourse from leaders and influencers, more focused on demonizing than compromising, poison our perceptions of those with whom we may have different views.
As explained by progressive Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts – who joined a former congressional colleague, centrist Republican Christopher Shays, for one of our forums last summer — spending all our energy on our disagreements moves us further away from finding workable solutions for all Americans.
If we narrow our focus onto just winning an argument, then we're only scoring pyrrhic victories for our partisan camps at the expense of the collective good. What is frustrating to us is that so many fellow citizens don't realize how sticking to tribal positions — including the conclusion that someone who disagrees with them is morally deficient — actually makes it harder to solve our problems.
But what can be done? What does good look like? One lesson comes from Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician living in Mississippi who has, through conversation and a willingness to listen and understand, developed relationships and then friendships with members of the Ku Klux Klan. Because of those relationships, those KKK members ended up renouncing their white supremacist views and leaving the klan.
Davis's experience shows that even the most tension-fraught situations can yield beneficial outcomes. They require us to listen open-mindedly to one another's experiences and perspectives, to understand not just what someone believes but why they believe it. That sets the stage for progress.Our nation and the world beyond it face a stern test. Making the grade will only be more challenging if we continue to allow our differences to drive deep wedges between us. Partisanship has deep roots and has been growing rapidly, but it is keeping us stuck in the mud. As we face multiple crises head-on, we urge our lawmakers and our fellow citizens to look beyond partisan differences and come together to find ways forward.
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Bond and Olsen are co-founders of Common Ground Committee, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote productive public discourse.
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 a 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.