Kelly is a senior governance fellow at Georgetown University's Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. Bland is a senior consultant at Stanford University's Center on International Conflict and Negotiation. Thompkins is CEO of the Justice and Peace Foundation, which works to combat poverty, war and racial injustice. Morrow is a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster.
There comes a time when political leaders and ordinary citizens alike must choose to affirm and reinforce the institutions that make a democratic nation possible. The last four years have taught us that we cannot take for granted that our democratic processes will lead to compromise and reciprocity.
We are participants in an ongoing conversation about peace building among academics, community activists and international scholars who have studied intractable political conflicts and helped to develop strategies for overcoming political divisions. Our discussions have drawn heavily on our experiences in Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine and on our engagement in struggles to overcome racial injustice, wealth inequality and discriminatory policing here in the United States.
We believe the lessons we have learned offer important insights into how we could overcome the deep polarization poisoning American politics.
In our representative democracy, politics is a way of reconciling divergent interests. In this view, the core mechanisms of politics are debate and compromise. Today, these mechanisms are in serious need of repair. To restore viable democracy, we must first identify what makes political debate and compromise functional.
People live their political lives looking toward the future. Two ways of envisioning this future are important. They sound similar, but they are different: A shared vision of the future and a vision of a shared future.
The first? It implies broad agreement about how the future should unfold. It is the work of politics to define such a vision, including a consensus on how to bring it about. In the absence of a shared vision, the parties to a conflict may seek to impose the future they desire on their opponents. At this point, a vision of a shared future becomes important.
The second? Democracy does not demand that the citizens share a vision of the future. But democracy does demand that they commit themselves to a future that each would find bearable. This future must offer them security, dignity and the capacity to pursue the everyday goals virtually all of us have for ourselves and our families.
In other words, citizens have to commit to a vision of a shared future to have a democracy.
Such a vision recognizes that fundamental differences exist in what the parties seek and what they deem just. But each party also recognizes its vision must address the place of the other in that vision. If that place would be unbearable, political negotiations and citizen dialogue will be fruitless or even counterproductive.
Normal interest-based and value-based political compromise can take place, this means, only when both sides are sure that no political arrangement under consideration would afford them less than a bearable future. For democracy to function, citizens must feel that losing a political contest will not deny them the opportunity to live "normal" lives — to pursue their personal goals and dreams with some chance of success.
A deep sense of loss pervades our nation. Conservatives feel they are losing the heritage needed to build the future they want. Progressives feel they are losing the achievements of the past and also the momentum needed to build the more just and diverse future they want.
If political dialogue is to be constructive, progressives and conservatives must — first and foremost — acknowledge their respective senses of loss are legitimate and then address the fear that those Americans have of other Americans who hold opposing views.
Coming together to preserve American democracy starts with some common tasks. We must provide security for individuals, families and communities. We must safeguard livelihoods. And we must foster dignity and respect. Most politicians clearly understand the importance of these questions, but they treat them as by-products of the policies they advocate.
In the search for a shared future, We believe that these outcomes — especially the emphasis on dignity — should be paramount, intentional and visibly demonstrated.