Building Political Common Ground

Probably like many readers of this blog, I have been very uncomfortable with our highly polarized politics lately.  I have written about my conflicted feelings about how to deal with these issues, including this article, How Can We Build Common Ground Between Bubbles?

Clearly, it is counterproductive to try to build common ground with people who are dishonest and those committed to incompatible views.  That leaves a lot of the population with whom it may be worth the effort to try to find some shared perspectives.  Even in the run-up to the midterm elections, it may be worth trying to understand others’ perspectives and persuade them of one’s views – as well as being open to their ideas.  As we teach our students, listening does not necessarily require agreement with others’ views, though it is a prerequisite for learning.

On Friday, former President Obama gave a speech at the University of Illinois in which he argued that there is common ground to be found – and built – even in the current toxic political environment.  His speech really resonated with me.  Here is an extended excerpt about the importance of building common ground.


I’ll be honest, sometimes I get into arguments with progressive friends about what the current political movement requires.  There are well-meaning folks passionate about social justice, who think things have gotten so bad, the lines have been so starkly drawn, that we have to fight fire with fire, we have to do the same things to the Republicans that they do to us, adopt their tactics, say whatever works, make up stuff about the other side.  I don’t agree with that.  It’s not because I’m soft.  It’s not because I’m interested in promoting an empty bipartisanship.  I don’t agree with it because eroding our civic institutions and our civic trust and making people angrier and yelling at each other and making people cynical about government, that always works better for those who don’t believe in the power of collective action.

You don’t need an effective government or a robust press or reasoned debate to work when all you’re concerned about is maintaining power.  In fact, the more cynical people are about government and the angrier and more dispirited they are about the prospects for change, the more likely the powerful are able to maintain their power.  But we believe that in order to move this country forward, to actually solve problems and make people’s lives better, we need a well-functioning government, we need our civic institutions to work.  We need cooperation among people of different political persuasions. And to make that work, we have to restore our faith in democracy. We have to bring people together, not tear them apart.  We need majorities in Congress and state legislatures who are serious about governing and want to bring about real change and improvements in people’s lives.

And we won’t win people over by calling them names, or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist, or sexist, or homophobic.  When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people.  You know, this whole notion that has sprung up recently about Democrats need to choose between trying to appeal to the white working class voters, or voters of color, and women and LGBT Americans, that’s nonsense.  I don’t buy that.  I got votes from every demographic.  We won by reaching out to everybody and competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote.

And that’s what we’ve got to do in this election and every election after that.

And we can’t do that if we immediately disregard what others have to say from the start because they’re not like us, because they’re not – because they’re white or they’re black or they’re men or women, or they’re gay or they’re straight; if we think that somehow there’s no way they can understand how I’m feeling, and therefore don’t have any standing to speak on certain matters because we’re only defined by certain characteristics.

That doesn’t work if you want a healthy democracy.  We can’t do that if we traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy.  You know, to make democracy work we have to be able to get inside the reality of people who are different, have different experiences, come from different backgrounds.  We have to engage them even when it is frustrating; we have to listen to them even when we don’t like what they have to say; we have to hope that we can change their minds and we have to remain open to them changing ours.

And that doesn’t mean, by the way, abandoning our principles or caving to bad policy in the interests of maintaining some phony version of  “civility.”  That seems to be, by the way, the definition of civility offered by too many Republicans: We will be polite as long as we get a hundred percent of what we want and you don’t call us out on the various ways that we’re sticking it to people.  And we’ll click our tongues and issue vague statements of disappointment when the President does something outrageous, but we won’t actually do anything about it.  That’s not civility.  That’s abdicating your responsibilities.

But again I digress.  Making democracy work means holding on to our principles, having clarity about our principles, and then having the confidence to get in the arena and have a serious debate.  And it also means appreciating that progress does not happen all at once, but when you put your shoulder to the wheel, if you’re willing to fight for it, things do get better.  And let me tell you something, particularly young people here.  Better is good.  I used to have to tell my young staff this all the time in the White House.  Better is good.  That’s the history of progress in this country.  Not perfect.  Better.  The Civil Rights Act didn’t end racism, but it made things better.  Social Security didn’t eliminate all poverty for seniors, but it made things better for millions of people.

Do not let people tell you the fight’s not worth it because you won’t get everything that you want.  The idea that, well, you know there’s racism in America so I’m not going to bother voting.  No point.  That makes no sense.  You can make it better.  Better’s always worth fighting for.  That’s how our founders expected this system of self-government to work; that through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and evidence and proof, we could sort through our difference sand nobody would get exactly what they wanted, but it would be possible to find a basis for common ground.

And that common ground exists.  Maybe it’s not fashionable to say that right now.  It’s hard to see it with all the nonsense in Washington, it’s hard to hear it with all the noise. But common ground exists.  I have seen it.   I have lived it.  I know there are white people who care deeply about black people being treated unfairly.  I have talked to them and loved them.  And I know there are black people who care deeply about the struggles of white rural America.  I’m one of them and I have a track record to prove it.

I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change.  I’ve seen them do the work.  I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath.

Common ground’s out there.  I see it every day.  Just how people interact, how people treat each other.  You see it on the ball field.  You see it at work.  You see it in places of worship.  But to say that a common ground exists doesn’t mean it will inevitably win out.  History shows the power of fear.  And the closer that we get to Election Day, the more those invested in the politics of fear and division will work, will do anything to hang on to their recent gains.

Fortunately I am hopeful because out of this political darkness I am seeing a great awakening of citizenship all across the country. I cannot tell you how encouraged I’ve been by watching so many people get involved for the first time, or the first time in a long time.

One thought on “Building Political Common Ground”

  1. It seems to be the norm these days that the political platform is plagued with accusations and negativity. While politics don’t always bring out the best in people to begin with, the conversations seems to be especially adverse and tense in our daily news. The way that President Obama spoke of the barriers that are dividing republicans and democrats, and the lack of trust many people have with the government can be transferred to teaching attorneys to be better negotiators and mediators for their clients.
    The main concept President Obama touched on was finding common ground. This can be translated similarly to attorneys. An attorney should find common ground with their clients and be the best representation possible for them. By establishing common ground, the attorney is better able to understand their client’s goals and interests. Furthermore, by talking with the client to figure out their common ground and interests, the attorney is able to develop a rapport and gain trust from the client. Not only should an attorney seek to find common ground with their own client, but they should also establish common ground with their counterpart whom they are trying to strike a deal with. Finding some sort of common ground with their counterpart might reveal that the deal will easily be made because the two sides’ interests overlap. Or, one side is willing to concede what the other side wants and vice versa.
    One of the main goals I believe President Obama was trying to get across, and that can be transferred to the legal profession, was to have civilized, rational conversations with one another. Not everything has to be a heated screaming match. If people took the time to sit down and listen to one another, they would realize they might be more alike than they are different. This is a great piece to keep in mind for those in law school, new graduates, and senior attorneys alike.

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