A Conversation on Common Ground in Politics

| February 11, 2016 | 1 Comment

This post was written jointly with fellow Culture Shocker Kobe Yank-Jacobs, based on a conversation we had in the Howard Thurman Center regarding the difficulty of finding common ground in our current political climate.

M: I’ve been thinking about common ground and politics, especially in this election year. How do we find common ground with people who we disagree with politically? For example, Bernie and Trump just won the New Hampshire primary. How do people in the Bernie camp and the Trump camp find common ground with each other?

K: I think the first step is recognizing that everyone does have the best interest of the country in mind. It’s a politician’s job to make people believe that the other side is acting with malicious intent, but I think the first thing that we need to do in discussions with each other is recognize that that’s not the case.

M: Yeah, I kind of wonder whether the two party system makes it hard to find common ground. I wonder whether it plays into the division of people by making them pick sides. For me, I’m a registered independent because I don’t like to feel locked in to a specific party’s beliefs, so I can leave the door open to finding common ground with any candidate.  I imagine that’s harder when you are more locked in to a party.

K: A question for you: do you think your status as an independent really does change how you interact with people who hold different political beliefs than you? Because while you may not be officially aligned with one party, I would assume you have a certain set of beliefs that tend to match a certain ideological side.

M: While I’m an independent so I can stay open to both sides, I do have beliefs that align with one side––the democratic party. But I do like to have the option to decide whether I agree with a candidate based on what they are saying rather than by what party they’re in.

The other idea we can explore is finding common ground within parties––like the Bernie vs. Hillary factions and Trump vs. …well, almost everybody else. But by the time the convention comes, people within each party are forced to find common ground among themselves.

K: On the subject of the two-party system, I think it’s interesting to explore the idea of free thought because I think once you start making decisions about issues on your own, it’s highly unlikely that you would agree with so many people if it wasn’t for your ideological allegiance. For example, there was a recent op-ed in the New York Times which discussed someone who is not really aligned with either party, but agreed with one party on some things and the other on other things. It makes me think that we would do better in this country to be more introspective about the issues rather than assess the candidates on how well they align with their own parties beliefs. I think it would help us recognize how much common ground we actually have with people, which we don’t do when we refuse to challenge our own assumptions.

M: I feel like political elections have become so much more about show than introspection. I almost wonder if people really want common ground or if they just like to talk about the ridiculousness of Trump and Bernie and Bush. Do you think that part of the public’s attention would be lost if elections were more about common ground than about tensions between candidates?

K: That’s a really good point to highlight because I think it’s human nature to feel compelled to display their tribal allegiance above other things. I think people really just like to be outraged. So, in answer to your question, probably, yes.

But what do you think makes the process of finding common ground different within parties, like you were saying following bitter nomination fights? For example, consider Obama and Hilary making peace in 2008.

M: I guess when it comes down to conventions, once you have one candidate people fall in line not because they like them but because they hate the other candidate more. I know a lot of people who like Bernie who say that if he didn’t win they would support Hillary over the Republicans, even though they don’t really agree with her, just because she’s a better option than any Republican. So while they don’t necessarily find common ground with Hillary, the differences between their beliefs and Hillary’s are fewer than the differences between those of Republican candidates.

I kind of wonder if common ground necessitates compromise and because politics is an all or nothing game, people might be afraid of this idea.

K: Yes, and no. Yes, politics being a zero sum game means compromise is equivalent to a loss. However, to me, common ground is about respecting differences of opinion. Have you had personal experience discovering an appreciation for someone you formally disagreed with?

M: I would say my appreciation for people I disagree with comes from whether or not they know what they believe in and can explain that, and their reasons for believing in it, without feeling the need to push their beliefs on others.

K: Then I suppose that politics is indeed incompatible with that definition of common ground because the goal is to push your beliefs on others.

M: What do you think of the role of debates? If the goal of politics is to push your opinion on others, then debates fit in well because they are about purposefully bringing people apart. However, this seems to further complicate the idea of common ground in politics.

K: I don’t think we should kid ourselves by calling these events debates. These are TV executives dreams. Consider them reality television with consequences. I think in a true debate, your definition of common ground–wherein people explain why they believe something–would be a lot more prevalent than it is in these television ratings machines. I’m certainly willing to admit that sometimes I tune in just for the theatrics, do you?

M: I’ll admit, I don’t often watch the debates. They’re very long and I don’t feel like I gain a lot from them, mostly because of the theatrics you refer to. So I wonder, if common ground was central to the philosophy of a candidate could this candidate be successful? And if common ground played a bigger role in our election process do you think our political system would be better for it?

K: I think common ground–a post-partisan–Washington was central to Obama’s campaign. But the reality of the office gave him an ultimatum. His desired policies versus his desired political climate. After the failure of the Obama years in that respect, do you see any candidate having the ability to mend Washington?

M: I certainly don’t see any of the candidates running right now with the ability to do that. Most of them are pretty stuck in their beliefs and their party’s beliefs. While Hillary Clinton might present herself to be a little more middle ground than the other candidates, I don’t think any of the Republican voters or politicians would agree with that.

K: I think it’s interesting that Clinton has more moderate policies but a more polarizing character and Bernie Sanders has extreme policies with a more tolerable character.

M: Do you think we’re more concerned with character or policies when it comes to our candidates?

K: I think that the media has turned politics into a personality game. But that doesn’t mean that extreme policies will get through our hyper-partisan dysfunction. Do you think that the politicians polarize the public or that the polarized public forces hyper-partisan from Washington?

M: I would like to think it’s more a polarized public than the polarized politicians because it’s more people controlling fewer people, but I think the reality is that the public isn’t as polarized as the politicians. The ones making their voices heard are more extreme. The more moderate people are almost harder to appeal to with a sound byte. So the politicians and the media automatically cater to the louder voices of the extreme voters on both sides, thereby further polarizing the public.

K: The sad thing is, minority parties have an interest in inefficiency because they can delude the public into believing inefficiency in the ruling parties is the ruling party’s fault. But any way you view it, it’s a positive feedback loop. The question is, how do we reverse that?

M: I’d like to think common ground can help.

K: Maybe the HTC should sponsor the next debate.

M: Pedro can moderate.


photo credit: Two Men Having A Heated Discussion, Off Embankment, 01-02-2007 via photopin (license)

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Category: featured, Politics, Thurman Thoughts

Mackenzie Morgan

About the Author ()

Even though she's not sure how it happened, Mackenzie is a senior. She is also a cake connoisseur, self-declared hobby architect, and co-Editor-in-Chief of Culture Shock. She hails from a small snow globe of a town deep in the mountains of Colorado and is ridiculously proud of the fact that she's half Australian. She's working towards molding young minds as she studies History Education and American Studies with a minor in Political Science, but she would also like to be a princess (or maybe a lawyer). Her weaknesses and greatest enemies include mornings, ketchup, and mascots. Mostly Mackenzie likes to tweet about sandwiches (@Kenz_LM), eat soup, look at the moon, and work towards being Hermione Granger.

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