Op-ed: We agree on almost nothing except how to solve problems across the political divide

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on 1/7/2021.

We worked for opposing parties on Capitol Hill, disagree strongly on issues, and voted differently in the recent presidential election. But we are friends — and we agree on major steps that must be taken for the nation to heed President-elect Biden’s welcome call for us to come together.

Sadly, there is resistance to bipartisanship and healing from both ends of the political spectrum. If done right, our direct experience suggests we can foster mutual trust and understanding across divisions and generate not-otherwise-possible solutions for the daunting challenges of the times. The alternative is unacceptable.

President-elect Biden, with help from newly elected and longstanding members of Congress, can uniquely set a new spirit of cooperation in motion, but he must proceed skillfully. We’re encouraged his incoming administration has launched bipartisan outreach to Congress on key issues. To be successful, the conversations should include the widest range of voices willing to participate in good faith to address agreed-upon problems. If efforts at “bipartisanship” do not welcome broadly differing perspectives or are wired to arrive at pre-baked conclusions, animosity and division will continue unabated.

It also is critical also for national leaders to change their political calculations. Politics is always relevant to policymaking, but the recent focus on gaining or retaining political power has had an outsize influence. If political considerations sink meaningful solutions that elected leaders otherwise could support on the merits, that is a bad trade off. Too many urgent human needs beg for immediate response. We need leaders of courage to put substance ahead of politics.

Changes at the national level will not alone cure the divisions that run deep. A revolution must also bubble up from grassroots Americans eager for a more civil society. Given their depth of feelings, many people may be in no mood or lack the skills to take a first step toward reconciliation. We urge Mr. Biden and leaders at all levels to encourage a groundswell of philanthropic investment in a burgeoning number of civic groups that can help Americans move beyond anger and suspicion to exchanges that rebuild our social fabric. Those who engage will better understand the views and good intentions of their political opposites even if they continue to disagree on many matters.

Leaders also should encourage divergent, key stakeholder groups to participate in skillfully facilitated dialogue to find common ground. This can work because people often agree on an ultimate goal. Who doesn’t want good-paying jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods? We just disagree on how to get there. When previously warring but influential parties that drive division find common ground, it is easier for politicians to then act.

Bridgebuilding work is not easy, but there are proven ways to do so successfully. For nearly 20 years, we have worked to help leading groups with conflicting views engage in respectful problem-solving on intractable issues, including K-12 education, health care, incarceration, economic mobility, the federal budget process and more. Time after time, building trust and honest conversation have led to better solutions and improved relationships. While most participants think their side has more truth than the other, they recognize that no side ever has the full truth. The best possible solutions emerge from diverse and divergent voices pushing collective thinking to a higher level.

We have a fresh opportunity to break the mold on how we see each other and work together across differences. The vast majority of people are decent, believe in being truthful, and want what is best for the country, even as they disagree on how to achieve it. They also prefer not to be constantly be angry with each other.

If a huge wave of leaders and citizens get to know and understand others outside their silos, it could be transformative. It would be a huge step forward just to move most people to vehement disagreement, but no longer questioning the motives and legitimacy of others. It would be a balm for the nation if we can all walk around with far less intolerance of our neighbors, while still recognizing that some people’s views are so inflexible that the gulf cannot be bridged.

When we respect — even, like — each other, the chances for finding common ground increase. Often, the result of a genuinely successful negotiation is that everybody wins. Taking steps now to both lower the temperature of our political differences and find meaningful agreements where possible can begin a virtuous cycle of renewing our civic culture and restoring faith in the resilience of our democracy to respond to the challenges of the day.

Kelly Johnston is a former Secretary of the U.S. Senate, former Board Member of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, and was involved in 35 GOP congressional campaigns over 25 years. Rob Fersh founded Convergence, served as its first CEO and remains involved as an advisor and board member. Previously he worked for Democrats on the staffs of three congressional committees.