Since the founding of our nation, both liberals and conservatives have sought to find common ground in an attempt to better understand one another, resolve difficulties and reach effective compromises.
Some attempts have achieved relative success, while others have not. What is this common ground, anyways? Why is it so important to identify? And when it has been identified, is it enough to mend the great divide that exists between the two sides?
At present, with both sides so divided, it would seem that very little common ground exists. However, there is more common ground than we might think. All we have to do is find the will to summon it.
Three kinds of Common Ground
Common Ground 1: Shared Goals and Aspirations:
Both liberals and conservatives share many goals and aspirations. Often times, they overlook or underestimate these areas of agreement and dwell instead on all the disagreement. What are some of these agreements?
Both sides desire peace at home and abroad, safe neighborhoods, economic prosperity, a clean environment, clean and dependable water supply, the opportunity for all people to follow their dreams, no poverty or hunger, an abundant food supply, equal opportunity for all, a sound infrastructure, good schools, and much more.
In addition, both sides have a political consensus toward the ideals of individual rights and liberties embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
This consensus has provided our political system with a buffer, not found in most other countries, including many European nations, which exhibit more extreme polarization and radically divergent points of view among political parties.
A good metaphor for this buffer is the weather. On earth, we don’t experience the harsh temperature differences between day and night that most other planets experience. Our atmosphere keeps the days from getting too hot and the nights from getting to cold.
Much like earth’s atmosphere, our political consensus acts as a buffer to minimize political harsh conditions.
It seems as if we all share a lot of common ground. If that’s the case, then why do we still disagree on so much?
So What’s the Problem?
So what’s the problem if we share so much common ground? Nothing, if things are going well. In addition, we come together when there’s a Pear Harbor or 9/11 attack. Short of these things, when problems abound, the first kind of common ground discussed above is usually not enough to bridge differences.
When people think of common ground, it is the first kind that they generally think about most often. The second and third kinds, introduced below, are more tenuous and need to be better established for a more successful outcome.
Common Ground 2: The level of Importance or Weight Each Side Places on Each Goal or Aspiration:
While both sides may agree on many aspirations and goals, they sometimes place a different level of importance on them.
To make matters more complex, some goals and aspirations that one side greatly values are often times at odds with those the other side holds in high esteem.
A good example is the environment and economy. It’s hard to discuss one without bringing in the other. While the two sides value both, liberals place more emphasis on the environment, while conservatives place more so on the economy. This can be seen in how much voice each side gives to one over the other. Liberals tend to be more outspoken about the environment, while conservatives tend to be more vocal about the economy.
When two goals or aspirations, such as the environment and economy, are at such odds, it’s challenging to find common ground. However it does exist. Liberals still value the economy and conservatives the environment. It’s important to acknowledge that. However more common ground in this area is necessary for achieving effective policy solutions.
In cases in which goals and aspirations are valued differently, but are not in conflict with other ones, it becomes less challenging to establish more common ground.
Common Ground 3: The Strategy Used to Reach a Goal or Aspiration
Each side typically disagrees more often than not on how to achieve most goals. The main area of contention is how each side sees the role of government. Liberals believe that government should play a major role in solving many of our problems. Meanwhile, conservatives believe that government’s role should be limited to areas, such as defending the nation and individual rights.
Take our example of the environment vs. economy. When both sides are developing policy to deal with air or water pollution, they tend to disagree on the right course of action. Liberals tend to favor strong government regulations on polluters, stringent guidelines, and a relatively quick timetable to reduce pollution. Meanwhile, conservatives are less favorable of that approach. They are more incline to favor fewer government regulations, looser guidelines, slower timetables and more incentives, such as tax credits to coax polluters to change their ways. The role of government is a major dividing line in seeking the right course of action. If there’s any common ground, here, it’s not much.
Common Ground: An Assessment
In our example, Common Ground 1 is well established. On the other hand, Common Grounds 2 and 3 are wanting and need to be much more established before meaningful solutions can be found. In general, many other shared goals and aspirations reflect this same pattern.
We can see how attempts to appeal to Common Ground 1 may start out well, with an affirmation of a shared goal or aspiration, but eventually fall through due to insufficient Common Ground 2 and 3.
When Common Ground 2 and 3 do not become better established, both sides choose from among two paths: In the first path, both sides will often resort to what they are most comfortable with — entrenched positions, squabbling and very little compromise. One side may win out in the struggle, but the other side will soon try to figure out ways to change the outcome to their liking.
In the second path, they will pursue brokered deals and compromises. So, what’s the problem? Isn’t that part of our democratic tradition? The problem is that they will pursue compromises with reluctance and, sometimes, great pains. Such a negative attitude is not conducive to good results.
All too often, in an attempt to compromise, lawmakers have sought to meet in the middle of the political spectrum, a no-man’s-land that unwilling politicians are forced to tread when they have no other choice. Often, the agreements that come from this place are insubstantial and leave both sides unhappy, discouraged and critical. And in the end, with few exceptions, our problems never really get solved, but linger or incarnate into “new” problems. Such an outcome is not a failure of our system, but a failure among our leaders to capitalize on common ground.
How to Establish More Common Ground
Common Ground 2:
When liberals, for instance, don’t place the same level of importance on a particular goal or aspiration as conservatives, they can learn to better appreciate it and vice versa. Each side can learn valuable lessons from the other side. In the example of water and air pollution, liberals can learn to better appreciate the economy, and conservatives, the environment. Liberals can learn to understand the concerns conservatives have over the economy, while liberals can learn to understand the concerns liberals have over the environment. For example, liberals are concerned about how air and water pollution creates health problems for humans and animals, and despoils the environment. Meanwhile conservatives are concerned about preserving jobs and a favorable business climate. Both are legitimate concerns. Developing a greater appreciation doesn’t mean total agreement. It just means a greater appreciation and understanding of the concerns.
Common Ground 3:
When developing policy, the main area of contention is usually the role of government. In our example, liberals and conservatives strongly differ on strategies to combat air and water pollution. The following steps can be taken to better establish Common Ground 3.
Step 1: Both sides need to clarify their differences regarding the role of government as a means to solve the pollution problem. It may already seem obvious, but it’s still good to get it out on the table.
Step 2: Each side needs to acknowledge the concerns of the other side regarding the role of government. Liberals are concerned about how much polluters may really be willing to cooperate, ties between government and the special interests that support the polluters, and how well the private sector in general can be trusted to solve the problem.
Conservatives are concerned about the impact increased government regulations will have on the companies that pollute from an economic standpoint, along with jobs, cleanup costs, price increases and the economy in general. They are also concerned whether such regulations will work at all and do more harm than good in the end. Conservatives are concerned about water and air pollution, too, but they also believe that it’s vital to look at the economic issues just pointed out.
Step 3: All concerns need to be properly examined, weighted and addressed. This step, along with step 2, are often overlooked in most discussions.
Step 4: Both sides need to seek out more options. To do so, each side needs to avoid the “either-or” mentality of seeing everything in black and white, which only limits conversation and choices to the usual suspects. Uncovering more options requires that both sides zoom in on details to make available more information. Finally options need to be sought along the entire political spectrum and not just confined to the middle range, which typically produces half-measures and bad feelings. I call such brokered solutions, which expresses the full range of possibilities, Symphonic Solutions.
Following all four steps will boost Common Ground 3. The process will be painful. Neither side will get everything it wants. Both sides will have to get out of their idealistic bubbles and comfort zones.
However, when both liberals and conservatives can work together constructively for solutions and feel that their voices have been heard and accounted for, they will likely come up with more options, including innovative ones. Both sides will also more likely support the plan in the long run.
Appealing to common ground by appealing to shared goals and aspirations is a good start but is usually never enough to bridge disagreements when it’s important to come up with effective policies.
In order for liberals and conservatives to successfully work together and come up with effective solutions, they will have to summon up more common ground than they currently have, most notably when it comes to how they value goals and aspirations and the strategies they use to obtain them.