Searching for Common Ground

The country is polarized, but it is still possible to have meaningful conversations that lead to common ground on challenging and potentially divisive issues.

At least, that’s the idea behind Hidden Common Ground 2020, an initiative that USA Today and a group of nonprofit organizations have launched to coincide with the current election year. The partnership includes Public Agenda, the National Issues Forums Institute, the Charles F. Kettering Foundation and the Ipsos polling organization.

For years, advocates of public deliberation and civic engagement have been trying to convince decision-makers and media professionals that the public isn’t as divided as the conventional wisdom (or a steady diet of Twitter and cable new) suggests.

When people meet in well-organized deliberative forums, they are often able to listen to one another and, despite disagreements, develop a better understanding of how people with different perspectives are thinking and feeling. These understandings can lead to common ground or areas of agreement on actions.

The Hidden Common Ground initiative was launched in 2018 by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization. In collaboration with the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda published two reports, “Americans See Eye to Eye on Incarceration” and “Americans See Eye to Eye on Health Care.” Based on focus group interviews and surveys, the reports found large areas of common ground on two of the country’s thorniest issues.

In 2020, USA Today joined the effort. Also participating are hundreds of local newspapers in the Gannett organization, which owns USA Today, and dozens of public radio stations. Throughout the election year USA Today will publish stories and opinion pieces related to the theme of finding common ground on difficult issues.

In December, the initiative released the results of a survey conducted by Public Agenda, USA Today and the Ipsos polling organization. A whopping nine in ten of those surveyed agreed that it was time to reduce the divisiveness in American public life.

National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) is coordinating with local organizers and hosts to convene online and in person public deliberation efforts in communities all over the country. Says NIFI President Betty Knighton, “The idea is to shine a spotlight on the capacity and potential for people in communities to come together and have these conversations productively, even when they have disagreements.”

The media organizations are participating in different ways. In some cases, they will be providing coverage with backgrounders and op-eds on the issues the forums will be discussing. In other instances, they will participate in organizing and convening the forums.

The effort is being supported by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The forums use NIFI’s issue guides, concise explanatory booklets that pose questions, explore the issues and offer three potential policy options, listing the positives and potential tradeoffs that people would have to accept if they were to go in that direction.

NIFI has published issues guides on health care, economic opportunity and immigration. The organization has also published a guide on the challenge of political conflict and division that will be part of the Common Ground conversation. The title of that issue guide is “A House Divided: What Would we Have to Give up to Get the Political System we Want?”

Knighton hopes the election year project will help forge lasting relationships between media, local institutions and civic entrepreneurs, so the conversations will continue well beyond 2020. “Some of these issues are very polarizing,” she says, “but we’ve seen that there is much more willingness at the local level to talk about issues even when people disagree.”

The key, says Knighton, is for the people who do the outreach and convening to create a welcoming environment and to communicate the understanding that these conversations are not just possible, but necessary.

“I do think this is a message that gets overlooked,” says Knighton. “I think much of the national discussion seems polarized with the elections heightening that. This year, with the spotlight from the media outlets and with more national partners, we have this ability to make more people aware that it is possible.”

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