Let us find the common ground
Americans' tradition of shared spaces confronts a divided nation
When we enter common ground, there’s a chance for peace. (Photo from Unsplash)
From their first days on this continent, European settlers set aside land for common use, using the space for grazing livestock, drilling militias or burying the dead. The common ground, often in the center of a hamlet, helped define a community even as it provided benefits for those who were a part of it. But as newcomers arrived, historians tell us, so did tensions over whose cattle and sheep might get priority. So communities converted their commons into parks, to be used more for leisure than for agriculture. Boston Common is the prime example; bought by the Puritans in 1634 from the area’s first European settler, it’s considered America’s first city park.1
These days “common ground,” as a term for the space where we can find shared footing, remains something we consider desirable. Yet it could be that what has changed is only what we’re willing to dispute. Instead of arguing over whose cows get the sweet grass, Americans nowadays can’t find common ground on issues as diverse as gun ownership, abortion and immigration. And as American political life has grown more confrontational in the 21st century, the concept of common ground has become more an aspiration than a reality.
In fact, it often seems that we prefer battlegrounds. A poll from Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service late last year found that 86 percent of U.S. voters think the main goal of political leaders should be to compromise and find common ground. But the same poll yielded the contradictory notion that almost the same percentage say they’re tired of politicians compromising their values and ideals, and that we instead want leaders to stand up to the other side.2
Which is it? When the Georgetown pollsters asked a follow-up question aimed at forcing the poll respondents to come to a conclusion, 68 percent said they prefer leaders who are willing to compromise to get things done.
That’s surely good news for Joe Biden, who argued from the start of his White House campaign that he could move the country forward by choosing compromise over confrontation. By getting a divided Congress in recent days to agree to raise the debt limit, Biden might have won some grudging appreciation from a cantankerous electorate that hasn’t been much impressed by his policy successes over the past two-plus years.
On most issues, Americans think the two dominant political parties have little shared space. Only a quarter of us think there’s common ground between the parties on abortion, according to Pew Research studies this year; less than a third see any common ground on gun control and immigration, and only 44 percent say there’s inter-party understanding at any level on climate change. Among key issues, there’s only one topic on which a majority of voters say Republicans and Democrats have some common ground: foreign policy. That’s not an uninformed opinion: in fact, the perception that the partisan divide leaves little common ground is strongest among people who pay the most attention to what’s going on in Washington.3
Yet it's hard to tell if voters’ views are right — if the parties really are divided — because politicians’ work has become so performative. That is, politicians’ public personas are so carefully crafted that we can hardly know how they really feel about their work – what they see as their responsibility, other than advancing their careers. When push comes to shove, are the players in the public arena more interested in crafting real solutions or in crushing their opponents? We know the answer to that for some high-profile players in Washington — does anybody really think Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are hard at work on the issues that could make this a better planet? — but we are unsure if a lot of the people entrusted with responsibility over the course of the world’s leading nation are in fact eager to tackle the challenges of the day.
The resolution of the debt crisis, though, offers hope that America can rebound from the nearly catastrophic reign of Trump in the White House, and that the federal government might function effectively again, as it did pretty well for the first two centuries after our Constitution was adopted. In any organization, success builds upon success. The compromise that has just averted a global financial crisis might lay the groundwork for the resolution of other conflicts in months to come.
Experts in negotiation — including faculty from some of the nation’s leading business schools, whose student I have been in several settings over the years — stress that negotiations rarely succeed unless each side can claim some share of victory. The fact that the debt ceiling agreement was denounced by both the right and the left suggests that both Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy were dedicated to a successful resolution, and that each gave wins to the other side. Could that lay the groundwork for more negotiation?
Two key factors may determine the answer to that question: First, whether each side talks to the other side regularly; second, whether there’s a safe way to handle the disputes that can’t be resolved and the political players who have no interest in resolving problems.
It’s widely agreed that recent years have seen a rise in hostility toward those on the other side from our own political views. Three years ago, University of Texas communications scholars set out to understand how some people avoided that deep anger, so they might project a pathway toward defusing widespread political tension and dysfunction. Their findings were clear: People who frequently discussed politics, even through tough conversations where sharp differences surfaced, tended to develop views of those on the other side that were less negative. Familiarity, in this case, seemed to breed respect more than contempt.4
Yet there are some situations were conversation and negotiation are all but impossible. That’s where it’s important to understand a different kind of ground: namely, the sort that directs excess electricity to the ground in any electrical system, like that in your home. Grounding limits the voltage of any electrical surge by redirecting the charge; it is essential to ground electricity in your home, for example, to protect anybody using electricity from a shock caused by a surge, from a lightning strike, say, or a power plant accident.
We need to be able to similarly turn the most potent charges in the political realm to the ground. Extremists’ views have coursed through our political system in recent years, charged by Trump’s own negative energy. That extremism must be redirected so that its power is dissipated. McCarthy surprised many of us by laying aside the push by those on the hard right who insisted he brook no compromise — those irresponsible advocated included Trump himself, who ignorantly said it wouldn’t matter if America defaulted on its debt. McCarthy may be emboldened by his success to begin to squelch the destructive hard-right tendencies of his party.
All this may be a wildly optimistic on my part. How can we imagine, from a single instance of success, that we may be at the beginning of progress toward reducing the alienation Americans feel from each other? But the need to find a course toward a less divisive political culture is so great that it’s worth tamping down our acquired cynicism. Hope, after all, is a necessary precursor to success, because we only venture forward if we’re armed with hope.
Which is also why we search for common ground. One of America’s most prolific 19th century writers, William Alcott, writing in 1838 about the evolution of the colonies’ common lands, noted that a community’s shared space could improve “the moral tone and tendency” of the citizenry. Alcott called common ground “a means of promoting the public cheerfulness, the public taste, and of consequence, the public happiness.”5 That’s no less true of the figurative common ground that we have to hope Americans can find with one another, and that we must work to acquire.
William A. Alcott, “Embellishment and Improvement of Towns and Villages,” American Annals of Education 8, no. 8 (August 1838): 337–47, view on Zotero.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Williston, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
Pensacola, Fla. (Pensacola News Journal, pnj.com)
Madison, Wisc. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, jsonline.com)
Fort Collins, Colo. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradoan.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
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One cold night damaged fruit crop
There was a cold spring night in the Northeast on May 25 and now, as its impact is being assessed, the outlook for fruit growers — and for consumers — isn’t good. A dip into the 20s for several hours led to a “flash freeze,” according to reporting by Dan D’Ambrosio in The Burlington Free Press, with “devastating and unprecedented” impacts on the state’s orchards and vineyards. The state’s agriculture secretary said that the full extent of the damage won’t be known for some weeks, but that the losses appeared to be “heartbreaking.”
Flesh-eating seaweed? Gotta love Florida
Floridians have been worried ever since reports surfaced in March of a 5,000-mile-wide mass of brown seaweed called sarcasum that was heading toward their state. Now there are reports that a species of bacteria that lives in the algae, known as vibrio vulnificus, can be fatal — by in some cases eating human flesh. In the Pensacola News Journal, reporter Brandon Girod provides some perspective: It’s just one of the vibrio that is dangerous, and it primarily is a threat to people with immune disorders or open wounds and — well, there are other reasons to worry a bit less, and scientists are still assessing the situation. But one key way to avoid the peril: Don’t eat raw shellfish, especially oysters. Or, some would say, choose your oysters from a good source, and cleanse palate thoroughly with gin.
Judge says request to shut down pipeline “extraordinary” and risky
A Chippewa tribe in northern Wisconsin is asking a federal judge to shut down an oil pipeline that passes through the band’s territory, but the judge said he considers the request problematic — both because the tribe won’t allow the danger it cites to be fixed and because he worries the U.S. Supreme Court may take up the case and remove the tribe’s jurisdiction. Laura Schultz reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the land around the pipeline is eroding, but that the tribe had blocked the pipeline owner from revetment that could prevent pipeline failure. But U.S. District Judge William Conley, an appointee of President Barack Obama, cautioned the tribe that if the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, he was worried that the tribe’s rights might be limited. “I don’t know if you’ve been watching the Supreme Court,” he said, “but I’m flummoxed.” The pipeline operator has proposed a rerouting, but the route it has in mind goes through land where residents also doesn’t want it.
After two years, prodigal cat comes home
Ice, a 7-year-old female cat, was smitten with a male black cat in her neighborhood — and one day, when she was allowed outside to play with him, she disappeared. According to Pat Ferrier in The Coloradoan, that was two years ago, and Ice stayed away. Then, last week, she showed up at a shelter in Loveland, which is 15 miles south of Fort Collins. Her owner was identified by the scan of an embedded chip, and now Ice is home — tail 3 inches shorter, a gash behind the ear, but not in such bad shape for all that may have transpired during a failed two-year romantic quest.
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The inspiration of music
Some readers know that I’ve been singing throughout my life. For the past 22 seasons, I’ve been a proud member of Albany Pro Musica, a fine ensemble that is considered one of the Northeast’s best choral groups. One of the numbers we’re rehearsing now, which we will perform next month at a festival in Ontario, was the inspiration for today’s essay.
We’re performing a moving short piece written three years ago by Alice Parker, one of America’s finest living choral composers. On the Common Ground is reminiscent of a spiritual from the era of American slavery, a genre that Parker considers as musically robust as any in history — standing fairly, she says, alongside the Bach B Minor Mass, which, incidentally, Albany Pro Musica will perform next spring. On the Common Ground is a soulful work that pleads for help as we try to find our way to shared space — or, as the composer said in introducing it, “to get each other on this common ground of what goes on in our inner lives.” You can listen to a small ensemble singing it here. In a future edition of The Upstate American, I’ll give you a recording of APM performing the piece.
Music moves many of us spiritually in a way that nothing else can, and I’m grateful for the work of the musicians who bring such meaning to so many of our lives.
And one last note…
Thanks for reading The Upstate American, and for supporting my work exploring our common ground, this great land. Most weeks, paid subscribers will also receive the Midweek Extra Edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, exploring the writing of the essay. And if you’d like to learn how to write opinion essays — for newspapers, audio or digital platforms — check out the class offered by The Memoir Project by clicking below. There’s only one more class before our summer break.