Scholars of democracy, political observers, and everyday Americans of all stripes have come to fear for our democracy.
Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center is a strong defender of democracy around the world, made the profoundly disturbing assessment about polarization that exists in the United States: “Our great nation now teeters on the brink of a widening abyss. Without immediate action, we are at genuine risk of civil conflict and losing our precious democracy. Americans must set aside differences and work together before it is too late.”
One important remedy for this crisis is to renew our ability to talk and listen to one another. As Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican commentator, clarified at a New York Times panel discussion, “It seems to me that if there is an avenue that’s going to work, it has to be that we all swallow hard and again start talking to people with whom we really don’t agree, and maybe think we don’t respect, to see if there is common ground. We need, as a country and as individuals in communities, to take the difficult step of figuring out how to start having those conversations.”
Unfortunately, most Americans are not comfortable participating in conversations about public problems and can feel powerless to play a meaningful role in rehabilitating our democracy. We need a more active and participatory approach.
Crosscurrents, our dialogue group composed of liberal and conservative voices, has been in continuous dialogue about public problems since 2019 and recently discussed the numerous threats to our democracy. We reached bipartisan agreement that respect for facts and a shared knowledge of reality are fundamental to our democracy, and we called on Americans to seek and build on factual common ground to address and solve pressing public problems (Bluffton Sun, Nov. 14, 2022; Aiken Standard, Nov. 5, 2022).
Our Crosscurrents group has reached agreements in bipartisan fashion on a variety of other potentially divisive topics such as health care, gun control, electoral reform, police reform, immigration and shared American values. This article briefly describes the Crosscurrents dialogue model. We call on our fellow citizens to join the initiative by extending the model to more Americans.
Crosscurrents conversations are structured with a small size of 12 to 15 persons and take place twice monthly in person or virtually. Participants must:
• be curious – interested in learning from others
• be willing to consider the possibility that their own opinion is wrong
• agree to disagree respectfully
• be tolerant of hearing ideas they dislike
• have the patience to backtrack if the group hits a dead end
• select one member as discussion moderator
Set up in this fashion, the process unfolds in two stages. The first is a divergent phase characterized primarily by exploration and similar to brainstorming but also incorporating fact checking. Four steps in this phase are:
1. Propose and agree on a topic/problem for discussion
2. Collect relevant facts from reliable sources
3. Discuss and agree on a limited and common set facts
4. Consider the possible causes of the problem
In this first phase, the discussion can backtrack through the steps, possibly even selecting a new topic. Here, members employ critical thinking and sound decision-making approaches to prepare for the second phase, which is the convergent phase characterized
Sometimes the group experiences a collective “aha moment” during the convergent phase that requires them to return to the first phase. Six steps in this phase are:
1. Think of feasible solutions
2. Consider pros and cons of key solutions
3. Find common ground needed for agreement
4. Propose a potentially agreeable solution
5. Discuss and agree on a solution
6. Write up the agreement and submit it for publication
The agreement might not cover all aspects of the topic, but on a divisive topic, even limited agreement is a success.
The successful Crosscurrents statements listed above provide proof of concept that Americans of different persuasions can agree on facts and work together productively. The remedy that concerned experts are calling for is within our capacity and can be successfully implemented in our communities if we muster the will to do so.
Our original national motto is “e pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), an aspiration echoed in the Preamble of the Constitution’s phrase, “to form a more perfect Union.” We know from the Founders that “united we stand, divided we fall.” All have a stake in rediscovering and refocusing on common ground and shared interests.
Common ground exists only if we are willing to look for it. It can serve as a springboard to finding a compromise on our most divisive public problems and, perhaps, help save our democracy.
For more information about how to join the Crosscurrents initiative and help expand productive civil conversation in your area, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Current members of the Crosscurrents group are Starr Barnum, Roger Bernier, Greg Blackburn, Haim Bober, Bruce Bunevich, George Clare, Gerry Cyr, Rob Darling, Raymond Dominick, Ray Haley, Mark Koenig, Laura McFadden, Michael Sacks, Linda Sheets, and Suzanne Yuskiw.