If you think Republicans and Democrats are hopelessly divided today on, say, the budget or gun safety or immigration or even on the grounds for impeaching President Donald Trump, you’d be shocked by the chasms that separated delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Some of them were intent on a central government with much broader and all-encompassing executive power. Others wanted more power delegated to the states. Small states and large states were at loggerheads over how much representation each should have in the federal government. And slavery was then — and would continue to be for decades to come — a source of profound disagreement.
It couldn’t have been pleasant. Given any range of options, few people would choose to spend their summer months sequestered in a sultry Philadelphia meeting hall. But the framers knew that the existing system of government in the United States, established by the Articles of Confederation, was incapable of keeping the nation strong and free. So they did what our nation’s leaders much too infrequently do today: They got together and talked out the issues until they could come to a resolution.
Today, we know that the Constitution wasn’t a flawless document. It allowed for slavery. It has been amended 27 times for a reason. But its strength and endurance — one might even call its genius — was that it was the product of negotiations among people who had very different views of what America should be, and how it should be governed. It was a product of a series of compromises. That very spirit of collaboration is so remarkably lacking in today’s politics.
Yes, America today, like then, is divided on a whole host of issues. We are much more diverse, and power is distributed much more democratically than in the late 18th century. But in an era where a vast majority of voters would prefer more compromise to hotter rhetoric, the real problem today is much simpler. Unlike the founders, today’s leaders too frequently refuse even to get in a room with one another.
Civil conversations: Engage in thoughtful discussions about vital issues.
Democrats and Republicans now talk past each other in front of the cameras. They castigate one another on social media. They fundraise by demonizing the other party. And once they’re in power, they rarely see an upside to meeting in public or in private. All the incentives spur them to fight with one another. And so the citizenry’s great interest — namely that leaders with different points of view hash things out — gets lost in the wash.
Leaders can find solutions
The good news is twofold. First, if our leaders were to sit down together, they could quickly find solutions. How do we know? Because a select few are already doing it. The Problem Solvers Caucus comprises an equal balance of 48 Democrats and Republicans who have forged agreements on gun safety, health care, immigration and border security. That’s a crucial start.
Second, we know that Washington can re-animate the founders’ impulse for compromise because a growing battery of leaders are choosing explicitly to “get in a room” together . The organization I lead, No Labels, sponsors a regular gathering on the first Wednesday of every month.
Every member of Congress from both parties and both chambers is invited to join in a closed-door session designed simply to let members get to know one another and discuss where they might work in common cause. Our hope is to work ourselves out of this role — to get the ball rolling, and then leave it to the members of Congress themselves to organize these meetings. And we hope that when legislators return home to their states and districts, constituents begin asking them to “get in the room.”.
Washington doesn’t have to be broken
It often feels like Washington is utterly broken, but it need not be this way. Our nation was founded on compromise, and compromise can once again be the order of the day. We simply need to demand more from Washington.
America’s diversity should be a source of strength, not strife. As citizens, we need to remind those we elect to high office that their mandate is to follow in the footsteps of the select few who framed our system of government, working across their differences in pursuit of the common good.
Nancy Jacobson is founder and CEO of No Labels, a movement to promote collaborative solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges.
The Hidden Common Ground project is supported by the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Kettering Foundation serves as a research partner to the Hidden Common Ground initiative.