Thought Leadership

Consensus Building When Democracy Hits a Rough Patch

David Fairman, Patrick Field

According to a recent Gallup poll, our country is more divided than any time in recent history: 77% of Americans believe the nation is divided on the most important issues. Two-thirds of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 83% of Democrats feel this way. At CBI, we are looking hard at the question of how our efforts to bring diverse stakeholders together on challenging national issues will be affected by this polarized atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and the new Administration and Congress. We see complications ahead, but also opportunities and needs that we may be able to meet.

Our work with stakeholders in federal energy, land use, and environmental regulation is likely to become more contentious, as the new Administration seeks to increase access to energy resources on public lands and conservation advocates push back. Though it seems hard to imagine at the moment, there may actually be some common ground on expansion of renewable energy installations, especially as the cost of solar and wind power falls. Even if that were true, siting of pipelines and transmission lines from energy extraction and generation facilities on remote federal lands to major urban areas is likely to trigger challenges from communities and Native American tribes, and will be complicated by the overlapping federal and state authority for interstate transmission. Nonetheless, we see some opportunities for progress on this set of issues, and will seek to bring our facilitation and mediation skills to bear.

With our sister organization Convergence, we are working on some highly-charged national social issues: the future of K-12 education, increasing economic mobility, and making better use of prison time to prepare offenders for successful re-entry. One of the great strengths of the stakeholder groups working on these issues is their ideological and political diversity. We have been heartened by stakeholders’ commitment to continue developing transformational approaches to these issues regardless of the outcome of the election, while paying close attention to the new, uncertain, and turbulent political context. We and the stakeholders in each group believe that their “strange bedfellows” composition can allow them to find opportunities where less diverse groups run the risk of being tagged as partisan advocates.

While we navigate our way through national cross-currents, we continue facilitating public dialogues and negotiations at state and local levels. We’re working on water use in California and the Rocky Mountain West, long-term adaptation to climate change in East Coast cities and communities, and diverse community and regional economic and social development planning initiatives across the country. These state and local stakeholders, their interests, and the issues they are addressing, are not likely to change substantially due to the national election. Though what happens in Washington, D.C., will have some impact on their work, stakeholders have their own practical and principled concerns, and areas of agreement/disagreement to work through, in their own distinctive political contexts.

Across all of our work, we continue to believe that our core principles and practices will be helpful in bringing stakeholders across the political spectrum together to work toward a common good rather than a conflict of factions. We think there are three approaches that will be essential to bridging differences in 2017 and beyond:

  • Articulate shared values: While fully acknowledging that we’re at a historic high point in partisan division, we are equally sure that Americans hold shared values on even the most controversial public policy issues. Our work always begins with dialogue on the goals, principles, and values that leaders bring to the issues at hand. When people are clear that they are not debating each other’s values, but rather listening with an open mind for areas of agreement as well as differences, we find that even the most polarized groups can find a pathway to common ground. It’s a “predictable surprise” that diverse stakeholders often discover common values and even common views on the challenges and opportunities they face. In our work on education, stakeholders who sharply disagreed on the issue of charter vs. public schools discovered that they all shared a vision of what great learning could be for all children in America. That vision and the shared value of “learner-centered” education that underpinned it were so powerful that they shifted from fighting over the present system to transforming it into something much better for the future.
  • Turn competing answers into common questions: While it may be true that this political season has brought the issue of “dueling facts” and “fake news” into sharper focus, we are no strangers to this challenge. Whether the issue is water allocation or the motivation of lower-income workers, diverse stakeholders normally come to the table with very different views of the facts. We know that joint fact-finding is a powerful tool for working through arguments about what’s true and what’s fake. When we worked with California’s agricultural and environmental advocates and public regulators to build consensus on the state’s first-ever groundwater law, the stakeholders started with very strongly held, divergent views on the causes of groundwater depletion and possible solutions. They invested heavily in building shared understanding of the interplay of groundwater hydrology, economics, law, and politics. That investment paid off in a strong consensus on the need for the law to authorize and require adaptive management of groundwater systems.
  • Make stakeholder negotiation processes transparent and participatory to constituents and citizens: One thing that we clearly learned from the election is that many Americans across the political spectrum feel disconnected from and distrustful of leaders and experts of all kinds. We see continuing value in bringing together diverse leaders with formal public and organizational authority and capacity, and helping them work through difficult issues in ways that strengthen their trust in each other. At the same time, we think it is essential to broaden opportunities for the constituencies that those leaders represent to understand the issues and the process, be consulted and see that their input is taken seriously. From neighborhood meetings and workshops to on-line platforms that provide both transparency and opportunities for thousands of citizens to provide input, we have the tools. The New Hampshire legislature, faced with growing conflict over energy siting, engaged citizens from the north country to the populated south to generate ideas and priorities for revising their energy siting process, and in turn, the legislature then passed a widely supported revision of its statute.

These approaches will not resolve all of our partisan disputes, but they can break down what are perceived as irreconcilable differences and reveal places where we might find agreement. We need to employ them, and be creative about designing new means of engagement, as we tackle the tough issues of our time. At CBI, we will continue to support the hard work of democracy as participation, dispute resolution, and consensus building. We need not fear our divisions, as long as we remain committed to bridging them.

For more information, you can contact David Fairman or Patrick Field