On Common Ground: Hidden and Forged

The Hidden Common Ground Initiative

From late 2019 through late 2020, USA TODAY, Public Agenda, the National Issues Forums Institute, the America Amplified public radio collaborative, and the Kettering Foundation worked together on the Hidden Common Ground initiative (HCG). This collaborative work was inspired by the commonly heard refrain that Americans are hopelessly divided on nearly every issue under the sun. So divided, the story often goes, that people of differing beliefs can hardly understand each other, much less agree on anything. Throughout the initiative, Public Agenda fielded nationally representative surveys on a host of issues, such as immigration, health care, and policing. Results from these surveys provided a jumping off point for coverage in USA TODAY and public radio. At the same time, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIF) created discussion materials for deliberative forums on many of the same issues being addressed in the surveys and the press coverage. Across the range of issues covered in the surveys, respondents registered far more areas of agreement than pundits or even people themselves tended to think. For instance, 77 percent of respondents said that it was important to create a path to citizenship for people illegally brought to the US as children; 87 percent of respondents said that all police officers should participate in de-escalation training; and 90 percent of respondents thought that it was important for medical insurance to cover treatment for mental health and addiction issues. In short, research from the Hidden Common Ground initiative struck a blow to the notion of a hopelessly divided public. 

A Prompt to Reconsider

In light of the findings noted above, the HCG initiative served as an important prompt to reconsider key concepts, starting with the namesake concept of hidden common ground. The word hidden suggests that agreement on issues does exist but is obscured. In other words, common ground is out there waiting to be uncovered. In cases like this, survey research is an appropriate tool to uncover that which exists but is difficult to see. 

If some common ground already exists, what about the times when common ground must be created from scratch? Can common ground be forged? While hidden common ground does exist and can be discovered through opinion surveys or casual conversation, something that is forged does not exist in the natural state of things. Therefore, it cannot be illuminated with a flashlight or uncovered in a survey. Rather, it must be created through hard work. The word forged is used intentionally as the dictionary defines the verb “forge” using words such as “heat,” “hammer,” and “concentrated effort.” 

What Is Forged—and How?

When people come together in deliberative forums to make decisions on shared political problems, they tend to leave with greater knowledge of the issue at hand, a greater respect for those with whom they disagree, and an enhanced sense of how complex most political problems are. These are powerful effects, but what happens when people deliberate is not limited to positive effects on individuals. Deliberators act as creators or producers. In collectively making sense of an issue and sharing their experiences, deliberators create new knowledge—practical knowledge about how a problem looks in their place, what has been tried before, and how new approaches might fare. Individuals arrive at such forums from a variety of starting points, with a variety of motivations, and an array of personal interests. In engaging with each other, this diversity of interests and starting points is the foundation for new directions. These new directions do not demand that people abandon their personal interests or core values. Rather, individuals might begin to see how their personal interests and values are interdependent. They might begin to see how actions they favor can be reinforced by different actions from different people. By engaging with each other, they forge a shared sense of direction or new path forward. This shared sense of direction is broad, encompassing more than just some agreement on one aspect of an issue. Some actions are liked more than others, but all are things that people have decided they can live with. At the same time, deliberation marks what is outside this broad sense of direction, actions that people cannot tolerate for one reason or another. What is forged here is common ground not purely for the sake of the satisfaction that can come with agreement, but common ground that can guide action on shared problems. 

Opinion and Judgment

It can be tempting to view survey results with 80 or 90 percent support as “slam dunks” that are merely a matter of implementation, ideally yesterday. In some cases, this may be true, for example, in domains where people have truly had time to work through an issue. In other cases, near unanimous support for policy X can start to wither when people consider the trade-offs that might ensue. At the same time, it can also be tempting to dismiss survey results where respondents seem split 50-50 as impossible to work through. This read neglects what can be forged when people have a chance to work through issues together, creating previously unseen avenues for action. In sum, public opinion is a starting point on the road to public judgment. The road might be long, pocked with disagreements and difficult sacrifices, but it can lead to a promising destination.