What’s behind our Common Ground workshop

10 conservatives will talk with 10 progressives Saturday at BC

LEGEND HAS IT that when someone asked Benjamin Franklin after the 1787 Constitutional Convention whether America would be a monarchy or a republic, Franklin said, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Can we?

A sure sign of a democracy nearing its end is when people no longer trust election results.  That’s where America is today. The question is not whether we know this. We do. Nor is the question whether each half of the country is willing to blame the other half for the crisis. We are. The question is whether we the people can work together across our deepest differences to restore trust in our elections.

So far the answer is no. Can that change?

This Saturday at Boston College, we’ll see if it can.  Something interesting will happen. About 10 conservatives who see the main threat to our democracy as voter fraud will meet the same number of progressives who see the main threats as voter suppression and the peaceful transfer of power.  Perhaps for the first time, they’ll talk with rather than at or about each other.

Can you imagine more unlikely conversation partners?  Both sides are passionate in their beliefs. Neither is persuaded that the other is acting in good faith. Neither side trusts the government to do what’s right. With disagreements so deep, trust so low, and the stakes so high, can these two groups of Americans possibly find common ground for the good of our country?

We think they can.  Our method – we call it a Common Ground Workshop – comes from Braver Angels, a grassroots citizen initiative bringing Americans together to bridge the partisan divide. The format is simple. We bring together equal numbers of conservatives and progressives to hear each other, understand their disagreements, and identify any shared values and common ground. If they choose, participants can continue to work together after the event.

Going forward, if we’re successful, we hope to hold many of these events around the country. The idea of a “national conversation” is often called for and rarely achieved, but this is what we actually plan to do, so that we can soon share what we hope will be important findings with policy makers and the nation as a whole.

No easy task, but what are the alternatives?  Wait for those in power to figure this out? Give up? Believe that half of the country can ultimately defeat and discredit the other half? Turn to violence?

We decline these alternatives, viewing each of them as either unrealistic or destructive. Instead, we believe that talking with each other across our differences, citizen to citizen and community by community, is what Lincoln called “our last, best hope.”

Partly, our hope stems from the fact that both sides are putting forward ideas that seem to have merit. Want some examples?  Require post-election audits of voting machines and election results. Provide every eligible voter with an accepted voter ID. Make Election Day a national holiday and allow citizens to register to vote on Election Day.

Establish cyber security standards for voter registration and vote counting systems. Make polling stations and drop-boxes equally accessible across all jurisdictions. More mobile registration sites in rural (tend to lean red) and urban (tend to lean blue) communities with low registration rates. Reduce the influence of money in politics. End gerrymandering.

We do not claim that these ideas are solutions or that everyone will agree with them. But by bringing people together from opposing perspectives for meaningful discussion and to see where agreement might be reached, we can offer realistic hope that solutions are possible.

The idea for this Trustworthy Elections initiative came from David Iwinski, who died tragically and suddenly earlier this year. David was a business owner and Braver Angels leader who lived just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was a strong Trump supporter. He believed that voter fraud is a serious problem.  He also believed that finding common ground with opponents who ultimately become friends is the highest form of patriotism and the only way we’ll save our country. And he believed with all his heart that this can be done. We undertake this journey in part to honor him and prove that he was right.

We envision an America in which growing majorities of voters in both parties believe that US elections are fair, reliable, and worthy of the public’s trust. And if America’s nearly 250-year-old experiment in ordered liberty is to come to an end in 2024 or soon thereafter because we can’t reach this goal, let it be because we gave our utmost and fell short, not because we didn’t do everything in our power to hold America together.

Reena Bernards is a lead moderator for Braver Angels and the designer of the Common Ground Workshop. Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown is associate pastor at Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church and the founder of My City at Peace. Larry Mayes is senior vice president for government and community relations at Catholic Charities of Boston. Douglass Teschner served for 12 years as a Republican member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Learn more about Braver Angels at www.braverangels.org.