Bipartisanship is Dying Here's How to Find Common Ground

Updated: May 6



Bipartisanship is dying in the United States Senate, Lee Drutman wrote last month for FiveThirtyEight. “Congress is in full-on chaos mode” as politicians refuse to work across party lines.


Why is this? Drutman considers a few different reasons. For one, much of our political discourse has been nationalized. Senate elections used to focus on local issues, but these days, voters care far more about “national culture-war issues” (and about which party controls Congress) than they do about roads and bridges.


Democratic and Republican parties have become geographically polarized, as well: there’s less and less “purple” to be found as the United States is increasingly defined by its bubbles of red and blue. These days, “there’s minimal overlap in the interests and values the parties represent.”


Most Americans “are sick of all the partisan fighting in Washington,” Drutman notes. “They are, in one widely cited phrasing, part of the ‘exhausted majority’—i.e., the two-thirds of Americans who are ‘fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society.’” Yet, while many of these exhausted Americans say they want compromise and bipartisanship, they struggle when theory meets reality.


I’ve lived in a red state and in a blue one, and spent lots of time in rural and in urban America. I love both “bubbles” dearly. Last year, I saw many communities split apart. It felt like families, friendships, and churches wouldn’t be able to bear the strain of political disagreement. A death of bipartisanship isn’t limited to Congress; it’s impacting all of us.


But I think—and hope—there is a role to be played by people who want to be bridge builders: by those who have their feet in two increasingly divergent and separate worlds, and want to love and serve in both. There are many ways in which we’re polarized these days. But perhaps there are just as many ways in which we can find common ground.


I’ve compiled some thoughts below—from a decade of writing about and living in two different places, and seeking to build friendships across political, religious, and socioeconomic divides. They’re the beginnings of my brainstorming on what it might mean to build bridges. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, as well.


Grow in Your Ability to Be an “Ambassador”


An ambassador here, in my mind, means being a charitable, thoughtful, and empathetic advocate for your community, your faith, or your beliefs, while eagerly and respectfully learning about other communities, faiths, and beliefs. It defers from being partisan for a cause in the sense that, rather than working from a defensive posture, being an ambassador requires openness, dialogue, and an eagerness to learn.


If you’re a transplant (someone who grew up in another place, or multiple other places): How can you be a “good neighbor” in the place where you live, in addition to the place(s) where you grew up? What would that involve or entail? How would it guide the way you post online, the purchasing decisions you make, how and whether you volunteer?


This has been an interesting thought experiment for me. Because of my Idaho roots, I was very passionate about supporting local agriculture in the DC area. I tried to be a good representative of my state and its people in discussions in our nation’s capital. I found that DC people love to gather around a bonfire, with a fiddle and some apple pie. Bringing little bits of Idaho to Washington, DC—through food and drink, words and song, values and virtues—helped bring touches of home to my urban environment.


But I’ve also tried to praise virtuous DC people, mores, and institutions to Idahoans who might otherwise be dismissive of the city. I’ve introduced friends and family members to fantastic writers at The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times—publications that often get dismissed as “fake news” in some rural settings—and urged them to read the work of these brilliant and thoughtful people. I’ve shared sermons by incredible DC pastors, showed off my favorite haunts in the city, and shared ways in which DC has expanded my intellectual, philosophical, and religious beliefs. I try to dispel urban-versus-rural myths whenever I can—because both communities are beautiful, and both need good, committed neighbors and advocates.


Seek to Grow “Intellectual Hospitality”


Cherie Harder wrote a beautiful piece about intellectual hospitality for Comment Magazine in February, and I talked (briefly) about the concept as part of a Living Room Conversation with Pepperdine’s American Project. (You can watch it here, and download a guide for hosting a conversation of your own here.)


Basically, as Cherie Harder puts it, “If hospitality, classically understood, involves welcome for the stranger and the offer of care for their physical needs, intellectual hospitality extends an invitation to new perspectives and ideas (and the people who hold them).”


We grow intellectual hospitality through deep, varied reading. We grow it when we’re eager and willing to engage with and learn from those who disagree with us. We grow it through building a moral imagination that’s attuned to the incalculable mystery and beauty inherent in the human experience.


Perhaps you can follow someone—a writer or journalist, a musician, an artist, or an activist—whom you strongly disagree with. Read their work, their opinions, their biography or life story. Think about how their life has sculpted their viewpoints. Point out things about them you respect.


Hospitality must involve a willingness to make space for and to welcome others as they are, as “not us.” Hospitality “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy,” writes Henri J. M. Nouwen in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (1975). “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”


For this reason, Harder warns, “personal disrespect or contempt is kryptonite to hospitality. It destroys the trust, openness, and vulnerability that hospitality slowly builds, and it withers the curiosity that hospitality quickens. Intellectually hospitable disagreements aim to sharpen or challenge one’s thinking or improve one’s work; expressions of contempt are designed to corrode one’s person and sense of value.”


Consider carefully, friends. Is there someone on the opposite side of a political aisle whose humanity you regard carelessly, dismissively, because of their political positions, religious beliefs, or personal opinions?


Don’t let the poison of our discourse poison your soul. You don’t have to agree with everyone. You can disagree strongly. Sometimes, you should disagree strongly. There are moral causes which need the force of passion, even of anger, behind them. But love those you disagree with, especially if and when you disagree with them vehemently.


The intellectually hospitable, the bridge builders, will go into their encounters (town council meetings, online debates, neighborly discussions, and more) with an expectation of common ground. Not an expectation that people will agree, mind you—rather, an expectation that, as human beings, we all have shared needs, desires, and hurts. (This is where I think refocusing on the local could make a difference. We may disagree on many things, but wanting safe, walkable streets, for instance, is often a place to start finding agreement.)


Learn About Your Blind Spots


Do you have areas of intellectual thought or belief that tend toward brittle pride, rather than humility? If so, what are they? Do you have friends, neighbors, or family members who are different enough from you to see those blind spots, and to help call you to account?


There’s something we are all wrong about: something that time, age, or a different opinion might reveal to us as wrong, even harmful. We all should be open to acknowledging that.


Where might you help explain or defend ideas you disagree with to those who are more politically aligned with you? If someone on the opposite side of a political viewpoint or argument were standing and listening to you explain their position(s), would they find it fair and well-reasoned? Part of the battle we fight isn’t just in defending our viewpoint well, but in understanding others’ viewpoint well enough to disagree thoughtfully and honestly. (A friend pointed out that Alan Jacobs talks about this in his book Breaking Bread with the Dead, which I still need to read!)


What is one area of today’s political/cultural commentary where you could find compromise? If you can’t think of anything, start trying. Finding your own “gray” areas—potential places of compromise—will help you build bridges, build new friendships, and grow in empathy. For what it’s worth, issues surrounding health care and paid family leave, sustainable agriculture and environmental policy, prison reform, foreign policy, and the built environment and town/city development (to name a few) are all issues in which I can find a lot of common ground with people on both sides of the political aisle.


In my book, I wrote that “I often feel like I don’t belong in Idaho or in Virginia: both defined by my roots and remade by my present reality.”



I quoted Sarah Smarsh, who writes in her memoir Heartland that her life “has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. … Stretching your arms that far can be painful.”


I knew, even when I wrote the book, that stretching between two places had been good for me: deepening and complicating my vision, giving me new opportunities for understanding, humility, and (hopefully) empathy.


But it still felt (and continues, often, to feel) exhausting. “[P]erhaps life would get easier if I just let go of one side of the bridge: if I stopped going back and forth and chose one place or the other,” I wrote.


I love the response Megan Torgerson, host of the podcast Reframing Rural, offered on Instagram. She noted, “Maybe [life would get easier], but then what about the bridges we’re building?”


Grace Olmstead

Grace Olmstead is a journalist and author of Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. Her writing has been published in The American Conservative, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and others. You can connect with Olmstead on Twitter and through her monthly newsletter.


Article Source: Strong Towns