Common Ground? With Whom?

Periodically, I get messages from readers of this blog, or encounter essays and columns in mainstream publications with the same, urgent theme: Americans need to work on understanding each other. Those of us to the left of the reactionary right need to be more generous in our appraisals of those with whom we disagree. We need to find a common ground from which we can build productive dialogue.

For the greater part of my professional life, that message strongly resonated with me. During the thirty-plus years I was an active Republican, most of my friends and family were Democrats, and I was keenly aware of the unfairness of dismissing all Republicans as rightwing racists and anti-Semites. (Yes, the roots of Trumpism have always been visible in the GOP, but those attitudes were once relegated to the fringes, just as “fellow-travelers” were sidelined by the Democrats.)

When I became the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I launched a publication called Common Ground, dedicated to the proposition that good people could have different, principled approaches to public policy, and that organizations dedicated to support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights needed to demonstrate that America’s legal framework respects those differences.

More generally, both as a woman and a Jew, I have seen firsthand how damaging and unfair it can be to “other” those who are different, to judge and dismiss people based on their identities.

All of which brings me to my unprecedented discomfort with the contemporary, well-intentioned pleas to “understand” the people on the “other side” of the political divide.

At risk of running afoul of Godwin’s Law, I want to pose a question: How do we now evaluate the behavior of the “good Germans” who failed to condemn the behavior of the Nazis?

An old book review from Forbes —by none other than “conservative” Steve Forbes–detailed the various reasons why Germans who weren’t Nazis nevertheless “went along” with Hitler. Forbes found the book, The German War, to be “an extremely interesting yet disheartening tale of a civilized people’s descent into barbarism.”

Much of the collaboration was “patriotic.”

A number of German soldiers and officials were uneasy or outright horrified by what was happening, but most did nothing about it. All but a handful of non-Nazis supported the war to the end because they believed defeat would lead to Germany’s annihilation..Most Germans convinced themselves that the war was one of self-defense, a fight for survival, because the evil French, Russians, British and Americans and their “Jewish masters” all wanted to destroy Germany…

Germans also engaged in moral equivalence: The bombing of German cities by the U.S. and Britain was in retaliation for the Reich’s treatment of Jews, but what was happening in the death camps and shooting pits was really no different from the Allies’ “terror” bombings.

Survival of the “real” (Ayran) Germany. False equivalencies. Unsettlingly familiar…

Obviously, not all of the people who continue to call themselves Republicans are racists prepared to acquiesce to barbarism. The GOP continues to contain plenty of good, moral people–and I agree that we should continue to look for them, and when we encounter them, “reach out” and engage and make good-faith efforts to understand where they are and why they remain.

But the majority of today’s GOP is another matter entirely. We have steadily mounting evidence of its march toward reaction, racism and yes, barbarism. Former high-level Republicans who have left the party warn that elected officials like Paul Gosar , Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and a significant number of other “deplorables” (sorry!) are now the mainstream of the GOP. They really do reflect and represent the people who voted them into office.

I submit that seeking “common ground” with such people is suicidal–that there is a monumental and morally-significant difference between debates over such things as the efficacy of tariffs or the contours of the social safety net and arguments over the human rights of people who don’t look like us.

Yes, it is important to understand why people react to cultural change or economic disadvantage in such irrational and destructive ways. Such understanding is necessary in order to fashion policies to minimize the dangers such reactions pose.

But that’s a long-term goal.

In the shorter term, it is critically important that we highlight the immorality and profoundly anti-American nature of what political observers are witnessing–not because doing so will change those who are lost to logic and human connection, but because failure to do so will lull the many “good Americans” who haven’t been paying attention into quiescence.

Ultimately, it isn’t the “bad guys” who threaten American values. It’s the “good guys” who remain unaware and/or disengaged. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing…..”


  1. This craziness must be soundly defeated at the ballot box or they will continue this shit. I made the exact same comment about the “Tea Party” crap years ago. So far, that has NOT happened. For now, battle number one is to end the dysfunction in the US Senate. The Filibuster must be done away with. It is a relic of the bad old slave days. Then on to SB-1 to protect Americas right to vote. The rest is academic if we fail on these two things. Good luck to us all.

  2. Understanding behavior does not necessarily mean condoning it. In fact, the time for such understanding has long passed. January 6th made that clear. What is needed now is strong intelligent action to vote out and dismantle the current Republican Party in order for a reformed conservative party to rise in its place.

  3. To your well framed argument with whom does the bell chime for common ground. This week, Toyota PAC was outed by the Washington Post for supporting “insurrectionists” in Congress contrary to opposing actions of other major corporations. As a 20 year plus loyal customer, I called Toyota USA to verify what I was reading. After several minutes of waiting to be transferred I finally end up with a gruff representative named Al who literally interrogated my position before I simply asked what was Toyota’s position. The response was the PAC is bipartisan in supporting congressmen who support automotive manufacturing. I said as a veteran while serving my country I took an oath to protect the Constitution. I am bipartisan, too. But I only support elected leaders and those seeking office who are committed likewise to protect the Constitution and the way of life (and governance) for which lofty standards have been set. “Al” lightened up, but I was not impressed. Toyota PAC made boneheaded decisions to support congressmen who voted to overturn the results of the General Election. That compromises my loyalty to the Toyota brand. I called my local dealer of 20 years to report my experience with the Brand Engagement team at Toyota USA. The local dealer rightfully called the actions of Toyota PAC as “crass”. I said I was thankful these folk are not on the assembly line building high quality vehicles Toyota us better known for. Give them credit where credit is due … but hold them accountable for utter stupidity and lack of better judgment when they thought they could get away with it.

  4. Common Ground? Common Good?

    “Yes, it is important to understand why people react to cultural change or economic disadvantage in such irrational and destructive ways. Such understanding is necessary in order to fashion policies to minimize the dangers such reactions pose.”

    Can we look back to the times of both “Common Ground” and “Common Good” being the aim of government prior to corporations being evaluated as “people” and the enactment of Citizens United? The influx of wealthy White Nationalists and evangelicals bought and paid for control; does anyone who has been paying attention the past few years NOT understand there can be no “Common Ground” or “Common Good” as long as the economic divide continues to widen between the 2% and the 98%. What possible “Common Ground” can the 2% be interested in as long as they rule?

    “Ultimately, it isn’t the “bad guys” who threaten American values. It’s the “good guys” who remain unaware and/or disengaged. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing…..”

    The quote above describes current conditions in the U.S. Senate with McConnell still holding the reins from his minority position…has his accumulated wealth reached billionaire status yet? What “Common Ground” do those under his control, who are totally aware and totally disengaged, have with him or he with them?

  5. Both sides can present the radical views of candidates as a means to not find common ground in personal thought, but when it comes to governance common ground in essence is how we stop the evils of this world. If we listen to Mark Levin, DL Hugley, Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson we remain critical thinkers as we perceive the differences. Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us a clear oath to understanding how a nation can head down a path to losing our freedoms. Christians did not stand up to what rose up in government, the Nazis that forced brutality tactics that no one could stand up to. Bonhoeffer himself stood up to evil in Germany and ultimately was hung two months before wars end. His writings teach grace, love and in many ways teach us to reach for common ground.
    The views that a Maj Taylor Greene or an AOC, do they call for a Nazi like overthrow in anyway and if they do then they can be opposed and thrown out. Many Republicans could not find the statements of Trump or his policies in any way common ground and in their own way opposed him.
    Common ground is what we look for, it still provides civility in a world where fear beings people to the streets to burn things down. The vast amount of harm that comes to our society when it does such things is to those that are struggling and not to elites who are well off.
    It is the forsaking of common ground that causes the pendulum to swing harder as outliers on either side are the focus.
    The Republic calls for the Democracy in each state to govern as a unified body and as long as we hold to the structure of the constitution keeping the errors of other fallen societies will hold us together whether we become more capitalistic or socialistic in its nature.
    Remember when politicians knelt for a photo op claiming allegiance to an organization that used racism as a political tool to advance its agenda and all the while these politicians wore colors from a tribe that enslaved africans and sold them to the slave market. Or if the Tea Party becomes something other politicians bow down to.
    This is the beginning of a society not understanding how politicians of our nation can be used. Bonhoeffer clearly warned us to find common ground to keep us poisd against the evil uprising

  6. I have a bit of a disagreement with: “The bombing of German cities by the U.S. and Britain was in retaliation for the Reich’s treatment of Jews, but what was happening in the death camps and shooting pits was really no different from the Allies’ “terror” bombings.”

    The Allied forces bombed German cities in an attempt to end the war as early as possible. The horror of the camps wasn’t specifically known until those camps were liberated in late 1944 and ’45. I think it’s fair to say that there was significant anti-Semitism among the ranks of all of the allied countries and I doubt there would have been any great hue and cry over the Jews, if Hitler had just stayed home to do his dirty work.

    Now for something completely off topic. I have been watching Biden in his approach to Manchin and reminiscing just a bit about LBJ. It’s a good bet that LBJ would have grabbed Manchin by his “junk” and twisted until he got what he needed. Although I find that reprehensible, I can’t help but wish a tiny little bit of that would rub off on Uncle Joe.

  7. Norris, thank you for using Toyota USA PAC as a great example of how American corporatism lies at the very center of Prof. Kennedy’s argument. As long as their shareholders’ interests were being met they were willing to look the other way as elected leaders worked to subvert democratic laws, institutions and and norms in a republic. I find this example even more egregious and ironic given that Toyota is a Japanese company created out of the ashes of WWII with $billions in aid and know-how from a victor nation dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.

    But in the end the First Amendment came to the rescue to help pressure Toyota PAC to reverse their position on political contributions, which they did just two or ago. In their press release they said:

    “ We understand that the PAC decision to support select Members of Congress who contested the results troubled some stakeholders. We are actively listening to our stakeholders and, at this time, we have decided to stop contributing to those Members of Congress who contested the certification of certain states in the 2020 election,” the statement continues”.

    One of those “stakeholders” was you. My guess that another class of stakeholders was the American owners of lucrative Toyota dealerships, ALL of which are located in larger cities and their suburbs and exurbs and none in rural America. It was The Lincoln Group, a PAC consisting of former Republican operatives dedicated to ridding us of the former guy and former-guyism who recently ran a campaign against Toyota PAC on social media, including a commercial accompanied by the tweet:

    “Toyota vehicles feature safety detection systems, smartphone integration, and more white nationalism than you might’ve expected”.


    In any case, thank you for your contribution to the process of preserving the Republic.

  8. From the Poem Second Coming:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    This stanza seems to capture today’s Political landscape.

    The reach across the aisle types on the Democratic side lack conviction like Joe Manchin. Meanwhile McConnell and other elected Republicans are full of passionate intensity. The GOP is now and will be in the foreseeable future the party of Jim Jordan, MTG and others.

    The GOP base will continue to vote for Republicans no matter how reprehensible they are. Some of the never Trumper’s will continue to vote for GOP candidates and elected officials. Overall the never Trumper’s will continue to empower the GOP by voting Republican. The so-called moderate elected Republicans with very few exceptions lack conviction, they are silent in the face of The Trumpet’s constant lies.

    These “Moderate Republicans” know they cannot stray from the Trump Base or they will be challenged in the primaries by some one extreme.

    The GOP base has now adopted the “Stab in Back” (Liz Cheney or Pastor Pence) or the “Lost Cause” rhetoric to keep the base fearful and angry.

  9. Comments made by my Jewish brother-in-law who was a Combat Engineer, 2nd wave Utah Beach, ” Don’t let yourself be captured as the Nazis will torture and then kill you”. US dog tags had ID ‘P’ for Protestant, ‘RC’ for Catholic and the Star of David for Jews so religion was identifiable. Strongly suggests that the US military was aware of anti-semitic killings prior to the D-Day invasion of Europe.
    Regarding the bombing of German civilians, the information that I am aware of was retaliation of bombing British civilian population, Polish bombings mostly Jewish and Russian bombings of civilian targets.

  10. Thank you, Peggy Hannon, for this, “Now for something completely off-topic. I have been watching Biden in his approach to Manchin and reminiscing just a bit about LBJ. It’s a good bet that LBJ would have grabbed Manchin by his “junk” and twisted until he got what he needed. Although I find that reprehensible, I can’t help but wish a tiny little bit of that would rub off on Uncle Joe.”

  11. Per Sheila’s last quote above and the need to stop talking and start doing…I repeat my suggestion from yesterday:

    The “good Republicans” need to take a page straight from the Trumpers:
    – Gather tons of money from those most concerned
    – Identify the craziest at least somewhat vulnerable House/Senate Trumper incumbents/primaryists
    – Identify well-respected, classically conservative GOP leaders (elected state officials, governors, business leaders, education leaders, non-profit leaders) in those districts/states and run them to the “saner center” in the GOP primaries with the cash

  12. Matt Schlapp, who is the current leader of CPAC, was interviewed by Chris Cuomo on CNN last night. He has the affability of a late-night entertainment host but otherwise has no room for disagreement.

    The theme for the CPAC conference currently underway in Dallas is “America Uncanceled” and his theme for the interview was that Republicans are sick and tired of being canceled. Of course by his definition “canceled” means not allowed to impose what’s best for them, or just what they want, on the rest of us. Most of his examples were pandemic related. In other words, why can’t Republicans kill anyone that they want to by ignoring epidemiology when the country is being assaulted by a deadly infectious virus.

    It was clearly a celebration of the joys of power.

    It’s not clear who’s fooled by such logic and who does it in the spirit of liberals are not very smart and they will undoubtedly fall for such misleading advertising. There was no missing the threat that’s really behind it though.

  13. I totally agree with Peggy’s correction on the history of the Allies bombing campaign and the concentration camps.

    I don’t agree with the demonization of Joe Manchin. Manchin is hardly the only Democratic Senator against eliminating the filibuster or against progressive interest group wish list known as SB-1. Even if you add in Synema, they’re still not even close to the only ones. There are several other Democratic Senators against those ideas, but they are content to keep quite while Machin (and Synema) to take the heat from progressives.

    Democrats have a 50-50 “majority” in the U.S. Senate. LBJ served in Congress and as President when Democrats had big majorities in both houses of Congress. The notion a modern-day LBJ could twist Machin’s arm and force him to vote for progressive measures while representing heavily Republican West Virginia is fanciful thinking. Democrats need to be happy with whatever Manchin can give them. If it is just half a loaf, that’s better than zero loaf they’d get if Machin were gone and McConnell was Senator Majority Leader.

  14. Well said Sheila. We should never underestimate the power of people and their handlers who are driven by fear. Nor should we expect to be able to reason with people who have not yet made themselves safe or been brought to an adequate sense safety. We all need to feel safe enough to enter into an exchange of conflicting ideas and ideologies. Lacking that, it will be not only a fruitless effort, but it is likely to galvanize our respective views through mutual emotional (and now perhaps, physical ) laceration. We must also avoid as much as possible, being contaminated by others fear, lest our own ability to reason and discern the best course if action leave us as it has left them.

  15. Then there is Karl Popper:
    The question of how to tolerate the intolerant was put beautifully by a philosopher named Karl Popper in 1945:
    “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” he wrote. “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
    ML: I do appreciate that poem.
    So, basically, if you tolerate the intolerant, the intolerant will eventually wipe out tolerance.

  16. In war we can forget right and wrong or good and bad. This is especially true, now that war is fought with machines and drones. I am sure many Germans were simply trying to survive the Nazi war machine. Viktor Frankl asserted that the best people did not survive the Holocaust. Many of them committed suicide rather than submit to torture or collusion with Nazi’s. I read Bonhoeffer’s COST OF DISCIPLESHIP a long time ago.

    Members of a cult whohave been brainwashed have lost the capacity for critical thinking. Those who wish to liberate them,have to find a way to free them of the ideology that brainwashed them. This takes patience and time. Some will never be liberated.

    Those who stand by and do nothing are just as guilty. It takes great courage to rebut radical ideologies and might cost someone their life. There were, in fact, some Germans and others who hid Jews, who moved Jewish children to places of safety etc.

    I just wish someone would create a good, effective strategy to rebut extremist, bigoted ideologies and communicate it to the rest of us so that we can then mobilize and implement the strategy that will undermine the efforts to intensify the diviseness and the threats to our democracy. Would someone please create that strategy so I can figure out how best to contribute to saving our democracy?

    It’s one thing to sound the alarm. It’s another thing to act for the welfare of our democracy and our fellow citizens.

  17. “…a disheartening tale of a people’s descent into barbarism” sums it up for those of years gone by and also today.

    Maya Angelou’s quote also fits here if indeed we are listening: “When you know better, you do better.” If, indeed!

  18. Finding and expanding common ground – a worthy goal. It may provide each of us a road map for action in a close-up and personal manner, a place to put our ‘liberal’ mouths – a reason to examine and reexamine our own beliefs and past actions, to bring them into better resonance with our hopes for our best selves.

    Throughout this lengthy, important but interminable conversation about what to do for the best, an idea niggles at me: namely – given the seeming reality that our present economic situation has deep roots in the ideas of mercantilism, I can understand the attitudes of the 2% that economic participation by the ‘other’ Americans is not needed, so long as we maintain our superiority in exports and our strength in protectionism on which that superiority rests. Given that this superiority is imaginary and in no way reliable, I have to wonder how these rich fools think they are going to stay rich.

    Common sense would indicate that a stable and/or expanding market for widgets at home would ensure that many could maintain their status. But, but, but, this would seem to require at least a partial sharing of the benefits of access to innumerable widgets.

    And – as explained in one or another learned exposition – e.g., ‘empty pools’, racism and the requisite exclusion hurts everyone, regardless of their colour, age, or political religion.

    This leaves me with the sad conclusion that the hate and nastiness which currently pervades our country is based on some uncomfortable characteristics of many of our fellow citizens: selfishness, stupidity, misogyny, general hatefulness, need to blame ‘others’ for their own bad decisions and behaviour, fear that they may be treated as they treat others, and so on. A long, sad list.

    Which brings us around again to the need for, hope of, and personal involvement in searching for common ground. Nothing simple about achieving that, as necessary as it is.

    Nest wishes to each of you, cheers, NVL!

  19. Given your theme today, Sheila, I would encourage your readers to also check out Joshua Zeitz’s essay on, as it examines today’s authoritarian Republican right through the lenses provided to us more than fifty years ago by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom) and Richard Hofstadter (The Paranoid Style in American Politics), both in some ways dated and yet totally relevant to today’s situation.

  20. Today’s post is a logical extension of yesterday’s post.

    To have those “common ground” discussions requires a minimum of two necessary components:
    1) You need a discussion partner that shares a common view of reality – not necessarily ethos, goals, or policy objectives, but at least a notion of “truth”
    2) You need a discussion partner that wants a dialogue

    We are missing both, so it becomes an exercise in futility – tell me where that partner is – a few people in Congress? As long as the controlling power is against it (AKA Mitch), it is a nice intellectual exercise, but nothing more. There aren’t ten Republican Senators to negotiate with.

    If we want to have these dialogues that so many people say is possible, we need to return to the era of having two partners in those dialogues. We need to radically re-balance.

    On a scale of 0-100 with 0 being wacky right and 100 being wacko left, 50 is the middle. That used to be the two parties in “the good old days”. Now common parlance (and “the media” believe that the middle is 25, and according to today’s GOP, 25 is a little “pink”.

    The ridiculous need for “equivalence”, where MT Greene is equal and opposite to AOC is pure BALDERDASH. Greene hits the scale at 0, being a bigot who doesn’t believe in the American form of government and seems to live in an alternate universe; AOC hits the scale around 75, maybe a bit to the left of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, with some over the top rhetoric. NO EQUIVALENCE!

    No need to run afoul of Godwin’s Law; no need to bring up Nazis. Go back to yesterday’s discussion of the GOP. Liz Cheney et al are not going to change the minds of the others in the GOP. Saying “I don’t like where the party is, but I won’t go against them” won’t help either. I am not quite certain what Gerson’s conclusion was, but it sounded like – I don’t like today’s GOP, but since I disagree with the Democrats on abortion, I must support the GOP — or something – I don’t think he plans to sit on the sidelines.

    And sorry Paul, your credibility as a Republican means nothing to the Trumpsters. You need to retake your party first. Your credibility would never suffer among the “rational conservatives” who understand the situation.

    If the “rational right” and former Republicans want to save the GOP, they need to Primary all of the crazies and if they lose, they need to work hard to defeat the Trumpsters who win. Only after the Trumpsters are severely defeated can the GOP be reclaimed.

    Barry Goldwater wanted nothing to do with the John Birchers, but who told Reagan “Ronald, don’t start your campaign in Philadelphia, MS where three civil rights workers were murdered. It will be like you are endorsing racist murderers.” Who told Reagan? NOBODY!

    Until the Trumpsters are purged from the GOP, allowing the rational Republicans to have a party, there is no partner for dialogue. This idea that we can negotiate, like in the “old days” is a pipe dream. Life is too short to “seek dialogue” when there is no partner.

    Sorry to sound so down today – there is hope

  21. Mnay voices about this wonderful blog. If others can advise, what are some real groups that are trying to reach out across the din of chaos and form groups of Common Ground? One is “Braver Angels”

    Does anyone have other groups that are trying?

    Great comments today. Kudo’s for the spell checker.

  22. If only Indiana Farm Bureau could see the light as Toyota did.
    IFB supported Indiana’s congressional members, all seditionists and deniers of the true election.

Comments are closed.