To restore the civic bonds among the American people will require moving beyond the extreme partisanship that characterizes our current moment.  As President-elect Joe Biden said, quoting from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Biden has called for healing, unity and lowering the partisan temperature – and has reached out to supporters of President Trump.

But what practical steps can begin the reconciliation from what some have referred to as today’s “cold civil war”?

A national dialogue, with resulting legislation and institutional changes, that engages all segments of our society can start to bring us together. To be most fruitful, this dialogue should center on common ground solutions to the steady erosion of our civic discourse, democracy and trust in public institutions. These are the bedrocks upon which our republic is built and the present turf of our most serious divisions.

A substantive national dialogue would involve the creation of task forces around the country, comprised of both ordinary citizens and recognized experts, that would air diverse viewpoints and craft recommendations on how to solve our key national challenges. Burning topics that suggest themselves include strengthening our democratic system and trust in elections; restoring belief in the value and fairness of our media, educational system and governing institutions; restoring civility to our public life; and promoting a society that offers opportunity and justice to all and where people can unite in common purpose. Importantly, one of the task forces, itself, should focus specifically on how to bridge our divisions.

Diverse Americans working together – with participants varying in party affiliation and other demographics – will result in task forces that can serve as a model to the nation of collaboration in the face of differences in opinion.  There is much research on mediation and conflict resolution that can be applied to such forums to make them fruitful. And there are already community-level models for conducting  productive discussions with people of diverse opinions.  Additionally, social science research shows that the mere act of bringing people together to work toward common goals increases cohesion and cooperation, which will help us in moving forward.

Beyond ordinary citizens, the task forces should include trained moderators and experts bringing insights from social scientific, religious and philosophical perspectives, as well as from thinking by those already immersed in studying such issues (e.g., the RAND Corp.).

In parallel, nationally televised town halls spotlighting the work of the task forces could further broaden the dialogue and build popular support for solutions to our crises.

To have real teeth, the task forces ought to be organized as official presidential government entities, and their composition and logistics – e.g., how many groups to convene, in what geographic distribution and how input will be collated and utilized – should be worked out on a bipartisan basis. Ideally, there should be an extra emphasis on involving Trump supporters in task force deliberations, as a tangible demonstration of Biden’s sincerity in taking seriously the discontent that fueled Donald Trump’s rise.

Finally, the recommendations of the task forces need to be accorded real, rather than merely rhetorical force, and incorporated into executive branch and congressional policy deliberations, legislation and the work of public and private institutions. Having such official recognition will increase participation and buy-in, and make the public at large be more accepting of the process and its results.

It will take years to right the listing ship that America, symbolically, has become, far from the beacon of opportunity and hope that our nation has long represented in the world. But we can make a start. While the Biden administration works to heal the nation physically and economically from the coronavirus pandemic, it can also start to heal our divisions and rebuild our institutions.

We hope Joe Biden and his transition team will explore and move forward with such a national dialogue early in his administration. Such a program would represent a tangible demonstration of democracy in action, which can lead to a more energized electorate that feels it can make a difference. And it can help Americans move beyond the cynicism and despair many feel about our current society and politics.


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