Message to the Boss: Common Ground is not in the Middle

By Shamil Idriss, CEO, Search for Common Ground

When the Boss is speaking, millions of Americans listen. After all, millions of us (including myself) love his music. And on Super Bowl Sunday, a vast audience was watching as Bruce Springsteen — as a disembodied voice in a Jeep commercial — called for people to come together.

“The middle has been a hard place to get to lately,” rasped Springsteen over images of diners and empty landscapes.

The commercial added to a cacophony of voices calling for Americans to get over their differences and get along. At Search for Common Ground, our ears perk up whenever we hear these calls. As one of the oldest and largest non-governmental organizations dedicated to peacebuilding, we know the power of community.

We also know the disillusionment that comes from shallow calls for unity. It is not surprising that the Jeep commercial kicked up strong criticism, including a forceful op-ed in The Washington Post.

The reason that “the middle has been a hard place to get to” is that it is a painful, unnatural pose. Seeking “the middle” suggests that you are abandoning your core values, replacing something that you deeply believe with something that you merely tolerate.

“The middle” is not where the United States needs to go.

What we need instead is “common ground.” Today, millions of Americans are wondering how to turn toxic divides into healthy communities. The difference between “the middle” and “common ground” is the difference between a superficial process that papers over problems, and a patient process of healing, reconciliation, and trust-building that allows us to move forward together, with our differences intact and our dignity affirmed.

As the CEO of Search for Common Ground, I represent over 1,000 staff working to prevent violence and build trust in some of the most conflict-affected countries, from Mali to Myanmar, from Burundi to Yemen. Across nearly 40 years of work, we have learned what common ground is and how to build it.

First, common ground starts with the realization that conflict is an opportunity — a signal that all is not well and an invitation to confront a problem and find a solution. Conditioned by years of acrimonious debates and a hyper-polarizing media environment, many of us have a tendency to turn our adversary into the problem. However, if we resist this urge, we realize that conflict can be a catalyst for change that frees us all, allies and adversaries alike, from a broken situation.

Second, finding common ground is not the same as endorsing an opponent’s behavior. It simply refuses to define our opponents by the caricatures drawn from their most objectionable acts. It requires some detective work: digging around points of disagreement, feeling out the other person, and discovering the bedrock values and motivating interests that shape the views and behaviors visible on the surface. Common ground is not about trading justice for stability. Quite the opposite: it is a bold and principled approach that secures our core needs and affirms our dignity, just not at the expense of anyone else’s.

Third, common ground is a starting point — not a final destination — that enables people to tackle shared problems. From COVID-19 to crushing inequality to climate change, the United States faces many dire challenges. Unless we can generate collective will, these problems will go unsolved. Finding common ground moves adversaries from opposing sides of the table to the same side facing a joint challenge, together.

Likely, Bruce Springsteen and Jeep executives have an earnest desire, aside from selling more Jeeps, to help the United States along a healing process. And we do need to heal. Many Americans are tired of the acrimony and not willing to give up on a country where “dignity for all” is more than a campaign slogan. We hunger for a nation grounded in liberty, justice, equal treatment before the law, and mutual respect — all of which require common ground.

Some will say that seeking common ground before accountability is impossible, even immoral. This is understandable, especially in the wake of illegal assaults to which the response from law enforcement and the justice system has been slow and remains incomplete, even uncertain. In the days since the Springsteen commercial aired, the country has relived the events of January 6 in shocking new footage from the impeachment trial. Many feel the country’s redemption hangs on the outcome of that process.

But societies that have survived much more calamitous breakdowns than the U.S. did on January 6, teach us three uncomfortable lessons about accountability:

First, there is no such thing as perfect accountability, especially where violence has emerged from an enabling environment of decades of worsening polarization and mistrust fueled by increasingly extreme rhetoric and grievance politics. We can demand that our justice system punish those who broke our laws and that our political leaders sanction those who incited them to do it. But if we do not also engage with courage and dignity the tens of millions of our fellow citizens who reject violence but still disagree with us politically, then our righteous indignation will serve little more than our own egos, while further solidifying our country’s polarization and the resentments that are fertile soil for further extremism.

Second, accountability achieved solely through retribution is at best incomplete. Consider the stories told by people who once fell prey to conspiracy thinking, or even extremist recruitment: their return to mainstream society is nearly always the result of a human connection maintained and a non-judgmental path opened up. Indeed, people exit such networks for the same reason they enter them: to find community, purpose, meaning, and agency. As long as our only model for accountability takes the form of punishment that robs people of precisely these human needs, we will be isolating the symptoms — not addressing the causes — of our broken society.

Third, when grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation are withheld until an ill-defined benchmark of acceptable accountability has been achieved, too many of us become bystanders to our society’s festering wounds. When the 13th-century poet Rumi called us to meet in the field that is “beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing”, it was not an appeal to lawlessness and impunity, but a recognition that discovering our shared humanity requires us to suspend our urge to judge one another. Perhaps even to embrace a humility that recognizes that maybe we do not have all the answers.

This week’s events are important. Our police, courts, and Congress all have a role to play, and I hope they play it, for the threat of political violence is as serious as at any period in my lifetime. But no matter what they do, tens of millions of us will be left facing one another next week, and the week after that. In the end, we are all accountable for whether and how our country emerges from this dark period. We all have a role to play if we can muster the courage to play it. My organization supports those who choose to reach out. I hope you will meet us there.

Not in the middle, but on common ground.

We are the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, working to build safe, healthy, and just societies worldwide.