Re-Learning to Solve Our Problems Together

Last Tuesday, the world witnessed an attack on the US Capitol–a building that symbolizes and holds a home for difficult discussions and decision-making across barriers of thought and belief. The living, breathing humans elected to do and support this work of democracy were also attacked.

What is the way forward?

As we sort through the roots and impacts of these violent acts, a ray of hope might be found in the practices of deliberative decision-making. Here we find evidence that there may be a path home to community–and perhaps as a nation–despite the widening and gap between the perspectives we hold. The following article points us toward this possibility.

“How Americans can learn once again to solve our nation’s problems together”

By David Mathews

The year 2020 will go down in history as extraordinary. Americans, by most accounts, are deeply divided. They can’t even talk to those they disagree with.

Many people appear traumatized by fear. Some insist that change is long overdue. Some see the country sliding into moral chaos and want to preserve what they value in the American way of life. But there is little agreement on what needs to change or what needs to be preserved.

That’s the dominant story. But it isn’t the only one.

In covering the 2020 election, some journalists are telling another story. The group includes the USA Today Network and America Amplified, a public media collaborative. They are drawing on nonpartisan research provided by organizations including Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation, where I work.

Kettering’s research draws on nearly 40 years of results from local deliberative forums held by a nationwide network known as the National Issues Forums. Here are the main findings from our research:

  • There is more common ground on policy issues than is recognized. People favor such policies as increasing economic opportunities, providing for affordable childcare and keeping jobs in the U.S. But the thing Americans agree on most is that there is too much divisiveness — even if they contribute to it sometimes.
  • Citizens and government officials often talk past one another, which makes the loss of public confidence in government grow even greater. For instance, on health policy, those in government are naturally concerned about the cost to their budgets. But NIF forums show that people are most concerned about a health care system so complex it is almost impossible to navigate.
  • Despite the tendency to favor the likeminded, in some circumstances people will consider opinions they don’t like. There is a space between agreement and disagreement, an arena in which people decide, “I don’t particularly like what we are considering doing about this problem, but I can live it — for now.”

This is the arena of pragmatic problem-solving. Observers of National Issues Forums have seen people move into it even on explosive issues like immigration. Described as a pivot, it changes the tone of decision making. When it happens, problem solving can move forward, even without total agreement.

This pivot occurs when issues are described in terms of what people find deeply valuable — not “values” but age-old imperatives like safety and being treated fairly. When issues are described in this way and framed with several options for solutions, with both advantages and disadvantages clearly laid out, people will confront tensions between what they prefer and consequences they may not like.

Recognizing that everyone is motivated by the same basic imperatives removes barriers to listening to others who may not be like us or even like us. Even if people disagree, they become aware of greater complexity. They explore the tradeoffs inherent in difficult decisions. That opens the door to understanding the experiences and concerns of others.

What do you think? Shape your opinion with a digest of takes on current events.

Options are carefully considered

Some people call this this kind of decision making “deliberation.” People deliberate privately throughout their lives on issues like what career is best. They weigh options carefully. That is deliberation. 

When people are fearful and impatient, they are prone to make impulsive decisions. In time, however, to solve really difficult problems, they realize that they have to work with others who may be different. To work together effectively, they have to decide together what the work should be. They have to make sound decisions, which requires shared and reflective judgment.

Because of the many issues raised by the tsunami of crises hitting the country, people across the nation are wrestling with crucial questions like: How can we best educate our children and also keep them safe? And who should make those decisions?

Experts can’t give us clear answers to such questions. We must rely on our best judgment.

Whether those decisions are made deliberatively will affect their soundness. Opportunities for considering such questions are abundant, as the old-fashioned public forum has gone online. Students nationwide are using this technology to deliberate on issues such as economic recovery, immigration, policing and voting.

A path forward for journalists

I have the deepest respect for the groundbreaking work of the Hidden Common Ground project. Yet it has the promise to be more than an election year exercise, illustrating the potential for a new role for media. It can put journalists in the business of adding more public judgment to our political system. There are opportunities to do this, starting with every time a news organization names and frames an issue in deliberative terms.

Americans are not temperamentally suited for pessimism. Facing the greatest challenge to democracy in our lifetimes, we not only need to uncover common ground; we need to and can create it.

David Mathews is president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.

Source: USA Today (Oct. 20, 2020)

Going Further

About the Lead Author

David Mathews
David Mathews
David Mathews was elected to the Kettering Foundation’s board of trustees in 1972 and became its president and CEO in 1981. Prior to his work there, David served in the Ford administration as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), where he worked on restoring public confidence in government and reforming the regulatory system. From 1965 to 1980, he taught history at the University of Alabama, where he also served as president from 1969 to 1980, an era of significant change and innovation, including the integration of the institution. David serves on the boards of a variety of organizations, including the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, National Issues Forums Institute, Council on Public Policy Education, and Public Agenda. He has received numerous awards, including a citation as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in the Nation, United States Jaycees; member, Alabama Academy of Honor; Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Silver, Columbia University; Educator of the Year, Alabama Conference of Black Mayors; and the Brotherhood Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was inducted into the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame in 2004 and into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2007, the Alabama Center for Civic Life was renamed in his honor as the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. He is the recipient of 16 honorary degrees. David has written extensively on such subjects as education, political theory, southern history, public policy, and international problem solving. His most recent book, The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future (Kettering Foundation Press, 2014), focuses on how the work of democracy might be done to put more control in the hands of citizens and help restore the legitimacy of our institutions. For more on the book, visit

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