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How Americans from All Walks of Life Can Thrive in an Era of Political Polarization

By: Sol Erdman 11 May 2017

Politicians are experts at selling emotionally-charged slogans as solutions for our country’s troubles but apparently cannot work out real-world solutions that most voters will support. 

A few Americans, though, are equipped to win wide support for practical solutions to divisive issues.

For example, when Congress deadlocked over environmental policy in 1993, twenty-five advocates for the various sides worked out a solution they persuaded all sides to support.  The 25 included CEOs of Chevron Oil, Pacific Gas & Electric, General Motors and Georgia-Pacific; leaders of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council; the director of the EPA; and the president of the AFL-CIO. 

The 25 proposed to meet their competing goals — cutting pollution, boosting the economy and creating jobs — by raising environmental standards while letting companies choose the most cost-effective means to achieve them.

Each of the CEOs then persuaded top executives in his/her industry that this plan would meet their needs far better than any politically feasible alternative — while each environmental leader, government official and labor chieftain won over his/her camp.

As one of these advocates told me, “We each were trusted enough by our own community for them to buy our case that this deal was the best they could do.”

Advocates trusted by the competing sides have — in hundreds of controversies — worked out a deal advancing each side’s cause enough for each advocate to persuade his/her side to endorse the deal.

My organization, the Center for Collaborative Democracy, therefore proposes to survey voters nationwide — asking each to identify who they would trust to be their advocate on economic issues.

We would seek out the advocates whose followings exceed 1 percent of the public, invite them to meet, and then help them work out a plan for solving the problems that economists from the left, right and center describe as crucial to each American’s future: 

● A tax code widely seen as economically destructive 

● Schools that fail to give most Americans the skills they need to thrive in this century’s economy 

● Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security costs rising at rates the programs’ trustees say ensure insolvency

● Decaying infrastructure that hobbles productivity

● Most Americans’ wages stagnating or sinking.

Solving these problems would lift economic growth — with each 1 percent of annual growth increasing national income by $10 trillion over 10 years, an average of $30,000 per person. 

Yet any solution to any one of these problems would impose burdens on tens of millions of voters — burdens such as curbs on their entitlements, loss of tax preferences or increased government spending. 

Voters oppose these burdens so strongly that every effort to solve these problems individually has failed — and, we predict, will continue to fail. 

For this reason, the advocates we intend to convene will work out a combination of solutions for all of these problems — a combination by which voters of each type reap enough benefits from economic growth to accept the burdens.   

To that end, the advocates will form task forces to tackle each problem.  Each task force will research possible solutions in order to develop a menu of solutions that offer the greatest potential benefits at most efficient cost.   

From these menus, the advocates will develop a comprehensive plan for advancing the long-term economic interests of nearly every American. 

Each advocate will then be provided with expert help in developing a brief video that conveys to the voters who trust him/her how the plan would be their best opportunity to thrive in the years ahead.  The advocates could thereby build wide public support for their plan — wide enough support that politicians from both parties would be motivated to support it.  

To launch this ambitious enterprise, we intend to build a coalition of non-profits and civic-minded Americans alarmed about our country’s current trajectory. 

Sol Erdman, MBA 1971, runs the Center for Collaborative Democracy.  Click here to learn more about the program or email Sol for more information.