How citizens can revive civility in our political discourse
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Keith Allred has spent a lifetime preparing for exactly this job, in this place, at this moment.
This graduate of Twin Falls High School sits in an office overlooking Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., where he is in charge of one of the nation’s best-known groups working on civil dialogue and engagement, a broad field Allred calls “cross-partisan problem-solving.”
The National Institute for Civil Discourse, formed following the 2011 shooting of then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, takes as its mission addressing the incivility and dysfunction in American life, and repairing American democracy.
Impossible? Allred cocks his head and flashes his crooked grin.
“The prospects for actually making a real difference are so good,” he says, “I jump out of bed every morning to get to go to work on this.”
He studied American history and organizational behavior and dispute resolution at Brown, Stanford and UCLA, taught and researched at Columbia and Harvard, and started his citizen-driven policy group in Idaho and ran for governor in 2010.
After losing that race, he did a sort of penance, leaving public life to consult for some of Idaho’s biggest businesses. While helping the likes of Simplot and veterinary supply company MWI through leadership and corporate transitions, he cemented his theories on the parallels in corporate and government problem-solving, and how to safeguard the nonpartisan spirit of America’s founders.
Now he’s braiding those strands into CommonSense American, using the web to recruit potential members and help them deliberate to consensus positions. It will be the fourth initiative under the NICD umbrella.
NICD’s three programs — training legislators, conducting research, and taking its Revive Civility project to residents and communities — have involved nearly 1,000 legislators in 18 states and 30,000 U.S. citizens, said outgoing NICD Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer. “And we want to expand that.”
It will not surprise Idahoans who’ve followed Allred’s work that he thinks the recipe for American renaissance lies in tapping the wisdom and good sense of the average citizen.
“The American people are going to be our saving grace,” Allred says. “They are less polarized and more decent than what we see in the media today.”
A plurality of the practical
I talked with Allred in his Dupont Circle office in January, on a day when Washington was locked in partisan- and snow-driven shutdown. A conversation about how to thaw our polar politics couldn’t have been more timely.
Never in the history of our nation have our leaders been as polarized, as divided, as far from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a functioning, governing consensus as we are today. Allred bolsters this case in a 201-page manuscript full of charts, graphs and analyses, including a look at the partisan makeup and votes of every Congress since 1789.
After that doomsaying, Allred’s book draft – equal parts autobiography, constitutional history, psychology and political science text, and how-to manual – offers his blueprint to remedy this partisan mess.
The reason for optimism, he argues, is that our elected officials are far more partisan on issues than are the American people. The forces that inflame and inflate our differences – political parties, cable TV, social media, shallow political journalism, monied special interests – fuel the belief that the “other side” is unreasonable, un-American or ungodly. That vicious cycle keeps the partisan true believers in a lather, but drives the rest of us to the sidelines.
“We have more in common than we think,” Allred says, “yet we keep hearing how divided we are.”
The perceptions of our differences are measurably wrong, he says. Data reveal that the American people think we are, on average, twice as far apart as we truly are. There is a massive, moderate middle that is bigger than the blocs on either end of the political spectrum. Self-identified independents or moderates equal or outnumber Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives.
There is, in America, a plurality of the practical.
Yet no party, no caucus, represents the middle. Centrist Americans are shouted down, if heard at all. Their calm debate doesn’t stir the blood, doesn’t raise money, doesn’t activate the base. It doesn’t get likes on Facebook or shares on Twitter.
Allred’s research also shows that even partisans want many of the same things as their unaffiliated counterparts, when the partisan framing is factored out of policy questions. Even on issues we all assume are as black and white, or blue and red, as abortion.
“One of the impacts of our broken politics is that there are obvious solutions out there that haven’t been passed because they don’t serve political ends, they’re not good for beating up the other side with,” he says.
It is in this sphere where Allred sees the salvation of our society. He taps his background as advocate, candidate, mediator and leadership strategist to offer a relatively simple prescription: Start with practical, consensus solutions that share broad support, and get those done first. Inform and mobilize and unite people – right, center or left – who prize progress over partisan food fights. Show the extremists that they can succeed without playing people off against each other, or that they will lose out if they don’t put broadly supported solutions ahead of partisan positioning.
“It is far easier to get to that concrete solution that you can champion in Congress than you have any idea it is,” he says.
An Idaho moment
In November, civil/civic engagement leaders met in Ohio for a celebration and a changing of the guard. Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill introduced Allred to NICD supporters as “the man who will help us make America beautiful again.”
“Keith will be using his talents, abilities, experience and wisdom to influence political discourse and public policy not only in Idaho, but in your state and across your nation,” Hill said.
Allred has a “knack for bringing people together,” said Boise Rep. Melissa Wintrow, who was co-chairwoman of NICD’s Civil Governance group. “Everyone responded really well to him, Democrat and Republican.”
At the same session, Hill accepted NICD’s award to Idaho as the state most committed to civility, especially the Legislature’s pioneering work with the NICD.
In 2016, Idaho was the first state in which legislative leaders hosted NICD’s civil-dialogue/common-ground workshop for the entire membership. Out of that work, several Idaho lawmakers became NICD facilitators, including Wintrow and Sen. Chuck Winder. Boise City Club partnered in 2016 with NICD on several of its Idaho initiatives.
Those disparate efforts, along with the Common Interest’s five-year experiment, put Idaho at the forefront in this cross-partisan movement.
“It is interesting that Idaho is having this real outsized influence in this space,” Allred says.
NICD now aims to broaden its small-group successes to try counter the division that spreads so easily and widely on social media. NICD is negotiating with large social media platforms, for example, to host its new “Divided We Fall” video series that lets viewer share the experience of watching someone undergo a change in mindset.
“How can we do this, not just with 1,000 legislators or even 30,000 people – move back to core social norms of civility and respect? How can that happen with millions of people?” asks Lukensmeyer.
As a nonpartisan scholar and good-government guru, Allred gambled when he agreed to be Idaho’s 2010 Democratic nominee for governor.
“I said I’m not going to claim to be a Democrat, I’m going to speak as an independent,” he says. “I stayed pretty true to that, and I think that was helpful.”
Not helpful enough. He lost to Gov. Butch Otter 59 percent to 33 percent.
Allred had always hoped to apply the lessons he was learning in Idaho on a national scale. The Common Interest had its bipartisan and nonpartisan members select issues and study the data, prepare fair pro-and-con briefs, then vote on which proposals to back before the Legislature. “Running for governor,” Allred said, “for me was always a part of an approach to try to scale this thing.”
But after the 2010 election, Allred knew he had to let the “radioactive half-life” of partisan campaigning dissipate. He submerged himself in business consulting, working with Simplot and Health Catalyst (even becoming its COO), then helping the giant Idaho veterinary supply company MWI through two corporate mergers.
The work reminded Allred that the same forces drag down democracies and corporations. “They’re fundamentally the same human problem,” says Allred. “How to engage these broad, diverse teams in productive ways, so they can come up with good, concrete solutions. … That’s really what has defined my career.”
When I talked to Sen. Hill, he said that Allred and the Common Interest were the “most trusted” resource when they operated in the Capitol. Hill had always thought Allred was a Republican – until he ran in 2010 as a Democrat. Even so, said Hill, Allred is effective because he’s smart, remains independent, combines business and government expertise, and is trusted by lawmakers, media and the public. “That’s a rare quality,” said Hill.
A change in the conversation
During his corporate consulting sojourn, Allred was working on integrating various MWI divisions, traveling the country talking with truck drivers and warehouse crews as well as CEOs in the corner suites. In 2016, those conversations changed.
“I’m working with a lot of blue-collar workers around the country and I’m just hearing talk of politics that just sounds really new. It’s a broader, deeper frustration with politics, whether it’s left, right or center. Just this sense that it’s become toxic, completely ineffective, and people who are not that political becoming really agitated about it.”
Allred was writing his book as time permitted, and always wondering whether the Common Interest model could succeed on the big stage. The divisions he saw in the country and the hunger for something better persuaded Allred to try again. He renewed his conversations with the NICD. In the end, the NICD asked him to become its next director and bring CommonSense American with him.
“This is much more solution-oriented this time around,” Allred said. “That’s how you manage a business. You say, we have concrete problems, where are the concrete solutions? … We don’t solve problems at the grand, philosophical level.”
For CommonSense American, that means starting with simple, solvable problems that have had some early work and early support in Congress. One such idea: Figure out how to cover uninsured care for people who end up with an expensive, out-of-network provider in an emergency, through no fault of their own.
The wisdom of the founders
Allred has had a lifelong fascination with the Founding Fathers. Like him, the founders worried about how to make democracy sustainable. Key to that was their commitment – despite their own hypocritical fights – to blunt the factionalism that had doomed experiments in self-government in the millennia before the American Revolution. Professor Allred can, and will, describe at length how the framers structured our Constitution as a barrier to partisanship.
The founders tried to make it “really hard for one party to impose their will on everyone else,” Allred said. “That’s why we take the separation of powers further than anybody else.”
The framers’ instinctive understanding of partisan danger is confirmed by modern psychological research, he says. “It can all be summarized simply: We’re prone to rancor because we conclude too readily that the reason someone holds a different view is because they’re stupid or immoral.”
What’s different today is the disappearance of ideological diversity within the political parties, which long served as one of the defenses against “partisan tyranny.” As recently as the 1970s, Allred notes, there were Republicans who were more liberal than some Democrats, and Democrats who were more conservative than some Republicans. With an active, credible political center, Congress could still reach consensus and pass bipartisan bills.
Since the ’70s, flexible political ideology has hardened along with demographics: Party now closely aligns with qualities such as ethnicity, church attendance, urban vs. rural. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are nearly extinct. And all of us are less likely to know, or be friends with, or attend church with, someone who doesn’t think like us.
“Part of the problem with increasing polarization has been that we’re defining problems increasingly in ideological terms,” Allred said. “We’re picking issues that we can beat up on each other with, rather than picking issues in terms of what’s really affecting Americans’ lives, and what we can actually do about it.”
How do we reverse “partisan tyranny” and return to functioning national government?
It will take a mechanism to “find and champion broadly supported solutions,” argues Allred, “because nothing else will work. … We’re not very good at that naturally, and this puts a real premium on that ability to work across the lines.” A premium, in other words, on the very work of groups like NICD.
Which is how an Idaho do-gooder can get up every morning in Washington enthusiastic about reintroducing common sense to America.
Find out more
Alled is inviting Idahoans to join CommonSense American. To learn about CommonSense American, or to join, visit https://www.commonsenseamerican.org/.