Taking the Practical Steps Necessary to Resolve America’s Critical Problems and Save Our Democracy

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The Center for Collaborative Democracy grew out of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. We work with experienced practitioners in conflict resolution, behavioral economics and game theory in order to develop innovative methods for resolving societal ills that established institutions are failing to remedy. The problems we are currently focused on are:

  • A democracy threatened by hyper-polarization
  • Declining social and economic mobility
  • Many Americans lacking the education and skills to thrive in a high-tech, global economy
  • The most expensive and inefficient health care system in the developed world
  • Unsustainably rising debt
  • Increasingly severe droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires
  • A 75,000-page tax code filled with perverse incentives

To develop solutions for these problems that the public will overwhelmingly support, CCD is launching the Grand Bargain Project.

How the Grand Bargain Project Could Resolve America’s Existential Ills

Americans’ hostility toward one another has been intensifying for three decades. By now, over 80 percent of Republican and Democratic voters see each other as a “clear and present danger” to our democracy.  And the current Congress is clearly too polarized to bridge differences on our country’s chronic ills.

To understand what it will take to resolve the above problems constructively, the Center for Collaborative Democracy interviewed participants in over 200 political controversies.  In each case, elected officials had deadlocked. Yet representatives for the stakeholding groups — businesspeople, consumer advocates, labor unions, environmentalists, civil rights organizations, and so on — then worked out agreements that all sides saw as advancing their long-term interests. 

These interviews led us to conclude: 

  1. On each of the above issues, various interest groups oppose major change — strongly enough to block practical long-term solutions from being enacted into law.
  2. Most members of Congress can win reelection far more easily by blaming the other party for these ills than by trying to bridge their differences. 
  3. These problems are therefore likely to keep growing worse, further inciting Americans’ hostility toward one another and fueling their despair about our democracy.

Yet we have also gathered evidence that there are high-profile figures outside government whom voters would trust to speak for them on the above issues. And those individuals would be well equipped to work out a combination of solutions that voters across the spectrum would see as significantly advancing their best interests.

To convene these trusted spokespeople and help them hammer out an agreement that will all sectors of our society will see as benefiting them, we are joining with the Consensus Building Institute in launching The Grand Bargain Project.

Evidence this Project is Necessary to Overcome the Forces Tearing Our Society Apart

That evidence starts with the 200 cases cited above. For example, some years ago, with Congress at an impasse over nearly every aspect of environmental policy, 25 advocates for the various opposing sides met to break the stalemate.  They included top executives from Dow Chemical, General Motors, Chevron Oil and Pacific Gas & Electric; leaders of the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, World Resources Institute and National Wildlife Federation; chair of the African American Leadership Summit; director of the EPA; and the president of the AFL-CIO. 

Over a series of meeting, these 25 long-time adversaries put together a detailed grand bargain for significantly reducing “pollution, waste and poverty,” while increasing “jobs, productivity, wages, capital, savings, profits, knowledge and education.” Among its provisions: Major corporations would support much stricter environmental standards if given far more latitude to choose the technologies by which they met those benchmarks. 

Each CEO then persuaded their industry association to support this plan as far better than any politically feasible alternative.  Each environmentalist won over other environmental groups. The labor leader sold the plan to other unions.  And each federal official enlisted the relevant agencies. 

Yet congressional leaders from both parties said that members of their caucus could not sell such a complex agreement to their diverse voters and, on that basis, rejected the plan.

Indeed, nearly every former lawmaker we have interviewed has portrayed his/her constituents who ranged from business owners to the unemployed; from high-school drop-outs to advanced-degree holders; from 18 to 90+; from singles to multi-generational families — as groups with such conflicting needs that he/she could not tackle divisive issues realistically. Any even-handed solution he proposed could have alienated key blocs of voters who could have unseated him.

In stark contrast, among representatives for stakeholding groups that we interviewed, nearly all fully understood their own group’s needs and had worked on their behalf long enough to earn their trust.  As a result, each representative felt confident that if he/she negotiated a deal advancing the group’s best interests, they would accept that it was their best alternative. 

How, then, can an American public divided now more than ever in our lifetimes reach agreement on how to resolve our gravest problems?       

We propose to identify the 100 individuals outside government whom voters in each sector of our society would most trust to speak for them and provide those trusted individuals with the tools to work out practical solutions for our country’s chronic ills. 

To make major progress on those ills in the next two years, the Grand Bargain Project will unfold in four phases described here.

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