Developing Practical Steps for Resolving America’s Chronic Problems

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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.
  • Fewer and fewer families moving up the economic ladder.
  • 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 Our Democracy’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 Congress is so polarized that commentators across the spectrum foresee an unprecedented level of legislative paralysis, including a possible first-ever default on America’s national debt.

To find ways of overcoming this dysfunction and resolving our country’s critical problems, CCD has interviewed participants in over 200 political controversies. In each case, elected officials had deadlocked. Yet representatives for the stakeholding groups then worked out agreements that all sides saw as advancing their long-term interests.

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; the director of the EPA; the secretaries of energy, commerce, interior and agriculture; 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 colleagues at the relevant agencies.

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

Indeed, of the former lawmakers we have interviewed, nearly all acknowledged that his/her voters had such conflicting needs that if he/she had tackled divisive issues more realistically, he would have alienated key blocs of voters who could have unseated him. Incumbents have in fact won reelection 94 percent of the time in recent years, all too often by persuading voters that the other party is to blame for our nation’s ills and offering soundbites as remedies.  

In stark contrast, among the hundreds of representatives for stakeholding groups that we have interviewed, nearly all had long worked on their own group’s behalf, fully understood the group’s needs and had earned the group’s trust.   As a result, each representative felt confident that if he/she negotiated a sensible deal, his group would strongly support it.

We have therefore concluded that if voters in each sector of our society were asked to identify whom outside government they trust to represent them on the most serious national problems, these representatives would be far more likely than politicians to resolve those issues in ways that each sector of society would support.

The Grand Bargain Project Will Therefore:

  • Give voters in each socio-economic-political category an opportunity to identify whom outside government they would most trust to represent them on the issues that will shape their family’s future.
  • Convene the representatives with the largest followings, and provide them with facilitators who will help them work out an agreement resolving the most critical issues in ways that advance the entire public’s long-term interest.
  • Help each representative show his/her voters how this grand bargain would benefit them.
  • Thereby motivate most presidential and congressional candidates to support the agreement, and, once in office, to enactit.

To accomplish these steps by 2024, the project will unfold in five phases which can be found here.

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