Building political bridges to make progress in N.C.

John Hood and Leslie Winner at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The North Carolina Leadership Forum is a step in the right direction to address the political divide.
John Hood and Leslie Winner at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The North Carolina Leadership Forum is a step in the right direction to address the political divide. Kevin Seifert Photography

In this era of political polarization, the worst kind of conversations are those that never happen. Labor union leaders and left-leaning policy analysts have few opportunities for candid, substantive conversations with business leaders or Republican lawmakers. Conservative defenders of traditional values rarely have in-depth discussions with progressive politicians. People from different political poles get their news and commentary from different media outlets; online, they live in different social-media cocoons. As a result, they have more opportunities to fight than find common ground, or even common humanity.

Despite our contrasting policy views, we both find this troubling and have resolved to do something about it in North Carolina. To that end, we, joined by other steering-committee members, worked with Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy to launch the North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF). NCLF brought together 35 leaders from across the state’s geographic and political landscape to address an important question: What can we do to enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families?

Our primary goals were to enable these leaders to listen closely to and better understand divergent perspectives, and to form trust-based relationships. We also wondered whether we might identify some broadly embraced answers for enabling more people to earn adequate wages.

Almost everyone participated in five sessions over a year’s time. We learned about the scope of the problem, developed a commonly accepted set of facts, and explored how much was “enough” to support a family.

We did not expect participants to abandon their values or agree on everything. Leslie still thinks North Carolina should raise its minimum wage. John does not. In the end, however, most of us agreed that addressing wage levels, skills training, occupational licensing, barriers to employment for people with criminal records, and tax credits for working people all held promise.

More importantly, we recognized that our views weren’t polar opposites. They fell along a spectrum. Some thought the critical issue was society’s responsibility to ensure good schools and a realistic minimum wage while others thought the problem resulted primarily from deteriorating family structure and lack of individual responsibility. Interestingly, we all agreed that individuals, families, and society all mattered, but placed different weights on these causal factors.

We practiced listening to the experiences of others, their interpretations of facts, and the values they prioritize. We learned to express our opinions in ways that made it easier for those who disagreed to listen. The group discovered that no one in the room was evil. We removed the devil horns from our adversaries.

Political friends have challenged each of us about why we are spending scarce time and energy trying to build bridges instead of devoting 100 percent of our efforts to “winning.” But trying to win (elections or policy debates) and building understanding are not mutually exclusive.

North Carolina is a “purple state” and has been for decades. We elected Terry Sanford and Jesse Helms to represent us in the U.S. Senate at the same time, and we voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016. Our state will probably continue to have highly competitive elections and swings in partisan power.

Though North Carolinians are closely divided in their politics, they need not be bitterly divided, and they don’t want to be. Consider the results of a recent High Point University poll. Only 35 percent of registered NC voters said they approved of the job President Trump is doing, yet 61 percent said Democrats in Congress should “spend more time working with President Trump.”

North Carolinians with strongly contrasting views still want to see a healthier relationship between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. Most poll respondents said something similar about Republicans and Democrats in Raleigh.

For our state to address its many challenges and pursue its many opportunities, we need a healthier political discourse. We need to be able to work together to find those bits of turf on which we all can stand. The North Carolina Leadership Forum is exploring ways to do that.

Winner is the former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation.