The most important book you will read this year: “Our Common Ground” by Diane Hessan

Diane Hessan’s new book Our Common Ground: Insights from Four Years of Listening to American Voters should be required reading for every voter in America. It’s an amazing document that will open your eyes to unsuspected truths.

I’ve known Diane Hessan for over a decade. She founded, grew, and sold a Boston-area company called Communispace (now known as C Space), a company that did market research through online social-media style focus groups. She is a certified big deal in Boston circles — a trustee of Tufts University, on the board of Panera, and a member of the editorial board of the Boston Globe.

Starting in 2016, she turned her considerable market research talents to voters. The result was a series of conversations about voter issues and attitudes with over 500 voters across the country, with a wide diversity of political views. Those conversations informed more than 50 op-eds that she wrote for the Boston Globe, on everything from gun control to Donald Trump’s Twitter.

Our Common Ground is more than a compilation of those essays. It is a piercing revelation of the minds and voices of America, direct and in their own words. And it’s crammed full of insights that you won’t see anywhere else in our polarized media world.

Why this book matters

As you read this, you should know that I did work for Diane on this book, as an editorial advisor. But that disclosure shouldn’t weaken my recommendation here. I work on a lot of books — this is the only one that I think is the most important book you will read this year. The work I did on Our Common Ground is the most valuable work I have done in years, because this book really matters to the future of America.

So what’s the big deal here?

Every bit of political writing that I’ve read in the last five years comes with a slanted point of view. Political opinion pieces tend to ridicule or distort the positions of others, stridently defending their own side and ripping the opposition. Attack politics reached its zenith in the tumultuous and divisive presidency of Donald Trump, the master of the insult tweet.

It’s a natural tendency to imagine that not only the politicians and pundits but the voters that you disagree with are evil or idiotic. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube magnify this perception, since their algorithms favor partisan views and flaming comment wars.

What Diane has done is to reveal how voters speak in their own words. If you are a Democrat, there is no better way to not just understand, but empathize with the perspective of the Trump voter than to listen to what they say. Their attitudes on everything from abortion to foreign policy reveal careful thought and calculated analysis. Everyone quoted in this book is impassioned, but mostly in ways that you can relate to. The same is true if you are a Republican — you will learn about a common set of Democratic perspectives from common people that are far different from what you hear on Fox News.

The result of reading all this is that you can actually gain an understanding of how voters with a different perspective from your own think, what it would take to connect with them, and how we can move forward together as a nation.

Here are some examples:

On Charlottesville: “Concentrating on whether Donald Trump said things the way you would say them is a precious waste of time to me,” argued Mitch, 41, from Nebraska. “Every minute that we spend giving a voice to those awful white nationalists is a minute that we don’t spend working on increasing good jobs, securing our borders, defeating ISIS, and helping to put food on people’s tables.”

On gun control: “Our gun laws need significant improvement,” Jim [an avid gun owner from and NRA member from Arizona] starts. “How about removing bump stocks from existence? Or requiring background checks on all gun show buyers?” Jim continues with detailed recommendations about mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases, regulations for ammunition sales, and more.

On election fraud: “I believe that Biden won the election, but I think that dismissing fraud claims just because of a bunch of dismissed lawsuits is insufficient,” said Barry, a Republican from Iowa. “I mean, the Democrats think there is Russian collusion, and we get a massive investigation by the government. We need that to ensure that this never happens again.”

On Biden’s campaign during the pandemic: “He’s been silent on the national and world stage,” said Joseph, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “His social media presence is pathetic, and that is especially tragic, since it’s going to be a centerpiece of communication as we work our way out of this situation.”

On the Biden-Trump debates: Katie, a Republican from South Carolina, said, “The entire evening consisted of name-calling and interrupting—especially by Trump. He was rude and immature.”

On the insurrection: “People who are okay with protesters storming the federal buildings in Portland, Oregon, but not okay with DC, have just learned something about themselves,” said Charles, an Independent from Oregon.

These perspectives are uncomfortable to read. We experience cognitive dissonance. Each of us has been programmed to see the voters on the other side as misguided and stupid, since the media, especially television, tends to find the most misguided and stupid people, put them on display, and then invite us to ridicule them. From that starting point, it’s easy to demonize the large chunk of the electorate with which you disagree. But these people are talking sense — or at least, not talking nonsense. I’d like to hear more from them. I’d like to understand them. It is far more comfortable to sit around pickling in a broth of your own endlessly repeated truths and heroes, but it’s not going to get us anywhere until we start talking to the ones we disagree with.

Where we agree — and what to do about it

There is an entire section of Our Common Ground about where we agree as voters. Again, it’s not what we hear about on a regular basis.

Over 80% of Diane’s voters support gun control measures like waiting periods, closing the gun show loophole, and limits on the size of magazines. There is room for popular legislation on gun control, if only the politicians would listen.

Eighty-five per cent of these voters agreed that they are concerned about education, the federal deficit, and infrastructure. They agree that the decision to have an abortion is excruciating for a woman. And “nearly everyone, including most of those in Trump’s base, believes that ‘there must be a better way to create immigration law than to separate children from families.’ “

Our Common Ground concludes with a practical chapter on how to listen and converse with people you disagree with. Diane wants us to find ways to reinstate the dialogue that used to characterize American politics.

Politicians may be listening. Our Common Ground includes endorsements from Republicans including Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and Reagan spokesperson Linda Chavez, and Democrats including US Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and veteran political strategist Donna Brazile.

You have two choices here.

You can continue to shout and scream about how awful those other people are and make your own contribution to the divide in America. And I understand why you feel that way. There are a lot of terrible people saying terrible things in American politics, and it’s natural to feel as if fighting all of them is your patriotic duty.

Or, you can actually take a step to try to understand where they’re coming from. The easiest way to do that is to buy and read this book. It will not sit easily with you. You will not enjoy every moment of what you read. You may find yourself getting upset or confused — that’s what happens when your world view shifts. But I can guarantee that you will actually learn something about Americans, what we all share, and what is important to us.

Please give it a shot. Because this book may be the most important thing you read all year.

Please note that I will delete comments about how awful Republican or Democratic voters are and the awful things they do. And if you are ready to criticize this book without having read what Diane has written, your comment has no place here.

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  1. Most conservative claims are built on a false premise.
    Take this one:
    “I mean, the Democrats think there is Russian collusion, and we get a massive investigation by the government.”
    We got a massive investigation not because “the Democrats” thought there was Russian collusion. We got it because intelligence experts thought there was Russian collusion.

      1. My friends, I don’t think the road to better understanding starts with demonizing “most conservative” anything.

        It’s fine to believe that. But that’s not where understanding starts.

    1. If refuting such a claim would convince the conservative making it to act in a different way, that would be useful. But it won’t, so it isn’t.

      While I agree with your analysis of the claim, I believe that understanding why someone feels this way is more likely to yield results than rebutting the claim.

      It’s also worth examining our own position and how we act on it. US intelligence services did indeed investigate whether collusion occurred. While they found clear evidence of Russian support for Trump that was not coordinated with the campaign, they did not find equally clear evidence of collusion. That doubt works better for the Russians, because having Americans vehemently argue about whether collusion occurred is far more effective than allowing us to unite around the facts.

      And therein lies the brilliance of their plan. The more you argue with “most conservatives”, the more you support the Russian mission of using our open society to divide us. Our greatest freedom can be turned into a liability if we don’t fight back by resisting the urge to become tools in a divide & conquer strategy.

  2. I would love to see better correlation between what most Americans think about gun control, education, and infrastructure (some of the items you mentioned above) and what our elected leaders are doing about those issues.

  3. I’m Canadian. But we have similar, if less extreme, partisan attitudes to contend with.

    I think that too many people misunderstand where the conflict in our democratic societies lie. They are less between social liberals (or socialists) and conservatives, than between antagonizers and everyone else. Most people want order, safety, comfort, opportunity, fairness, justice, and well-being for themselves and their neighbours, as long as those people don’t work to undermine those things.

    There are people trying to undermine those things. Some of them identify (or, perhaps more accurately, advertise themselves) as conservatives, others as liberals. But they are a minority. Unfortunately, they have power. And the reality is, their primary motive is to acquire more power, and they will use partisan disagreements as a lever to open up new opportunities for themselves and their equally disruptive confederates.

    There are also naive people in all political camps, who are motivated to follow their leaders, even if their leaders do not care about their well-being—or anyone else’s, beyond a group of cronies or other closs supporters. These trusting souls are very hard to dissaude from their faith and devotion. But they are the biggest obstacle to ridding all the political tribes from purging their own worst members.

    It’s trite to observe that the media (both social and traditional) landscape favours the extremist views. Since so few are acting to address this problem, it’s still with us. It generates attention, profits, political contributions, and other activities which benefit the corrupt leadership class, to the detriment of everyone else.

    If you are a moderate, you should put more effort into purging the extremists from your own camp, instead of wasting time berating other tribes for their extreme behaviours.

    Unfortunately, even saying this exposes me to being accused of hypocrisy, because I haven’t said what camp I’m in. But it doesn’t matter. If people aren’t interested in the reality, don’t want to solve the real problems, and won’t question their own attitudes and actions, then the problems won’t go away until something terrible happens. You should want to avoid something terrible happening more than you want to win this futile competition.

  4. Thank you for this post. Cognitive dissonance indeed. I think this book has great value for worldwide consumption, not just the US. In Australia, we have a similar divide exacerbated now by Trump-style figures. The split has been very noticeable in recent years, the middle ground has disappeared, people now reject all of the beliefs that their opponents hold. I’m as gulity as anyone, perhaps social media has magnified the problem? It is so easy now to slip into an attack mode of thought, as you point out.