Finding Common Ground in an Era of Divisive Politics
On the brink of the midterm elections and yet another political shift in the United States, two Washington insiders — and Hamilton alumni — came together for a dialogue across political boundaries. Marc Elias ’90, who served as general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Mike Dubke ’92, former White House communications director in the Trump administration, engaged in an effort to respond to the increasing political polarization in the country.
As a part of the Common Ground speaker series, this conversation was moderated by veteran journalist and independent communications consultant Jackie Judd P’14.
The dialogue began with a question: What’s next for the election — and what will it reveal about the state of our nation?
Both Dubke and Elias agreed that the Democrats were likely to retake the house. While Dubke argued that this was a typical political shift for the U.S., Elias claimed that this election would be unique. “Here’s what’s different: One party is focused on more educated voters and voters of color. The other is becoming centered on non-college educated white voters. This is not to say that either is more or less correct, but it shows this cleavage that is going on right now according to education level and race that is a historic. That is something that has profound consequences.”
Dubke and Elias both spoke on the challenges of finding common ground. “Finding that common ground can be hard with rhetoric that is trying to divide,” said Dubke. “We’ve created a political system where it’s more efficient to appeal to your base than it is to persuade somebody else to believe in your positions.”
Where the two speakers disagree, however, is the source of this rhetoric. While Dubke argued that it came from both sides, Elias pointed toward another source altogether. “It’s coming from the President of the United States,” he said. “The President is the one being divisive. He’s talking about locking up political opponents, he’s leading rallies urging for them to be locked up. Bush didn’t do that, Obama didn’t do that. That’s not America.”
One of the key points for addressing this division comes down to what both Dubke and Elias referred to as “the middle.”
“The middle is not being spoken to by the right or the left,” Dubke said. “The persuadables don’t matter anymore. If you’re not spending your millions of dollars to convince someone to persuade them to vote for them, why should they care? Why should they show up to the polls?”
“The middle isn’t being spoken to because these people are vanishingly few. There are fewer of those people who are persuadable,” Elias said.
While he acknowledges the divisiveness of current political discourse, Dubke is still encouraged by the new era of communication. “There used to be a filter that was controlled by the very few. There are so many outlets for people of all stripes to express their views and have their voices heard.”
Dubke admits that the quality of this communication isn’t always up to the standard that it used to be, but he compares this to the “growing pains” of transitioning from one platform to another. “We’re going through a situation where the gatekeepers have been dethroned. People have the ability to express their views in the way they want to express them—and that takes time to adjust to.”
Another point where the two found themselves in agreement: The next few years aren’t going to be easy.
“It’s going to be harder to find a pathway out of this than just having Donald Trump not be the President of the United States,” said Dubke. “The problem is that we’re no longer trying to persuade on another—we’re just preaching at one another.”
Even when the disagreements became heated, both Dubke and Elias maintained a respectful conversation. They demonstrated that there is always the possibility to challenge deeply held assumptions and learn from those with whom you disagree.
“A lot of times, I feel like we’re trying to find common ground, but then the goalposts get moved,” Elias said. “Mike and I have been friends for years. I admire, among a lot of things, Mike’s courage. It is very easy to come to one of these events as a Democrat. To walk a line between defending and not defending his own party, and to deal with the fact that within his social circles he is a distinct minority in terms of political preference, I think it takes a certain amount of courage.”