Conservative Art Pope and liberal Rick Glazier walk into a bar…
This is no joke. Pope, Glazier and some of North Carolina’s other most prominent liberals and conservatives are breaking bread together, trying to find something that has been elusive in recent years: a shred of common ground. These 35 leaders in business, politics, philanthropy, education, law and other areas are investing their time to test whether bipartisan ideas and civil discourse between Republicans and Democrats really are dead.
It’s called the North Carolina Leadership Forum, and it’s just ramping up. The group met for the first time in March and will gather again June 17 at Duke University. They hope to convene in Charlotte later this year.
What makes them think this is worth the effort? In an era of Trump and Clinton, Fox News and MSNBC, HB2, gerrymandered districts and legislators who are an ocean apart, it seems hopeless. But it is that deepening gulf in society that makes this effort so urgently needed.
The group will meet four times in the first year, tackling the question of how to enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families. They hope to agree on specific policy proposals, but they know liberals and conservatives may see very different causes of and solutions to that issue.
Just having the conversation, though, and doing so civilly and respectfully, may be a more important and lasting product of this experiment. The group was created as much to foster reasoned conversation as it was to devise policy solutions. Even if members can’t agree on a minimum wage, the thinking goes, they might set an example that others can follow, whether they are legislators, City Council members or just Uncle Fred at the Thanksgiving table.
True listening to the other side, after all, rarely happens anymore. A lot of people consume only the news that reinforces their existing positions. Combine that with a politically divided state and “what you have is political discourse in North Carolina and lots of places that falls short of what we can and should provide,” said John Hood, president of the conservative John William Pope Foundation. “Lots of people are disenchanted.”
The Leadership Forum was born after Hood wrote a column about North Carolinians living in “media cocoons” and the disappearance of civil debate. Democrat Leslie Winner, then head of the progressive Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, read it and met with Hood about changing that. They recruited a bipartisan steering committee, then the group of 35.
Hood emphasizes that the goal is not to find moderate solutions.
“Our point is not we have these extremes and if everyone was more centrist we’d be better off,” Hood told me. “We like the fact that we have people way out on the right and left. The goal is not to marginalize them and aim for the common denominator.
“The point is to have a dialogue that is very robust with points of view strongly argued, but respectfully and with no name-calling. … If we can have people argue rather than bicker, make good-faith logical arguments, that’s a very valuable outcome.”
It’s easy to imagine this group having civil conversations around a conference table, only to see the divisiveness persist among elected officials. But with what passes for debate today, I’m glad they’re taking a shot.
Taylor Batten is the editorial page editor of the Charlotte Observer.