Well Grounded: Change the Tone, Change the Outcome

This past summer, a musical comedy called “Dave” opened in Washington, D.C. Based on the 1993 movie of the same name, the plot revolves around an everyman named Dave Kovic who is a dead ringer for the President of the United States, and sometimes fills in for him in public appearances. Through an unlikely combination of events, Dave assumes the role of president for a time, and uses his newfound power to make decisions that are extraordinarily popular with his fellow Americans.

In one memorable scene of the movie (no spoilers here, it was released in 1993), Dave asks his Cabinet members to cut their budgets to fund an early childhood education program. For Washington insiders, and others weary of politics as usual, this may seem like one more outlandish plot twist in the plotline of a fantasy. Budget negotiations, like all political contests, always must be contentious. Their most vocal and active supporters are highly polarized in their priorities. As a result, they believe that the common ground Dave finds does not exist in real life.

Washington’s movers and shakers, however, are not always right. The American people may be more aligned on many issues than conventional wisdom would admit, as Common Ground Solutions’ recent policymaking simulation in Rochester demonstrates.

The event offered a number of lessons, but there was one overarching theme: the tone of the debate shapes the outcome. For better or worse, if you change the tone, you can change the outcome.

Instead of showing our participants simple pro and con arguments, we presented them with more in-depth explorations of the issues in question. This format invited them to consider different perspectives more seriously than they might have otherwise, and it somewhat neutralized the hold that partisanship has on these kinds of discussions.

It’s easy to dismiss the results of our policymaking simulation as an accident or gimmick, but in fact they line up well with basic lessons of social psychology. People presented with more complex narratives are less likely to jump to conclusions, more likely to ask questions of their own, and more likely to listen to the answers.

The true message of “Dave” is that leadership matters. Those of us who set the tone for our political debates have a large role in determining their outcomes.  If we want to make better decisions, we have to begin with better discussions.

To Learn More:

National Institute for Civil Discourse: Civility Tools

National Conference of State Legislatures: Citizen Engagement and Civil Discourse Resources (March 9, 2018)

Democrat & Chronicle: Voice of the Voter: Put on your policymaking shoes by Howard Konar & Steve Kull (September 12, 2018)

WXXI News: Rochesterians find some ‘Common Ground’ on the federal budget by Randy Gorbman (September 16, 2018)