Partisan Divide Prompts an Un-‘Common’ Solution


Anyone who spends time on Facebook or Twitter or keeps an eye on cable news would find the Pew Research Center’s most recent report on political polarization utterly unsurprising.

“In political values ranging from views of government and the social safety net to opinions about immigrants, race and homosexuality, Americans are less likely than in the past to hold a mix of conservative and liberal views,” Pew’s Jocelyn Kiley wrote in October. In 2004, for instance, nearly half of Americans had mixed political values. Today, only about a third of them do.

“Twenty-three percent of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat in 1994, while 17 percent of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican,” the report read. “Today, those numbers are just 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively.”

In addition, “the share of Republicans and Democrats who express very unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have increased dramatically since the 1990s.”

Common Party, a Philadelphia-based project spearheaded by Jewish Relief Agency co-founder Marc Erlbaum, is trying to bridge that seemingly unbridgeable partisan divide. Erlbaum, who is also founder and CEO of Nationlight Productions, first started thinking about mending the divisions among us during the last election cycle.

Marc Erlbaum | Photo provided

“The way people were speaking to each other was really troubling to me, and I felt something had to be done to bring people back together,” he said. “There was just more and more polarization, and I didn’t see anybody stepping up to mediate that.”

The way he saw it, most people were “somewhere between the two 35-yard lines, but the most vocal people are the ones standing in the end zones,” Erlbaum said. “The more moderate were being pressured to move to one pole or the other. I felt like there needed to be a voice saying, ‘It’s OKto hover around the center and to consider issues and to not take a revolutionary stand.’”

Since March 2017, Erlbaum has tried to be the respectful and civil voice with the Common Party, a movement to bring people together by examining shared qualities. The idea is that if people connect first on a human level, they’re more likely to listen to each other when the conversation turns to politics.

The Common Party’s home is online, which is where much of the work of creating a national values campaign originates.

The site’s “Comtent” — images with quotes that promote commonality, dignity and civility — is posted on the site and also sent out to Common Party members. Its “Commontary” is a carefully curated selection of relevant articles, many of which Erlbaum writes himself.

Sharing the Comtent and Commontary is part of a larger strategy shared by Erlbaum’s 21 fellow “Commoners,” aka, his advisory board. Erlbaum doesn’t know most of them personally, but they are all involved in creating the same kind of change that Erlbaum would like to see. “I’m learning a tremendous amount from them,” Erlbaum said.

The group includes the founders or CEOs of Positively Positive, Sharemeister, Civity, Serve2Unite, Make America Dinner Again, Party for a Purpose, Simon’s Fund, I Am Your Protector, Lumera, BridgeEDU and others. They are professors and filmmakers and businesspeople of all ages from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The Common Party logo

Commoner Emily Eldredge, a Tuscon, Arizona-based speaker and executive coach, became friends with Erlbaum on Facebook a few years ago, after they both attended the Nexus Global Youth Summit. When he reached out to her about the Common Party, she was excited to bring her perspective to it, which focuses more on human emotions and motivations.

“You can argue all day long on what you think is an intellectual level about the issues, but really there are emotional reasons why people cling to their beliefs,” she said. “We all have our beliefs and our emotional associations with those beliefs. Sometimes those beliefs help us have a sense of connection with other people and sometimes those beliefs keep us from feeling scared or overwhelmed.”

Eldridge has brought her Drawing Out Process technique to prisons, where she’s seen for herself how surface differences and mistrust can be overcome with empathy. That’s why the idea of the Common Party really spoke to her.

“I think the mission is fantastic,” Eldridge said. “And I also really appreciate that Marc isn’t focused on the political.”

Eldridge does as much as she can, given that she’s halfway across the country. She has been, she said, instrumental in shaping CP’s branding, even tweaking the logo and creating a new website.

Most of the project’s three-prong strategy — campus engagement, content production and campus events — has been implemented by Erlbaum. The first collegiate chapter of Common Party is at the University of Pennsylvania, where Commoner Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor in the Graduate School of Education. The chapter held two well-attended events last year: “Can We Talk? A Political Dialogue in Trump’s America,” which brought students together to engage in civil discourse; and a speaking engagement by Commoner Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi and the author of My Life After Hate. The first event was co-sponsored by the GSE and Cairn University, and drew attendees from as far away as North Carolina and Virginia. The talk by Michaels was facilitated by longtime area journalist Chris Satullo.

More public events are in the works for 2018. Erlbaum is also reaching out to faith leaders in Philadelphia, many of whom have experience in bridging differences through interfaith dialogue. Though Common Party is strictly non-sectarian, Erlbaum admits that his own faith tradition is a strong influence on the project.

“I personally don’t talk about faith much in my public work, but I do think it is an important foundation of what I do,” he said. “It is our Shema prayer, the centerpiece of our prayer service, which states that God is one. … Battling with each other is a denial of that reality, and so our goal is to become conscious of our common essence, the fact that we are all part of the same whole, and when we understand that, our differences are not only superficial but we realize that they are useful and even essential in helping us to grow and develop as a collective.” 

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