If you believe the political debate in North Carolina and the rest of the country has grown coarse, predictable, and unproductive, you’re not alone. Most of your fellow citizens agree, though they may blame different causes.
The existence of political disagreement isn’t itself the issue. It is a given. There has never been a moment in any society in which all or nearly all people had exactly the same ideas about what government should do and how it should be done.
Politics is a process of understanding and managing disputes among individuals with differing values and interests. In a free society, the assumption is not that all disputes are entirely resolvable, but rather that most should be handled by voluntary exchanges of goods and services, some should be handled by coercive legislation or regulation, and the remainder simply can’t be resolved at present and will have to be lived with.
Politics is a serious matter that often provokes strong passions. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that political debates need not devolve into personal attacks, dishonest demagoguery, and the rhetorical equivalent of total war.
Some three dozen state leaders, at least, share the same view. Over the past two years, they have met under the auspices of a new program, the North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF), to discuss big issues, advance their own views, and learn about why the views of others may be diametrically opposed to theirs.
Housed at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, NCLF spans the ideological spectrum. As president of the John William Pope Foundation, which among other things provides financial support to conservative and libertarian policy groups in North Carolina and around the country, I serve as co-chair of NCLF with Leslie Winner, formerly the executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which among other things provides financial support to progressive groups and causes. In addition to Pope and Reynolds funding, NCLF receives support from the Duke Endowment.
The first cohort of forum participants included current and former public officials, business and nonprofit executives, educators, professionals, and other community leaders. It included Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Its members came from the mountains, the coast, and everywhere in between.
Our initial topic was a challenging one: How can we enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families? The discussion wasn’t entirely centered on public policy. Most participants agreed that personal choices matter, for example, embracing the idea of the “success sequence” — that young people who finish school, get a full-time job, and marry before having children are very unlikely to be chronically poor in later life. Most participants also agreed that such tasks as helping workers retrain for higher-paying jobs will require action by a range of institutions such as industry, churches, and community groups, not just government.
Still, we spent a lot of time talking about public policy. As you might expect, some ideas, such raising the minimum wage, generated passionate debate. But others drew a level of consensus that you might find more surprising. For example, nearly all the participating leaders believe that North Carolina should find ways to ease the transition of convicted criminals into the job market, lift regulations that block workers from changing careers or starting their own businesses, and offer more apprenticeships to fill jobs that pay fairly well but often stay vacant for lack of skilled workers.
The most important outcome of the North Carolina Leadership Forum so far hasn’t been policy consensus, however. It’s been to set an example of substance, maturity, and respect. Much of the richest dialogue came out of the conflicts within the group, not the commonalities. Still, participants learned that those with whom they disagreed often had similar goals, and could even come to embrace similar facts, yet draw different conclusions about what to do.
You can learn more about the program at https://sanford.duke.edu/nclf. And if you’d like to replicate something like the North Carolina Leadership Forum in your own community, just let us know.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.