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Seamus Kraft, founder of the OpenGov Foundation, participated in the first cohort of CtK.Campfire.
Lilly: Where do you currently work, and what is the project that is most consuming you right now?
Seamus: I work at The OpenGov Foundation. We are a non-profit civic technology start-up that began in the US Congress. Our mission is to serve those who serve others in America’s legislatures by building great technology and policy that support better governance. The project that is most consuming me right now is embedding user experience and product researchers in congressional offices, so we can for the first time ever understand the pain points and needs of those who work in Congress.
Lilly: Do you think your work is helping to combat hyper-partisanship?
Seamus: I very much hope so. Our work is focused on the critical infrastructure of our democracy, which is the most trans-partisan, beyond-partisanship thing you could imagine. Basic tools and basic processes aren’t working in Congress, and it’s frustrating the hell out of everybody. So whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Communist or Libertarian, you have a horrible experience engaging with your elected representatives. And no matter your political identity, those elected representatives and their staff have just as hard a time engaging with you. That’s about as nonpartisan an area in our civic life I have encountered.
I was working for Darrell Issa for a time. He’s a pretty “Republican” Republican and most of my friends and most of the civic tech community were the opposite: hard core progressive. But civic tech, this critical infrastructure of democracy, has continued to bring us together. Now we create a safe space for people to confront the challenges in their work and personal lives as it relates to our democracy.
Lilly: Can you think of a time when you had to pay a price for being cross-partisan?
Seamus: Some in the Right have written off civic tech as “hippy-dippy.” And we’ve paid a price with others because people on the Left couldn’t see beyond the fact that I used to work with Darrell Issa. But I’ve learned that if you’re not willing to have good relationships with people from a different political perspective, you’re probably not going to be a good partner in this very important, very apolitical work.
Lilly: Have you had to break ties with people who weren’t willing to “reach across the aisle?”
Seamus: Sure, but you just have to show up every day and not let the haters get you down.
Lilly: It sounds like you’ve been criticized by both parties, but would you say it’s easier to get Democrats and Republicans to collaborate on tech initiatives than in other policy areas?
Seamus: Yeah, that’s the understatement of the day. I’m sure there are other areas, but they are few and shrinking. In tech, party affiliation doesn’t matter nearly as much.
Lilly: Were you attracted to tech initially because of its non-partisan tendencies?
Seamus: It has kept me here. I’m able to have meaningful relationships with people who are wildly different, and that is one of the best parts about my job. But the part that really attracted me to this is that the issues we take on are solvable, affect everyone, and they matter. If you support and increase the empathic capacity of everybody in the United States Congress to effectively serve and listen to and engage with their constituents, that's a good thing for everybody.
Lilly: Could you tell me more about one of these relationships with somebody who is wildly different than you?
Seamus: The person who first comes to mind is Macon Phillips. For the first four years of Obama’s presidency he served as the first head of the White House Digital Office. And at the time I was doing that for the President’s chief accountability counterpoint in Congress, Darrell Issa. The first time we met, we just started unburdening ourselves about the challenges of transforming very bureaucratic, stuck-in-the-mud processes and approaches. Then we discovered we’re both into sports and we both love Phish. I realized that we have way more in common than maybe I do with somebody sitting in my Republican office. It was eye opening, and I’m so grateful the Fates brought us together.
Lilly: Why did you decide to participate in CtK.Campfire?
Seamus: The approach Lori is espousing is one that takes a lot more time and effort, but works. Investing in putting people together, physically together, in my experience is the only way that you build trust, understanding, and ultimately a relationship.
Lilly: In what ways did CtK.Campfire live up to your expectations or surpass them?
Seamus: I was really encouraged by the people there. Some of those relationships have continued and grown deeper in the last 6 months. I go to a lot of conferences where the goals are different. Connections do happen naturally on the sidelines. But then you go home and never talk to that person again. There’s not somebody fostering the connection for the connection: it’s about the transactional outcomes. CtK is the opposite.
Lilly: How does the concept of loyal antagonism influence your work and your behavior as a citizen?
Seamus: One of the things that made it a lot easier to leave Congress to start The OpenGov Foundation was how sick I was of not ever having opportunities to get to know human beings who have different perspectives. I had to work my butt off to form relationships with people who were different. Loyal antagonism is all about meeting different people as human beings first and foremost; that’s how life in general should be lived. So finding a group of people, and Lori in particular making it her mission to help me and others do that, I thought was enormous.
Loyal Antagonism is also advantageous. Not in that quick transactional sense, but keeping in mind that these are people who are going to be allies and peers forever. Having friends across the aisle who can be validators, who can be sounding boards, is smart and beneficial.
I feel like our country was built on the principle of loyal antagonism. Our founding documents were architected to be able to support and maintain a civic existence in a country of wildly disparate views. You’re supposed to be a loyal antagonist to be a good citizen in the U.S., and if you’re not, you’re not doing it right. What’s more important, to be a Republican or a Democrat or to be an American?
Interviewed by Lilly Constance
Last week I spoke with Cameron Smith and Willow Brugh, who participated in CtK.Campfire’s second cohort.
Lilly: Could you tell me about a conversation that you had with each other at the retreat that changed your perspective?
Willow: Cameron and I were part of a discussion about the scenario “What if things go wrong” with our democracy. I said that I thought things already have gone wrong for a lot of people. It was then that I learned that Cameron believed being conservative means putting power into the hands of local people. That’s exactly the sort of work I do every day, and it’s a big part of what I have dedicated my life to, so I was thrilled to find such an unexpected ally.
Cameron: Just by taking the time to listen to one another, an anarchist and a [former Sen. Jeff] Sessions attorney were able to agree that concentrating power is dangerous and that it’s a better idea to disperse power through government structures. We even discussed specific policies where we thought there could be common ground.
Lilly: What were your main concerns before attending?
Willow: I was concerned about whether it would be a productive use of time, since I was flying across the country and driving three hours from the airport to get somewhere that I wouldn’t be able to leave for several days.
Cameron: I’m not accustomed to people talking about personal feelings in a professional setting. The idea of “checking in” or “checking out” or slowing down and just talking is not as common in my world. It caught me a little off guard: I slammed into the slowness of the moment and thought, “wait a minute, we’re actually getting to know each other.”
Lilly: Was there anything that surprised you about this experience?
Willow: We agreed on more things than I would have expected. For instance, Cameron and I were able to agree that, although we want people to have access to health care, the specifics of how people might make choices for themselves which impact others in that system gets complex.
Lilly: Cameron what’s your response?
Cameron: The difference in our “language set” was shocking to me. We don’t even speak the same words: at one point Willow was talking about devolving power away from the federal government, which in my political circles had been central to every agenda for years, and then it just shocked me to realize how we live on the same planet, but our circles and language sets and policy ideas are just so different that we might well never encounter one another other than in a forced setting like Campfire.
Lilly: What did you think worked best about the setting and the format?
Cameron: Being disconnected from technology, actually having to be present, was incredibly valuable. There will always be work to be done, but I wouldn’t have been as present if I had tried to divide my time between work and the retreat. It was a good reminder that I occasionally need to turn off technology with my family and even my coworkers.
Willow: I appreciated how much unstructured time we had. Since I’m a facilitator, I think a lot about how much structured time versus unstructured time is good for people, and I tend to err on the side of having too much structured time. Being able to sit next to someone new at dinner and wander around and voluntarily enter into new conversations allowed me to have a better insight into the people there than I would have had if we had only done structured activity.
Lilly: How will you be loyal antagonists to each other going forward?
Willow: Recently I’ve been deeply immersed in crisis response for Harvey and for Irma, and once I have more concise data I’m hoping to send it to Cameron and maybe some other folks from Campfire and ask, “How does this fit with your understanding of the political world? Does it resonate or is it at odds and how can I improve it?
Cameron: I’ll probably to check in when I need help understanding another perspective on an issue. Before I become entrenched in a position, I can now reach out to people who aren’t going to see it as I will. It’s refreshing when you can disagree with someone and not get attacked for disagreeing.
George Washington’s “Farewell Address”, the most widely reprinted speech in American history, warned that hyper-partisanship could destroy our democracy.
“Violence happens only when talking has stopped”, says Daryl Davis, the African-American author of Klan-Destine Relationships, who has been befriending KKK members for three decades.