Finding Common Ground

Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick —

Last March, my wife and I decided to move into our vacation home in Central Wisconsin to stay safe from the pandemic. Our home is located in the Town of Jackson (unknown population as it is unincorporated), 5 miles from Oxford, where about 600 people live, in Adams County, where about 17,000 people reside in a large, sparsely populated area. Our closest neighbor is about 1/2 a mile away. Adams County is dominated by farms and forest, and dotted with lakes. Like most of rural America, Adams County voters generally vote Republican. While I noticed more yard signs for Joe Biden than I did for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Trump signs dominated the political landscape. Even more troubling are the occasional Confederate flags that people fly.

While I have never belonged to a political party, and I am confident that I never will, my voting pattern certainly favors progressive candidates, which means that I usually vote for Democrats, putting me in a clear political minority in Adams County, where 62.3% of the voters (7,362) cast their ballots for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. As a result, in general, when I meet and talk with my neighbors and other local residents, I choose not to discuss politics.

However, I do hold public office, as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District, and I believe that after owning land in Adams County for over 28 years, and now residing there for nearly a year, I have earned the respect of my neighbors, most of whom are aware of my political leanings.

Occasionally, despite my tendency to avoid political discussions in Adams County, politics creeps into a conversation unintentionally. Each of these conversations provides an opportunity for me to better understand those with whom I may strongly disagree, and opens the door for us to find common ground.

Since our house is in a forest, and we heat with a wood stove, I regularly cut dead wood either to clear our road, or to burn as firewood. Our forest is dominated by huge oak trees, and the local lore and evidence on the forest floor suggest that our oak forest was never logged, probably because it is surrounded by wetlands, so the cost of logging our property was probably not worth it during the era of mass deforestation in the 19th century. As a result, many of our oak trees are huge with trunks that are up to 6 feet wide-probably at least 125 years old.

While I have become pretty good with my chainsaw, at 61 years old, my capacity for taking down huge trees is waning, and since we are using our wood stove on a daily basis this winter, our need for firewood has increased tremendously. Recently my chainsaw needed some parts which I had to wait for, and I had sprained my knee and broken a rib, so I finally conceded to the limitations of my age, and found a man who advertised himself as a tree cutter, in the free local Weekly Rambler, and asked him to take down some of my larger dead oak trees, and cut them into wood stove size logs, which I will later split for firewood.

When Mike came to look at what I wanted cut, we had a great conversation about his career as a warden and corrections officer, and he told me a great story about an eagle he rescued, which had gotten caught in an illegal trap, 60 feet up a tree. I noticed that he was about my age and while I limped around on my sprained knee, he complained of his bad back, and informed me that most of the cutting would be done by his daughter and her boyfriend.

The large stump in the bottom center is one of the trees that I hired local help to cut.

A few days later, on January 6th, Mike’s daughter and her boyfriend went to work and they did a great job. Since my knee was too sprained to split wood, I asked them if they could haul some smaller logs which did not need splitting up to my house when they were done, so I would have some wood for our wood stove. They agreed to do that and her boyfriend knocked on our door to ask where they should dump the wood.

After I showed him where to dump the wood, he asked me if we were from Georgia, because he noticed our car had a Georgia license plate. I explained to him that we had recently hit a deer and our car was being repaired, so the Georgia plate was on a rental car. He then told me he and his girlfriend were thinking of moving to Georgia, so I asked him if he was aware of the results of the Georgia Senate election. He said that he was not, so I simply told him that the Democrats both won, which immediately resulted in a look of dismay on his face.

Since he had just done me a great service, I simply responded by saying,

We don’t need to let politics interfere with wood cutting.”

To which he responded,

I just can’t stand all the divisiveness. I’m sick of politicians who just want to fight. Why can’t we elect people who will actually get things done?”

That was the door he opened to finding common ground. I told him that I completely agreed, and let him know that was why I never joined political parties, because I also want to elect politicians who will get things done instead of simply find fuel to fan the flames of divisiveness. That brought a smile to his face, which warmed my heart.

I have spent my entire career reaching across both sides of the aisle. I have bill signing pens from Democratic and Republican governors for bills that I have helped pass, and I have been welcomed into offices to meet and negotiate policy and lawmaking with both Republicans and Democrats. I maintain a keen eye open for legislators who actually want to get things done, and know how to reach across the aisle to do so. I also am always wary of legislators, Governors, and Presidents, who simply want to score points by fomenting divisiveness and hatred.

The lessons from this small story are clear. Regardless of voting patterns, different styles of life, and potential for disagreement, if we listen to each other with an ear open to finding agreement, instead of looking for battles, we can actually find common ground and get things done. If more of us insist on that from our elected officials, perhaps one day, our legislatures will be filled with productive members instead of those who merely want to score political points. As we come to the end of the most divisive Presidential term since the Civil War, perhaps we can all heed these lessons and begin to heal as a nation.

This essay was originally published on Jeffrey’s blog at Systems Change Consulting (Jan. 16, 2021).

About systemschangeconsulting (4 Articles)
For 36 years, I have been a public interest civil rights lawyer. During that span of time, my entire career has been focused on analyzing social problems, developing possible solutions, and implementing systems change solutions that range from grassroots organizing, training, social and traditional media work, consumer and professional reports, educational/persuasive materials, legislative and administrative advocacy, and individual and class action litigation.

6 Comments on Finding Common Ground

  1. Find common ground? How do you find common ground with an opposition party that conspired with this most divisive President to incite an insurrection and assassinate his opponents? We do need to heel as a nation, but as Paul Krugman wrote this week, the lessons of Barack Obama’s presidency is that seeking common ground with the Republicans failed to serve the American people and that such failure could result in the election of a narcissistic demagogue.

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  2. I understand that it may not be possible to find common ground with everyone. However, I do believe we can find some common ground with some people in unexpected ways which is what this story points out. If we close ourselves to the possibility, our divisions will only get worse.

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  3. The “Anonymous” comment above was from me, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, the author of this post.

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  4. Of course, we should try to seek common ground. Like you, I usually try to avoid political discussions with strangers (or with people whose views I already know and detest, including family and former friends). Your tree cutter acquaintance sounds like an apolitical person who does not have strong political views and is not well informed. But I’d like to offer a recent anecdote of my own. I recently began golfing with a friend of a friend. He happens to be a retired Indian immigrant and who says he used to be a “small” businessman. (I doubt the “small” adjective, since he used to talk with people like Steve Jobs and other CEOs.) I learned that he voted for Trump because he thinks Republicans are good for business. That’s all I needed to know. No need for further discussion. I just need to golf with him. At least he’s not a racist. And if I ever want to learn how a conservative Indian businessman feels about an issue now, I know who to ask.

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  5. Growning up in a small town just 30 miles, as the proverbial crow flies, from your rustic cabin in the woods, I can pass along some stereotypes of “the Boonies” of Adams County and adjacent sparsely populated naturally “scrubland” areas. Ed Gein (Google him if you’re not familiar) — from just another ~30 miles up the road from you — about 65 years ago did not help the image of what “city folks” would call desolate, drab, and distant from “civilization.” My dad introduced me to hunting ruffed grouse in such areas; not real pleasant memories of “tromping through the brambles” hoping to get a lucky shot at a bird exploding from the brush. Folks who dwelled “up there” lived in “depressed areas,” often struggling to just make ends meet.

    All politics is local in a true sense. For valid reasons, in the minds and emotions of natives of these areas, it was considered a personal insult when government (read liberals) “gave away” monies to urban programs (people “not like us”). It may be accurate to observe that such sentiments are coherencies to the simmering resentments of the rise of the Trump base. Analyses have shown connections. “These people” feel neglected and disdained by “the elite.” Having lived in cultured Madison for 35 years, I can relate to some of these feelings, particularly when “elitist hypocracies” surface — privileged folks who talk the talk but stumble on the walk.

    All my rambling above perhaps can be distilled into an observation that among people who are ecomomically hurting and continually stressed and have to live day-to-day in semi-survival mode, they are sensitive to being treated as second class citizens. Comparing these folks to big city folks who live in comfort and security, one can easily see why common ground is difficult to attain.

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  6. You’re right that finding ground can be difficult. It is easier if approached with kindness, caution and by letting go of prejudices.

    Liked by 1 person

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