About the Hidden Common Ground Initiative

It’s taken decades for our national politics to become as ideologically polarized and gridlocked as they are today, but it’s only recently that pundits and pollsters have started to converge on a narrative that blames the general public, instead of a flawed political system and culture, for this state of affairs. Especially since the 2016 election, a storyline has taken hold that portrays our dysfunctional national politics as a reflection of our profound divisions as a people. In this account, we’re an alienated society with no ability to understand one another, let alone find common ground or work together toward common ends.

For example, a 2016 series published by the Associated Press, Divided America, argued:

It’s no longer just Republican vs. Democrat, or liberal vs. conservative. It’s the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, rural vs. urban, white men against the world. Climate doubters clash with believers. Bathrooms have become battlefields, borders are battle lines. Sex and race, faith and ethnicity…the melting pot seems to be boiling over1.

Such rhetoric about divisions among the public has proliferated, and surely it captures something important about the contemporary United States. We are fragmented in many ways, with consequential differences, divides and disagreements that are important to acknowledge and address. But our divisions are hardly the whole story, and this rhetoric can be dangerously self-reinforcing, exacerbating the divisions it chronicles, stunting our political imagination and playing into the hands of those who would manipulate and intensify our differences to their own advantage.

The Hidden Common Ground Initiative explores a different hypothesis and possibility— namely, that as far as the broader public is concerned, there is often enough common ground to at least begin forging progress on many of the problems we face. Moreover, with some nurturing quite a bit more common ground can emerge. The initiative is concerned with locating the common ground that exists on tough issues and giving it greater voice and currency in public conversations and policy debates. And it is concerned with generating insight into how more democratically meaningful common ground can be achieved.

We believe that dispelling the myth that we are inescapably divided on practically everything can not only help fuel progress on a host of issues, but also help us better navigate our real, enduring divisions, from differing philosophies of governance to racial tensions. Hidden Common Ground aspires to tell the story of what unites us by way of concrete, actionable solutions that can make a difference in people’s lives and the fate of their communities—and eventually, perhaps, in our national politics as well.

This report from the Hidden Common Ground Initiative focuses on hidden or otherwise underappreciated common ground in the realm of criminal justice reform, specifically with respect to incarceration. Is excessive or wrongful incarceration a problem in the eyes of the general public? If so, what do people think should be done?

Finding Common Ground on Incarceration

For years, reformers have focused on two problems with the United States’ approach to incarceration: First, an unusually large number of Americans are in incarcerated compared with other nations2. Second, reformers charge that our criminal justice system is too often unfair and inequitable.3

Incarceration reform is unusual in today’s politics in showing signs of nascent bipartisan congressional action.4 But given the depths of congressional dysfunction and gridlock, and with a high-stakes election looming, that bipartisanship seems more likely to wither on the vine than bear fruit unless strong public pressure helps push progress along. Whatever happens with Congress and federal policy, there exist real opportunities today to see renewed attention and action on incarceration at the state level. That’s why we’ve chosen incarceration as our inaugural issue to explore under the Hidden Common Ground banner.

When people from different walks of life sit down and talk about criminality and incarceration, how do they process the problem and think about solutions? Our approach to exploring the public’s views on the topic began with a review of existing survey data and proceeded to three focus groups in diverse locations with ordinary Americans, with roughly equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.5 This report concludes with implications and reflections on the solutions that are most and least likely to garner public support and with ideas for productively engaging the public on the topic of incarceration.

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Hidden Common Ground: Where Americans See Eye to Eye on Incarceration

Media Type: PDF

This report from the Hidden Common Ground Initiative focuses on hidden or otherwise underappreciated common ground in the realm of criminal justice reform, specifically with respect to incarceration.



1Jerry Schwartz, ed., Divided America: An AP Guide to the Fracturing of a Nation (New York: Associated Press, 2016), https://www.ap.org/explore/divided-america/.

2“Highest to Lowest—Prison Population Total,” World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research, 2016, http://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison-population-total?field_region_taxonomy_tid=All.

3Ashley Nellis, “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” Sentencing Project, 2016, https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/.

4Seung Min Kim, “Senators Unveil Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Package,” POLITICO, October 4, 2017, http://politi.co/2F2LxNS. See also Laura Jarrett, “Sessions and Grassley Square Off on Criminal Justice Reform,” CNN Politics, February 14, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/14/politics/jeff-sessions-grassley-criminal-justice-reform/index.html.

5View more details about the methodology.

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