Finding Common Ground
The political polarization in the U.S. can seem hopeless. Television pundits and politicians stoke stereotypes, driving a wedge between neighbors, friends, and families. But Diane Hessan, J76, A11P, believes there’s a way out of the quagmire. In her new book, Our Common Ground: Insights from Four Years of Listening to American Voters, Hessan shares what she’s gleaned from conversations conducted weekly with more than 500 voters across the political spectrum. She reveals surprising shared priorities, along with a simple plea: for Americans to start listening to each other in order to create a better future for the country.
Tufts Now: How did you pivot from a successful career as a market research entrepreneur to writing a book about American voters?
Diane Hessan: I spent most of the last 20 years in CEO jobs, mostly as an entrepreneur. The biggest company I led is CSpace, a next-generation market-research technology business. For example, when Coca-Cola wanted to understand their millennial consumers, we would create online communities of young people across 12 countries who were a continuous source of advice and inspiration to our clients. It was a real breakthrough for firms—they started hearing things they never heard before.
In early 2016, I got a call from a friend from my market research days, a well-known pollster who was running strategy for Hillary Clinton. Long story short, I agreed to leave my job and help them with a special project to understand undecided voters in swing states. That was the beginning.
Why did you decide to continue the project after the 2016 election?
After the election, I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe called “Understanding the Undecided Voters.” The piece went viral. CNN’s Jake Tapper picked it up, and suddenly I was at the top of the Globe’s most-read articles, and I was doing a lot of TV shows. I thought, I’m making more of a difference after the election than before it, so I decided to join corporate boards rather than take another CEO job, so I could carve out a third of my time to talk to even more voters.
Instead of just undecided voters, I recruited a new panel of 500 voters from all points on the political spectrum across every state, every age, and so on. Every week for the next four years, I asked them a bunch of questions, keeping it creative. Whenever I learned something that I thought was interesting or unique, I’d write an op-ed, for a total of 55. After I was done, people still had so many questions—and I had seven million pieces of data—so I decided to write a book. I wanted to get out a message that was more hopeful than what most of us hear all the time.
How did you gain the trust of your voter panel?
I learned how to do that in market research. Whether it’s moms taking kids to Disney or men who buy grooming products, you can’t really figure out how to walk in their shoes without building trust. When I brought people onto the panel, I wouldn’t just send them a questionnaire. I interviewed every person on the phone for half an hour so they knew I was a real person, that I wasn’t going to judge them. I also did things you never do in traditional market research, like telling them about my background. And I spent a lot of time letting people know what I learned from everyone else.
What were some of your most surprising findings?
There is much more common ground than we realize on issues like immigration, health care, even gun control. I had plenty of card-carrying NRA members tell me how supportive they were of automatic weapon bans and the importance of gun licenses. You can get 80 percent of Americans to compromise on many policy issues, and I have a section on that in the book.
Also, our perceptions of “the other side” are really inaccurate. Republicans think Democrats are elitist socialists, who want to take away their incomes and their guns and who want to completely dismantle policing. If you ask Democrats, Republicans are hypocritical, uneducated deplorables who never met a Black person they liked. These stereotypes characterize a tiny percentage of voters.
It’s also interesting that Americans are not really interested in foreign policy, even though it’s an important issue for many people at Tufts. But in my research, I found that Americans are more focused on their own lives and their own towns.
In general, I was surprised time and again by how citizens think about our country, their lives, their neighbors, and their priorities.
Whom do you hope will read your book, and what do you want them to take away from it?
I’m hoping enough influential people—policymakers, people in the media industry, people who have a large social media presence—will use it to change the way we deal with each other. We have so many important issues that we are dealing with right now: problems at the border, climate change, bridges falling apart, Russia trying to hack our electrical grid, proliferation of guns. When we have a country in which everyone‘s yelling at each other, we become paralyzed and focused on the wrong things, and we can’t take action on our most important priorities.
What are your insights on the upcoming midterm and presidential elections?
People asked me if I saw a lot of voters switch from Clinton to Trump, or Trump to Biden. The biggest shift I saw was from Republican or Democrat to independent. A large portion of the country is way more moderate than at either end of political spectrum, yet a lot of moderate candidates are in trouble because voter turnout is higher at the extremes and the moderates get primaried. So, we are likely to end up with lots of political leaders who are really out of step with what most Americans believe.