Miller Center

The Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

There is general agreement these days that partisans cannot agree — that our politics have become so acutely polarized that they pose an unprecedented and probably insurmountable obstacle to productive bipartisan collaboration on important issues.

Like most real-time assessments, this one may be a bit overblown. Americans have been deeply divided before. Still, it is a serious problem because we face some serious challenges right now. And the system we have, courtesy of James Madison and his contemporaries, is a constitutional republic of divided powers that requires compromise as the price of progress.

How, then, can we get things done?

How can we overcome the partisan and ideological wall that divides so many Americans?

The two of us come from different political parties and served in government on different sides of the figurative political aisle. For the past two decades we have worked together in private practice, leading a public affairs consulting firm that brings together highly accomplished and often highly partisan professionals.

We have found these differences of party and perspective to be assets.

It begins with basic human decency and mutual respect, leavened with an openness to others’ ideas and an eagerness to understand. Before long, this receptiveness and forbearance evolve into collegiality and friendships. Differences do not disappear, but they lose their divisive edge through understanding and relationships. Soon, shared goals come into view and, with them, important opportunities to get things done.

Having seen this work in practice, we hope for the same in more facets of American life. We especially hope to see more of it at the educational institutions that are preparing young people for public and private service in this politically diverse and highly charged environment.

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Few places are more closely or powerfully associated with this tradition of openness, engagement, understanding, and collaboration than the University of Virginia.

We know this not only from the university’s mission and history, but from our firsthand observations in various roles, including as students and as members of the Board of Visitors (appointed by governors of different parties, of course).

For this reason, we were especially pleased recently to see the addition of Marc Short, the outgoing White House congressional affairs chief, to the politically diverse list of fellows and speakers at U.Va.’s Miller Center for Public Affairs.

We were pleased not only because students and scholars clearly will benefit from Short’s valuable perspective on the White House and Congress during these remarkable times, but also because we know him personally.

As a member of our bipartisan team at McGuireWoods Consulting some years ago, Short supported and encouraged colleagues of both parties and earned their confidence. In that and other important roles, he consistently showed himself to be a deeply thoughtful person with strong convictions, broad perspective, personal integrity, and respect for others of different views.

In short, he has exhibited the very approach we argue for in this piece: the willingness to work respectfully and collegially with people of differing views to get things done.

In the course of his public and private pursuits, Short has extended to others the same grace and forbearance that we trust the larger University community will now extend to him.

We understand that political passions are running hot right now, and we respect the range of views being voiced. Indeed, the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and opinions is among our country’s and community’s greatest sources of strength.

But that diversity strengthens us only when it is expressed. No one learns much of anything when the sounds are all the same.

So, how do we tear down the political wall that separates so many Americans today?

It is a formidable barrier, so let’s not underestimate the task or time involved. And let’s not wish away our substantive differences, which, after all, are an essential part of a political system premised on the competition of ideas.

Indeed, the best way to solve the wall problem probably is not to tear down anything at all. Instead, we should open a gate and take the opportunity to listen and learn.

L.F. Payne Jr., a Democrat, represented Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1988-1997. Frank B. Atkinson, a Republican, was counselor to the governor and director of policy under Gov. George Allen, 1994-1996. Both previously served on the University of Virginia Board of Visitors and in other public service roles. They were founding officers and now are senior advisers at McGuireWoods Consulting LLC.

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