Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Common Ground? For What?

by Gleaves Whitney, Executive Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

When people say they want freedom, always ask: Freedom to do what? Freedom by itself is an abstraction. In the real world, freedom is always bound up with limits and laws. Just as inhaling is inconceivable without exhaling, so freedom is inconceivable without its apparent opposite, restrictions. What is more, our freedom should be aspirational. Freedom feels incomplete without the aspiration to be or have or do something better. 

It’s the same with common ground. When people say they want common ground, always ask: Common ground for what? Like freedom, common ground by itself is an abstraction. It is half-baked absent some greater good in view. The necessity of linking common ground with the greater good must never be in doubt. Common ground is just the means to an end. The greater good is the proper end. 

This lesson was brought home in 2012 when I organized my first common ground conference with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Progressives and conservatives came to Grand Rapids from around the nation and engaged in thoughtful discussion. They provided example after example of local, state, and national leaders working with each other to find common ground. It turns out ordinary Americans from both major parties occupy a lot more common ground than is shown on cable news. That’s a good thing. But the question hanging over the confab was: Common ground for what? What was the hilltop or mountaintop behind the halfway house of common ground?

What indeed—except the greater good? And what is the greater good? It’s certainly open to debate. People of keen intelligence and good will have different ideas about what constitutes the greater good. But as a conversation starter, we could revisit the philosophical mountaintops of truth, goodness, and beauty. Or the political summits of justice, liberty, and equality.

More specifically, we could inform the greater good with an affirmation of the natural rights in the Declaration of Independence—the right to pursue happiness, to form and dissolve political bonds, to life and liberty. Or we could inform the greater good with the six purposes of government in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution—to union, justice, peace, defense, as well as the general welfare and blessings of liberty for our own and future generations. Or we could inform the greater good with the values and institutions promoted by the Northwest Ordinance—good government, religion, morality, knowledge, schools, and other means of education.

Looking at the greater good through a different lens, we could think of each individual pursuing his or her ultimate desire—to thrive, to flourish, to be happy—and in the process growing into his or her potential. Being social creatures, these individuals do their pursuing in communities. To the extent these individuals are flourishing, to that extent their communities are becoming more perfect in the realization of, and consensus around, the greater good. It is worth stressing: Each individual, by improving himself or herself, improves the community and vice versa. As Robert Royal recently put it, most Americans want “authentic freedom, human flourishing, and a tolerable social order.”

Without the twin peaks of flourishing for the individual and of civic friendship in the society, a nation’s factions settle at best in the foothills of utilitarian interest; at worst in the bottomlands of mere co-existence in order to achieve temporary, tactical advantages—advantages that often have more to do with power than with principle. Indeed, we know from world history that factions will claim common ground over the most trivial, tawdry, or traitorous things. It’s the shifting terrain of Bolsheviks in league with Mensheviks; of the SS with the SA; of Brownshirts with Blackshirts; of the Silver Legion with the KKK.

America, hopefully, will always be smarter and better than that. Only individuals who are principled, only groups that have a vision of the greater good, are capable of achieving the common ground worthy of a self-governing people. 

At the Ford, we believe common ground is necessary but not sufficient. Our purpose is to help people in community achieve the greatest good of which they are capable.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you hear the term, “greater good,” what do you think of?
  2. Describe a time when you saw diverse groups find common ground not just for convenience or expedience, but for the greater good.
  3. What will you do in your community to help your neighbors and fellow citizens find common ground for the greater good?

Image courtesy of the National Archives Catalog.


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