Lunch at Culver’s fitting place to find common ground in polarizing political climate

Portraits of Susan Webb Yackee and Curt Culver

Written by Susan Webb Yackee and Curt S. Culver. Originally published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It’s fitting that our recent conversation about civil discourse in politics and policymaking happened over lunch at Culver’s. After all, it’s one of the few institutions in Wisconsin that nearly everyone can agree on.

Over ButterBurgers earlier this year in Hartland, we met to discuss the future of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison, where we serve as director and a member of the board of visitors, respectively.

During our wide-ranging talk, one topic animated us like nothing else: the La Follette School’s efforts to promote civil discourse in its planned curriculum for a new undergraduate major in public policy.

There we were, two people from different backgrounds finding common ground on a topic important to both of us, not just as an academic or a businessman, but as Americans.

Like many, we have grown frustrated with the polarization and rancor that has come to dominate politics and policymaking. This is why we are in lockstep when it comes to viewing the promotion of civil discourse as one of the most urgent actions the La Follette School can take going forward.

We are not the only Wisconsinites who feel this way. Last year, the La Follette School helped to host four public forums across the state where we invited people from all political perspectives to join conversations about the issues that concern them. We learned many things during our tour, but one of the biggest takeaways was that there is a desire across Wisconsin for thoughtful and respectful conversations about the issues of the day. The voters we talked to want policymakers to work together in a bipartisan manner to solve society’s problems.

We called this the “Main Street Agenda Project,” and we found that participants treated each other with respect and dignity, even when they held different views on public policy. They modeled the very civil behavior that is often in short supply these days in politics, the news, on social media and even sometimes on college campuses.

Americans find discussing politics stressful, trust at all-time low

In fact, most Americans want something different from the status quo. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say they find political conversations stressful, less than a third of Americans trust each other, trust in political institutions is at an all-time low, and some researchers warn that polarization has reached dangerous levels.

A lack of frank public policy conversations is bad for society, but it is also bad for college campuses, especially if students don’t feel the ability to freely discuss ideas on campus. A recent UW System survey suggested that students refrain from expressing their views on controversial topics at times because they worry about the reaction of students from different political backgrounds.

While the vast majority of UW-Madison students felt respected by faculty and instructors, we must provide an enriching educational environment where students’ politically conservative, independent, and liberal voices are heard in the classroom. It’s how we learn from each other and discover that there are far more perspectives out there. It’s how political discourse happens.

Elevating civility at this moment in time is one of the clearest ways we believe the La Follette School can embody the Wisconsin Idea, the foundational UW-Madison principle that education should make an impact outside of the classroom.

For a start, La Follette is now developing classes where UW-Madison students will be able to process and debate controversial public policy topics in a way that encourages dialogue and difficult conversations. We hope this will become a centerpiece of the school’s undergraduate major in public policy that we are currently developing. The major—which would be the first of its kind for UW System—plans to emphasize skills in political negotiation and compromise, as well as data analytics and policy analysis methods. We know there is strong interest among UW-Madison undergraduates for this type of education. The major would build on the La Follette School’s four decades of training graduate students to become nonpartisan, evidence-informed leaders.

Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, there are no other public policy schools in the country building civil dialogue so clearly into their undergraduate curricula. If we can lead the way for other public policy schools to take this up in their own institutions, we all will benefit.

The UW System is putting attention on this important topic too. System President Jay Rothman has instituted It’s Just Coffee events with students across UW schools to encourage conversation from a variety of political perspectives and backgrounds. UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin is also leading on this issue, connecting civil dialogue, free speech, and belonging on campus. Meanwhile, the Discussion Project at our School of Education trains faculty and instructors to create welcoming, engaging, and academically rigorous classroom environments through dialogue and listening.

This all may seem ambitious, but don’t call it Pollyanna-ish. Universities like UW-Madison have a responsibility to work toward the betterment of society, and they have helped tackle many major challenges before. If the La Follette School can help move the needle, it’s worth doing.

Our 2022 Main Street Agenda Project helped to underscore how urgent this matter is in Wisconsin, where more than 60 percent of residents reported that they lacked confidence in the federal government and more than half lacked confidence in the state government, according to the school’s first-ever Policy Poll. In 2024, we hope to serve, again, as a community convener to identify areas for policy compromise and to promote civil discourse.

As an educator and a businessman, we recognize that it is far easier to talk about issues with people who tend to agree with you. But, in school and in the workplace, there is immense value in debating and listening to people who — quite frankly — don’t.

Just like a ButterBurger, we’d like to think this is something nearly everyone in Wisconsin can agree on.

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