Gabby Giffords, Jeff Flake: To rebuild America, we must let go of bitter partisanship

The Biden administration and Congress have embarked on the herculean task of ending the pandemic, rebuilding our economy, and setting the country back on a steady path.

The task is made more difficult by reverberations from Jan. 6. President Joe Biden’s first congressional address took place at the scene of a violent siege that aimed to prevent certifying the election results.

Two days after the insurrection, we marked the 10th anniversary of another event that shocked the conscience of all Americans — and changed both of our lives forever.

On Jan. 8, 2011, we were talking with constituents in our congressional districts. One of us, Jeff, was helping Boy Scouts in Phoenix earn their citizenship merit badge. The other, Gabby, was holding a Congress on Your Corner event outside a grocery store in Tucson when a gunman opened fire, killing six and injuring 13, including Gabby. 

Shocking tragedies often lead to moments of reckoning for our nation, alerting us to deeper problems. Moments like this also prompt an introspective question: How will I respond?

We believe passionately that fully realizing the promise of American self-government can be achieved only by addressing differences with respectful and factual discourse and by unequivocally renouncing violence. (Photo: Getty)

For Gabby, the question of how to respond was immediate and existential. In the hours and days that followed, she waged a battle for her life.

Jeff also felt an immediate call to action: A desire to be with his friend and colleague in her fight. He headed for Tucson, where this lifelong Republican stood vigil with others at the hospital, praying for his Democratic friend and colleague.

Once she won the battle to survive, Gabby then waged a battle to recover. In just one year, she returned to the House Chamber for the State of the Union, where Congress erupted into a thunderous standing ovation.

Gabby had asked Jeff to sit with her and other colleagues from Arizona — putting their identity as colleagues, friends and Americans ahead of their partisan identities. The two of us sat together for the speech, making Jeff the only Republican in the chamber to stand during President Barack Obama’s address. It was a moment neither of us will ever forget. 

Let’s work to find common ground

In the weeks before the shooting, worried by the heated and angry accusations flying around during the health care debate, Gabby had encouraged the University of Arizona to establish a center that would address the already escalating partisan rancor.

Shortly after the shooting, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton agreed to join the university in honoring her vision by serving as the founding honorary co-chairs of the new National Institute for Civil Discourse.

NICD and many other Americans have worked hard to bridge the partisan divide over the last decade, but the events of Jan. 6 make it excruciatingly clear that it has not been nearly enough. Again, we’re asking ourselves, how will I respond? What will I do to get our nation to a better place? 

The two of us learned so much from working together in Congress. We didn’t always agree on the best route to take, but we always knew we agreed on the destination: A safer, more secure, more prosperous America.

We did our best work when we avoided demeaning language about one another’s point of view and instead listened, explained, listened more, and found common purpose or compromise.

We believe passionately that fully realizing the promise of American self-government can be achieved only by addressing differences with respectful and factual discourse and by unequivocally renouncing violence. 

Listen to our fellow Americans

But what does this look like if you’re not in Congress? Some of the most important actions we can take are also the simplest. In this time of bitter polarization, all of us have relationships that have been strained.

The first principle and best practice of engaging our differences more constructively is to listen across the divide with the goal of understanding. Listening isn’t a passive activity; it’s a practice.

NICD’s experience suggests that enacting solutions that attract broad bipartisan support is more achievable than cable news and social media might suggest. In the two years since its launch, more than 25,000 citizens from across the country and political spectrum have joined the CommonSense American program, which seeks to engage everyday citizens in policymaking. And it’s already proving effective. 

Recently, thousands of members reviewed a brief on surprise medical billing and registered their views. NICD then conducted more than 150 congressional briefings on the results and members sent more than 1,500 unique emails to their members of Congress urging an end to these unexpected bills. In December 2020, Congress passed legislation to do just that. 

Our country has been through a tremendous amount this past year. Now we have the opportunity to shape a new era.

Let us move forward in common cause, each doing our part to ensure that government by, for, and of the people flourishes rather perishes. We owe that much to ourselves and to our children.

Gabrielle Giffords is a former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona. Jeff Flake is a former Republican senator from Arizona. Both are members of the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s National Advisory Board. 

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