David Nevins

Building Bridges

Air Date: July 17, 2018

David Nevins, co-founder and president of the Bridge Alliance, talks about reversing America's political disunity.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In our ongoing quest to defuel the hyper-partisan and increasingly untruthful politics, the animus, the scapegoating, the vitriol, the vindictiveness, we host frequently, civic activists who aspire to end the hostility and gridlock. Examples of Open Mind guests seeking to revive honor in the political process, to combat a rising wave of autocracy and bigotry, to bring people together, include Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Erik Liu of Citizen University and Nick Troiano of Unite America. An important if unsung leader in this movement is David Nevins. He’s co-founder and president of the Bridge Alliance, a network of over 80 organizations dedicated to respectful dialogue, creative problem solving, and supporting leaders addressing our national challenges. Full disclosure, including here too, as a supporter of exchanges of learning on The Open Mind. In a climate of intense polarization, Bridge Alliance hopes to build our capacity to tackle the collective political disunity. David, it’s a pleasure to meet you.

NEVINS: Pleasure to meet you Alexander.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us, and thank you for the work that you’re doing to unify our politics. What inspired the birth of the bridge alliance?

NEVINS: Well it was really just happenstance that I got involved in the whole political process. I’m a businessman who never did anything in politics in his entire life until about eight or nine years ago. And I happened to be watching TV one day and it was the start of a new organization in this bipartisan field, and I was intrigued by it. I became casually involved and one thing led to another and all of a sudden I was on the executive board of this organization. And through that work I became knowledgeable about all of the other great organizations in this field, which most Americans don’t even know exists. And I have a finance background so I did a little research and found that there are over 150 organizations in this non-partisan, bi-partisan, sometimes called trans-partisan space trying to look for a better way of putting country before party, and really trying to get beyond the polarization that’s dividing our country. And I met two wonderful gentleman, Mark Gerzon and John Steiner, and they along with 14 others, we had this meeting in Boulder, Colorado, and that was the inspiration for the Bridge Alliance about three and a half years ago, to basically try to create some infrastructure to bring these incredible social entrepreneurs together under an umbrella organization that could build capacity and try to bring some organization and infrastructure to what’s really a significant movement that very few Americans know about.

HEFFNER: Mark Gerzon who you mentioned,


HEFFNER: Said to me, that there’s just not the political capital, will, the dollars and cents, behind an independent, centrist politics. But being born in Colorado now, through your work, through Nick Troiano’s work, and Mark’s, is the idea that we can tap into an independent spirit dedicated to sound, smart, efficient, bipartisan policy making.

NEVINS: Sure, well that…

HEFFNER: How do you extrapolate that nationally?

NEVINS: They are extrapolating it nationally, in that the many organizations in the Bridge Alliance that comprise that component of the political revitalization, are really making some positive changes in altering the structures that you need to have so that independents have an even chance in the process. So in the state of Maine an organization called Fair Vote is doing something called Rank Choice Voting, which makes your vote for an independent not a wasted vote. Nick Troiano’s organization is doing great work in finding candidates who have a different vision of how our government should operate, a vision of civil dialogue, critical thinking, a problem solving approach to governance, and starting to support those candidates that have that open minded type of thinking.

HEFFNER: One of the problems though, is this idea in our politics of equivalency between the two parties. Because we’re dealing with an executive branch now, that in reality has played very loose with the facts. How can we create a non-partisan movement that integrates the ideas of both parties when one party right now doesn’t seem to be playing by the factual truthful rules. Both parties, you could argue, have been loose with the facts from time to time, but in the present environment, we have an administration that deals in alternative facts. Is that a challenge in wrestling with how you forge ahead with a non-partisan future?

NEVINS: Yeah. Well it certainly is a challenge. I mean there are no simple answers. That’s for sure. But what’s going on now might be just an exaggerated example of what I believe has been happening for quite a few years. Back in 2000, roughly ten years ago, maybe eight years ago, I wrote an article that was published called “The Political Circus” and basically saying that the behavior of politicians is really not putting our country before their political interests, before their party. And back then, I thought there was hyper-partisanship and gridlock and dysfunction, And a lack of a civil dialogue looking for answers based on facts. So I thought the situation was bad then and if I wrote the same article today people might think that article was written, you know, as an anti-President Trump article. But in fact we believe that the problems facing our country are far beyond anyone in the administration. And there’s fundamental changes that need to be made. Not just what we spoke of earlier in terms of structural changes so independents can get elected or have a greater probability of getting elected, but getting citizens more involved in the process. That’s a key aspect of what the Bridge Alliance does, the civic engagement component, the bridging the divide component. The getting Americans to realize that we really are all Americans, and there’s got to be a better way, a better approach.

HEFFNER: You alluded a few minutes ago to those structural deficits in our democracy. Which are most vital to tackle?

NEVINS: Well that’s an interesting question, I get that question all the time. And there are many that are very vital. And that’s what separates the Bridge Alliance from many other organizations,

HEFFNER: One of the things to note for our viewers is that, a number of organizations contained within your Alliance are dedicated to the proposition that peoples’ voices should matter more than dollars and cents of financial contributions.


HEFFNER: And there are Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals alike who are supporting reversing the Citizens United decision.

NEVINS: Yes. Yes. So as a strong component within the Bridge Alliance, working on campaign financing reform. Which gets to the essence that the government should be more answerable to the people. The Constitutions says for the people, and that’s a critical component of the Bridge Alliance, campaign financing reform. You ask what’s most important, corruption in government. Well that’s a general term that’s thrown out a lot, but the revolving door between government and lobbying and back and forth is a very complex issue, so we have organizations dealing in that particular area. Gerrymandering is a severe problem in this country. Most Americans, I don’t know the exact statistics, but 85 percent of Americans think Congress is dysfunctional. Yet eighty five percent of congressmen get re-elected every year. Well a lot of that process, or the reason for that, is based on this gerrymandering which basically most districts are totally safe. So there’s a strong component within the Bridge Alliance working on that particular area. But there’s also, probably out of our 87 members, 30, 35 organizations working on the civic engagement, citizens involved portion. Because rather than wait for the big changes from Washington which could take five or ten years, even if we’re incredibly successful, you can make a real difference today on a local level. And it’s happening where citizens can participate and become involved.

Democracy’s not just a, a spectator sport. Democracy’s getting involved, and while most citizens don’t realize they can be involved, there’s so many ways that they can help revitalize a democracy and create the healthy democracy that our founding fathers envisioned.

HEFFNER: But ultimately, the people who watch this now, and your member organizations, want to demonstrate to the American public that they along with the citizens, the champions of democracy, can achieve, whether it is banning super PACs, ending Citizens United, enforcing rules on gerrymandering, any number of structural reforms that at worst will never be solved, at best you say five to ten years. What do you think, based on your conversations as a network, are the obstacles right now to achieving the longstanding reforms that are needed?
NEVINS: Well a big part of the obstacle is there’s a duopoly that exists. I mean, Democratic and Republican party, if you had businesses that operated like that and were restrictive as they are, it’s in their vested interest to keep that duopoly going. So the money that supports those interests are a definite challenge. But I think the biggest challenge is getting just regular citizens to believe that they can make a difference. And what we’re trying to do with the Bridge Alliance, we created a leadership council, which is 23 of these incredible social entrepreneurs who aren’t just talking a story. But have been making significant gains on the ground. It’s very difficult to have federal legislation on campaign financing reform. But there are real gains made in given states. There are real gains being made in given states to make the process of electing independents more likely. So I’m hoping, you know, I’m just one person, I’m an older person. I think the younger generation feels politically homeless. They feel separated from the process. And if we as the Bridge Alliance could get these leaders of all these organizations out there, letting young Americans know, letting those who feel disengaged know that there is something happening. It’s very significant. It’s not the billions and billions of dollars that are being spent on campaigns, but it is well over a hundred million dollars a year that these, being spent by these organizations, that are being run by these social entrepreneurs, who really want a different type of democracy. Democracy’s an evolving process.

HEFFNER: And the question is, can these organizations compete with the vested interests of the DNC and RNC, and all of the campaign committees that are affiliated with the duopoly that you describe?

NEVINS: Well it’d be foolish to say, yes it can. And it’s going to happen tomorrow. I can’t say with 100 percent certainty. I can say one thing with 100 percent certainty. That if no one tries, if everybody has a fatalistic attitude, if everybody just accepts the status quo, then it’ll never happen.

HEFFNER: I think you have a fighting chance David. I do, I do. And I think that your counterparts and your peers within the Alliance agree. One of the organizations, Democracy Works, aspires to raise voter participation in this country to 80 percent by 2024. If that were to occur, the kind of political revolution or acts of revolution may actually come to fruition.

NEVINS: Yeah they’re one of our great members, they’re doing great work. They have a product called TurboVote, and if you register for TurboVote, they keep you on top of all the elections in your district, what’s happening, when it’s happening. And it just gets citizens more involved and informed.

HEFFNER: One of the organizations represented within this Alliance is dedicated to that pursuit of citizens making their own budgets and being part of that legislative process.

NEVINS: And it’s amazing how effective it is. It’s called participatory budgeting. And they are doing this in several cities across the country where they actually get citizens involved in the budgeting process. You would think that local councils would be worried about that, feel that it’s going to mess up the process, but it’s really quite amazing when you get citizens involved how it adds to the process. It makes local government that much more responsive to the needs of citizens. How would you know the needs if you don’t get them involved in the process? And having this done on local levels is much, much simpler than trying to create this on a national level. So starting on the local level, state level, with these type of things, is a big part of the Bridge Alliance which we eventually, which we believe eventually will then become federal in nature.

HEFFNER: One organization, it’s not represented within the Alliance, but I encourage you to acknowledge it in some form in the near future, is called the Town Hall Project. And they’re dedicated to holding representatives accountable, Republicans and Democrats alike. They monitor how many town halls are occurring in respective districts. Who’s accountable, who’s not accountable. Participatory Budgeting gives young people the opportunity to in effect, write legislation or write the blueprint for how government will operate. But we’re in a crisis such that congressmen and women, as the founder Jimmy Dahman pointed out, are restricting some of their constituents from attending their own town halls. They’re tele-town halls, so voters can actually access their representatives. They’re RSVP only town halls. You have elected office holders who don’t even want to open the door right now.

NEVINS: Well you raise a great point and I’m not familiar with the organization you mentioned, but I will research it. But it brings to mind, I have to count, five, six, seven, eight, organizations within the Bridge Alliance that are oriented toward what you’re talking about. Generally speaking, that’s something that most Americans don’t even know exists, it’s an industry. It’s the civic tech industry. Using our high-tech social media capabilities, which has interfered with our democracy of late, which is another story for another time, but using our technology to call our elected officials to task when they don’t perform correctly. So there are organizations within the Bridge Alliance that provide this information, similar to what you said, to citizens so they know how their elected officials voted on particular issues, who funded them. There’s an organization, Congressional Management Foundation, which is trying to use technology to change the process of how members of congress interact with their constituency and vice versa, so that the elected officials are more responsive to their citizens. One organization called All-Sides, which presents all sides of the issues. So technology is a major factor and I’d love to learn about that organization you mentioned, but you really need to, you can use this technology to get the word out. Not only when members of Congress are doing something that’s bad, but we need to point out those that are doing very positive things.

HEFFNER: Right, well that’s why you’re here. Because ultimately the Bridge Alliance, its thesis is constructive, that we, at a stage in our democracy that is perilous, dangerous, an unforgivable amount of vitriol in the discourse, there’s an opportunity to build bridges. And chief among them has to be, I think, our fiduciary responsibility to the country and to next generations, that we will sustain this republic.

You were describing to me a meeting amongst some of these organizations in which key members were involved in the Bowles Simpson commission. Which was a failed effort to bring about a 90s era policy-making, that would restore fiscal health. Get the deficit under control.

NEVINS: There’s this wonderful organization that wanted to tackle one of the most fundamental issues facing our country, which everybody agrees is a problem. There’s no debate amongst Democrats and Republicans that the extent of the federal deficit and the rate at which it’s growing is a serious problem that we have to address. Everybody agrees to that. And then, I forgot how many years ago, four, five, six years ago, Simpson and Bowles got together and made this proposal. And most academics, most politicians agreed that this was a sensible approach. Giving by both sides, a finding of the common ground. Yet nothing happened. It couldn’t pass. And I think the realization out of that is that as basic and as simple as a solution might be to a problem, there’s something much more systemic within the process as it exists. Between the rancor between the Democrats and the Republicans, between how the system is set up that makes it difficult for independent minded individuals to get elected. You know how the influence of money and politics controls things. So that even the most simple things like balancing, fixing the debt, you know, making a sustainable budget for next generations can’t be solved. And that’s the thesis of the Bridge Alliance, that it’s much more complicated than just reaching an agreement on one issue. It’s fundamentally restructuring how democracy in our country operates, and how citizens become involved to make sure it operates effectively for them.

HEFFNER: And ultimately don’t you need to be effective a third party, a viable third party, that will acknowledge what you’ve just described as reality.

NEVINS: Well that’s a possibility, but I’m not going to hedge you on this, but it sounds like hedging. Oftentimes when I speak in public, people say, don’t we need this campaign finance reform. Or if we only had term limits. And my philosophy, and maybe it’s my finance background. If I was telling you to invest in your retirement, I wouldn’t tell you to invest in one stock. And that’s similar to my philosophy on political reform. A third party very well could be a major important component of this democratic revitalization. But I’m not going to say that’s the answer. I think we need, and that’s what the Bridge Alliance is developing are, you briefly mentioned our collective impact projects that we funded last year. We funded projects in all different areas. And we’re not going to presume ahead of time which approaches are going to be the successful approaches. We’re going to let the data, the results lead us to the best approach and allocating our resources going forward.

HEFFNER: But don’t you, at the end of the day, require on the national stage, maybe not a presidential contender, who’s an independent, but someone who is standing up for those shared values as earnestly and vigorously as the chairman of the DNC or the chairman of the RNC. Don’t you need that kind of stage presence?

NEVINS: I do believe that, yes. Now whether that stage presence takes the form of a third party, of an independent candidate, that’s a deeper question. And that question is being addressed by the organizations within the Bridge Alliance and their varying approaches. But ultimately I do think what is lacking is a voice out there advocating what I call this steward leadership, leadership that puts country before party. A leadership that wants citizens involved. A leadership that’s willing to say I don’t know the answer. You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. Let’s, as a country, find the answer. So we do need that powerful voice, whether that powerful voice is running for office or whether it’s a collective voice of all these young social entrepreneurs that I’m telling you about. Who are speaking to a new way, a new form of democracy whether that is what the voice will be? You know I really can’t say.

HEFFNER: Who are those steward leaders, in your estimation, at the state or federal level? I’m not asking you to out anyone on a blacklist, this is a good list to be on. But who have you worked with who has impressed you?

NEVINS: Well a lot of the Bridge Alliance organizations leaders have impressed me.

HEFFNER: I mean in elected office.

NEVINS: In elected office. Very few. Very few have really impressed me. And part of the problem is, I became involved in this Rodel leadership program at the Aspen institute. And it trains young leaders in this type of leadership that I’ve been describing. And they go into the process with these high ideals of civil dialogue and critical thinking and finding a common ground. But then they’re sort of sucked into the system and they can’t operate. So unfortunately, they’re few and far between, and I don’t want to mention any names because they are so few and far between. What I do find, which is fascinating, one organization within the Bridge Alliance, Association of former Members of Congress. Those folks, once they’re out of congress and can look back and don’t have the influences trying to get them to be on one side or another side of the issue, those former members of congress are amazing leaders in understanding what we need. They’re so aligned with what the Bridge Alliance believes, but unfortunately, it’s when they get out of congress and that’s what we have to change. We have to change the incentives.

HEFFNER: Right. You do have to change the incentives, and if they’re not going into the lobbying firms, they are speaking truth to power. But it’s not speaking truth to power because they’re not in power anymore.

NEVINS: That’s true.

HEFFNER: And so when you have folks like Lott and Daschle and others come out and do these mea culpas or Evan Bayh, his farewell speech in the Senate. The system doesn’t work, the system you were just a part of for a decade, it’s not believable. At the end of the day, the hope that I might share with our viewers, if you’re not going to go on the record with some names of prospective candidates who would tap into the independent energy, John Kasich in Governor Kasich, John Hickenlooper, Governor Hickenlooper. Ohio, Colorado. That represents a geographic diversity, generationally, ethnically, politically. Should that be a viable ticket.

NEVINS: Well actually I was at a meeting and Hickenlooper was asked that question. Whether he might run with Kasich. As a Democrat and Republican together. That would be a novel approach that I think Americans would love.

HEFFNER: That’s what Unity ‘08 and Americans Elect failed to do. It’s not credible when it’s Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. It is credible, David Nevins, when it is Kasich, Hickenlooper. Thank you so much for joining me today.

NEVINS: My pleasure. It was fascinating. Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.