Bridging Differences With Data


Many Americans believe that government is hopelessly gridlocked and that the partisan divide is beyond repair. There are certainly strident voices on both sides of most policy issues.  

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But many people in public service put the collective good ahead of personal gain or political interests.  And there are elected officials at all levels of government who work together and find common ground.

My colleagues and I frequently work with public servants who think creatively, make bold decisions, and reach across the aisle to serve the interests of their communities. And while these voices of compromise sometimes get lost in the din of polarized discourse, they are often the unsung heroes of public service. We should applaud their achievements and celebrate their successes, which benefit us all.

At Pew, we believe that reliable and verifiable data—produced from solid, nonpartisan research—can build bridges between differing opinions. We often find that policy challenges go unaddressed—or become divisive—because useful information does not exist or is not accessible. In those cases, we try to ask relevant questions; gather information from polling, demographic research, or scientific inquiry; and come up with authoritative data around which opposing views can come to an agreement and find achievable, effective solutions.

In our environmental work, we are often reminded and encouraged by the success of the bipartisan Wilderness Act, passed by Congress in 1964 with only a few dissenting votes. Over its first 50 years, this landmark legislation has saved close to 110 million acres of wilderness in more than 40 states. The American people have used this law to encourage Congress to work together to preserve some of the most stunning and diverse wild lands in the United States. Today, although preserving wilderness has become more politically challenging, we continue to make progress toward our goal of safeguarding pristine public land. This issue of Trust includes award-winning photographs that exemplify the beautiful landscapes the Wilderness Act is intended to protect.

As our cover story illustrates, bipartisan progress is also much in evidence at the state level. Kentucky stands out as a state where Republicans and Democrats—despite their deeply held and often opposing points of view—have worked together for the greater good and, using reliable data, found consensus on how to solve critical challenges.

We often find that policy challenges go unaddressed—or become divisive—because useful  information does not exist or is not accessible. Rebecca Rimel

For example, in 2011, Kentucky lawmakers took data provided by Pew and let the facts guide their deliberations.  They passed legislation requiring that every inmate undergo a period of post-release supervision, which makes it less likely that offenders will commit new crimes and saves taxpayers millions of dollars. This year, Pew partnered with Kentucky legislators to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system and reduce by one-third the number of juvenile offenders sent to detention. These policies still require offenders to pay their debt to society, but in a more cost-effective way.

We also worked with a Kentucky task force to break political gridlock and forge an agreement on the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. The new plan attracted support across the political spectrum and will improve the fiscal health of Kentucky’s pension system while protecting the retirement security of current and future workers.

If you wonder whether fact-based progress will become more common in the years ahead, a good place to start is an examination of the views of the Millennial Genera-tion. These young people range in age from 18 to 33, are largely politically independent, and are forging a unique path to adulthood. The Pew Research Center has studied the implications of this new group of citizens. The Next America, an important book excerpted here, explains the attitudes and interests of this up-and-coming generation, what they may mean for the future of America, and why some scholars believe they could be our next great civic generation.

This much we know for certain: All of us who came of age before the Millennial Generation have a responsibility to show these future leaders what it means to get involved, set aside partisan differences, compromise, and—with facts in hand—act in the best interests of our communities, bridging what divides us and building on our shared future.