We went to a Better Angels workshop to see if Americans still knew how to talk politics without trying to kill each other.
On a fall foliage-filled Saturday before Election Day 2017, sixteen people got together in a suburban church basement just outside Washington, D.C. to hash out their political differences for seven hours. They started at 10 a.m.; they had a lot of ground to cover.
“In my house, we’ve trained my granddaughter to yell ‘no politics’ when someone mentions Trump or Obama,” said Paul Roche, a retired financial consultant.
The group laughed, but it underscored the fear that brought folks here for a day-long workshop organized by the bipartisan group Better Angels. The formula is simple: Eight self-declared conservatives and an equal number of progressives spend a day hashing out their differences, in the hopes that they’ll collectively come to a place that allows them to appreciate, if not exactly embrace, each other’s side.
It’s a daunting task. One year into a strange and bruising Trump presidency, Americans are fiercely divided. Political partisanship is at record highs, according to a new Pew study. More than half of Americans believe this is the lowest point in the nation’s history that they can remember. And we can’t seem to find a civilized way to talk about what the hell is happening.
“I’m old enough to remember the 1960s and I haven’t seen a time as divided as this since then,” moderator Bill Doherty told the group as the workshop began. “I don’t know when it’s going to get better, but we have to start listening at a grassroots level.”
“I’m listening,” responded David Blankenhorn, president of Better Angels. “Our society is suffering from civic rancor and divisiveness—we’re struggling to find each other in one another. ”
The events use conflict resolution techniques to depolarize political dialogue, via a series of exercises designed to work out partisan conflict. Blankenhorn, a former same-sex marriage foe who famously reversed his position, is also the founder and president of the Institute for American Values, which calls itself “a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to study and strengthen civil society.” Better Angels is a part of that mission: Cribbing its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War, the nonprofit began hosting gatherings like this across the country in the wake of the 2016 election last November.
Roche introduced himself as a conservative at the table, but he didn’t need to: The paper nameplates at the table already underscored everyone’s partisan leanings, via red or blue lines underneath their names. The day’s agenda drew from Doherty’s marriage and family counseling work, and the exercises felt more like a group therapy session than a “Crossfire” debate. Each of the three exercises were followed by reflection sessions, and the ground rules framed the conversation for listening instead of arguing. (A few participants let that slip sometimes.)
The first exercise focused on stereotypes: The participants separated into their respective political tribes. Doherty took the blues into the choir room while Blankenhorn had the reds huddle up to the front of the table. Each group listed the biggest stereotypes about their group, ranked the top five, explained why that’s a misconception, and finally attempted to identify a “kernel of truth” that might make the other side think that way about their political viewpoint. After the groups negotiated their answers with each other, they reconvened with two easel pads that mirrored each other across the political divide.
The red team’s biggest stereotypes included “favor the rich over the poor,” “racist,” “homophobe,” “thinks Trump is a great man,” and “wants religion to drive politics.” Meanwhile, the blue team listed “fiscally irresponsible,” “not patriotic,” “for big federal government,” “elitist/condescending,” and “weak, not tough.”
The stereotypes were easy to recognize, but as each side explained where the misperceptions came from, it got closer to the root of the problem, even if sometimes the truth was too tough to face. One participant in the red group wondered aloud whether answering stereotypes with a “some people do, but not all” explanation was a bit of a cop-out.
“It’s so easy for disagreements over policy into a leap to distrust about values,” said Sam Applefield, a blue-team graduate student at Chatham University who wants to try a workshop in Pittsburgh. “Seeing the stereotypes laid out like that helped to disentangle them, even when they might be one in the same.”
Eavesdropping during lunch, it was easy to detect when conversations fell into the old partisan debate tricks and rhetorical dead-ends. A particularly animated sideline argument about the same-sex wedding cake conundrum argued before the Supreme Court this fall drew a red and a blue into heated hyperbole pretty quick (“Wasn’t interracial marriage against someone’s religion in the 1965?” “Would you make a Jewish person bake a swastika cake?”). Old habits die hard.
After lunch, the next exercise was a “fishbowl” discussion—where one group talks within itself in a small circle while the other group looks in. Members of each group took turns saying why they supported their side and what their big concerns and reservations were with their side. In the discussion, people’s good faith motivations for supporting policies and genuine doubts became more evident to the outside group. Not only did the reds explain their support for free markets, limited government, religious faith, or even a desire for a personal tax cut, they opened up about their party’s lack of inclusiveness and the brashness of Donald Trump.
One particularly poignant moment came when Allen Tuttle, a retired Vietnam veteran from Ashburn, Virginia, described why he was shocked by the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. “I worry about what the far right is doing to the Republican Party,” Tuttle said. “When white militants tried to rally in Charlottesville, that’s what we saw in World War II—we saw the far right take over in Germany.”
Similarly, the blues touted their tolerance, inclusivity, and the federal government’s role in promoting education and infrastructure to encouraging prosperity and provide a safety net. They worried about political correctness, elitism, and a reluctance to cut unnecessary programs.
Still, Donna Pittman, a native Washingtonian and retired healthcare worker, struck a chord when she added a personal note to the need to work things out at the federal level. “We expect a uniformity of rights,” Pittman said. “The argument for states rights is rooted in balancing a budget on the backs of the poor.” As an African American, she said many state and local laws had limited the ability to vote with her feet in the past. “If there’s no consistency, we create these little empires within what’s supposed to be united.”
The last exercise brought us to a direct political dialogue with questions of clarification session. This time, the teams split off in separate rooms to craft questions to ask of the other side. They’re not meant to be “gotcha” questions, but they do aim at contradictions in values. Instead of going for the jugular, they were tough but thoughtful. The reds crafted questions like“How do you diminish the wealth gap while preserving personal incentives to work?” or “Do you think that conservatives have veered further to the right, or have liberals veered further to the left?” The blues asked, “What will promoting business do for people who don’t have the skills needed for those jobs?” or “What should we do about undocumented workers who have not committed a crime?”
The groups then split in half and pair up with another four people from the other side to ask the questions. Their answers weren’t exactly revelatory, but it was a start. The progress might better be seen from the change in people’s demeanor—they looked each other in the eye instead of talking at the moderator. Jokes and laughs filled what earlier had been dead air. The conversation flowed smoother, and people dropped their partisanship prefaces—“As a blue, I think…,” “I’m a red but…”—to dig right into the issues.
The group reconvened for one last reflection round, sharing words of optimism for the Al Jazeera camera crew that had appeared for a standup as the day came to an end at 5 p.m. A few jovially shuffled off to dinner together, reds and blues together; heaven knows what happened next.
“It was great to share our opinions for a day” Rob Lee, an IT professional from Arlington, told me afterward. “But I was left a little lacking on how build on that respect and open mindedness.” He’s a left-leaning blue who’s skeptical of political parties but signed up for a Better Angels membership. “If I were someone who doesn’t get to talk to a red very often, it would have changed my mind. But some of us have already been a part of that conversation.”
Two of the younger participants, however, seemed more enthused. Jenna Wichterman and Tabatha Thompson were paired up during the bipartisan, turn-to-the-person-next-to-you reflection talks. Both Wichterman and Thompson have organized groups similar to Better Angels to facilitate nonpartisan discussions like this one in Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. respectively. They’re still forming their opinions in a very partisan climate, so they asked me not to identify their political identification, but they hope conversations like this might make that matter less in the future.
“I thought the event was transformational,” Wichterman said. “It was great to learn from different viewpoints, not only from the quote-unquote ‘other side,’ but from a diversity of perspectives within your side.”
The two hoped they might even be able to coordinate something together. But they’re not naïve about what mending our divide actually means.
“Understanding doesn’t mean you have to agree,” Thompson said. “It just means you understand enough to have a conversation that could lead to a negotiated agreement. This is the first step in a really long process.”