Like so many Americans, most of Donna Murphy’s social circle shared her politics. So when she, a self-described liberal, was tasked with putting together a weekend-long event with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, she needed to broaden her bubble.
To aid in her search, Murphy visited one of the most personally uncomfortable, but almost assuredly conservative places she could think of: Local gun shops.
The 60-year-old from Fairfax County, a slight woman with cropped brown hair and thin-rimmed glasses, put on an American flag baseball cap, which she thought made her look the part, and ventured out to meet gun owners. Ultimately none of the people she met would sign up for her event this weekend, but even still she said it was an important exercise in getting out of her comfort zone and meeting people she normally wouldn’t cross paths with.
Murphy was inspired by an NPR segment she heard about Better Angels, an organization striving to encourage dialogue across the political spectrum. After the 2016 presidential election, she had struggled to relate to anyone who had voted for Donald Trump, including her own brother. They have both intentionally avoided discussing politics, she said. But she’d like to try.
“If we only talk politics to people we agree with, how are we ever going to move forward? But that’s where we’re at,” Murphy said. “We’re afraid to talk politics because we’re afraid it’s going to escalate into yelling and screaming and people getting mad at each other.”
On Wednesday evening, Murphy joined about 30 people in a nondescript basement room in the Kensington, Maryland Town Hall for a Better Angels’ “skills workshop” to learn the fundamentals of having these often-difficult conversations. Then over the weekend, beginning Friday evening, Murphy will bring Democrats and Republicans together for a three-day, Better Angels-sponsored dialogue.
These moderated political dialogues began as a sort of civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio several weeks after the election. With the emotions of the campaign still raw, a room of 21 strangers, ten of them Donald Trump voters, the other 11 for Hillary Clinton spent an entire weekend together talking.
They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.
After 13 hours of discussion, the participants did not change their own views, but left with a softened view of the other side. That was, after an acrimonious campaign that divided families and destroyed friendships, a breakthrough.
Now the organization that brought the Ohio group together at the end of last year has taken its red-blue dialogue experiment on tour, stopping in towns around the country to facilitate these types of conversations between people across the deep political divide. And this week it made its way to the epi-center of political rancor: the D.C. metro-area.
The dialogues are the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, a one-time vocal opponent of same-sex marriage — even testifying against it in California’s 2010 case — who later changed his position after a friendship with a gay man reframed his perspective. That he was able to be open-minded with someone who held staunchly opposing views to his own, convinced him that the same could be true for all types of political disagreements.
So, after watching politicians and their supporters tear each other apart throughout the campaign, he founded Better Angels to encourage this kind of open-minded dialogue. It gets its name from a line from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
For Blankenhorn, changing America’s civil discourse has become a life mission. In February he published a list of seven habits of people who depolarize, writing, “we Americans didn’t necessarily think our way into political polarization, but we’ll likely have to think our way out.”
On the Fourth of July, Blankenhorn and a small team took off from their original Ohio meeting spot on a bus bearing the slogan “One America” to train and lead Americans in the art of productive political engagement.
“One consistent message we’re getting is, there are strong disagreements, but we’re not as far apart as they’re telling us we are. There’s passion and disagreement, the conversation is serious and sometimes very difficult,” Blankenhorn said, “but the main takeaway is that this is good, this kind of attempt at talking with rather than at or about our political opponents is good for us and good for the country.”
For Wednesday’s two-hour workshop, the group, which skewed older and liberal, role played with people of their same political persuasion. Led by William Doherty, professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, they learned basic conversational techniques like paraphrasing back to the person what you understood they just said and acknowledging some shortcoming of your own side. The goal is not to persuade anyone to change their beliefs, they learned, but to try and find some understanding.
Doing so, also requires the person to ask thoughtful questions about the others’ position rather than loaded questions like, “Why did you vote for a racist?” or “Why did you vote for a criminal?” (Two commonly heard attacks about Trump and Clinton, respectively) Doherty said the problem is that many take someone’s policy positions and make it a fundamental test of their humanity and integrity.
One participant, Steve Scheige, 67, of Rockville, a conservative, said he has a relative that won’t go to family functions because of politics. He said he came to the workshop to learn how to talk civilly, and after the event said he was going to try and employ some of the methods he learned.
Joan Liversidge, 72, of Sandy Spring, Maryland said as a therapist accustomed to this kind of dialogue she was excited to see it used as a means of civic engagement.
“I was pleased at how many people were there who were eager to do this work,” she said. “It gives me hope that there’s enough of us, that we can make something happen.”
While the point of Wednesday’s meeting wasn’t to actually debate the issues — that will happen at the weekend event — participants agreed that the mere exercise of pretending to have these dialogues made them realize how often they go out of their way to avoid these potentially explosive conversations.
Blankenhorn hopes each town they visit will follow in the footsteps of the early Ohio group. He brought those participants back together in April for a follow-up dialogue. The nation’s politics had far from healed, Trump was still picking fights on Twitter and Congress was no closer to compromising on anything, but the politically diverse participants greeted each other warmly as friends. Moreover, a core group of them decided to have monthly meetings to continue the dialogue and even settled on two issues — gerrymandering and paid parental leave — that they are going to work together on to lobby their state legislature.
Linda Allen, 63, one of the Trump voters on the team in Ohio said she lost a friend over the election. He told her he stilled loved her, but needed some distance because of her politics.
“I was astounded by the fact that so many people were physically and emotionally devastated and couldn’t get over it and couldn’t move on. I thought, ‘There has to be an avenue for conversation to find a better understanding of what is going on’,” she said.
Kouhyar Mostashfi, 44, of Springboro, Ohio, wondered the same and attended a Better Angels event in April. As a Muslim Iranian immigrant, he said it was difficult talking to Trump voters who supported a candidate that called for a Muslim ban, but he still wanted to be able to understand where they were coming from. Now through his involvement with Better Angels — he even took time off work this week to join the tour — he has.
“It’s not about race or misogyny or xenophobia, I know those elements exist, but I was able to see those were not the reasons that draw 60 odd million voters to vote for him, and before I was reluctant to admit that. These people were hurting for jobs,” Mostashfi said. “We really formed a friendship and a close bond, I could have never expected being friends with people who voted for Donald Trump.”
Murphy, too, is already creating friendships with Republicans she’s invited this weekend and has high hopes that they too will find mutual issues to work on together.
“We can’t wait for politicians to make that happen,”she said. “We the people, we have to do it ourselves and lead the way for the politicians.”
And later this summer, she even plans to talk politics with her brother.
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