Fourteen strangers with sharply different views on immigration, gun control and other hot-button issues gathered around a table in the Eagan Civic Arena on a rainy autumn night and did something unexpected: calmly talked politics with each other.
No one raised a voice or rolled their eyes. Opinions across the spectrum were met with smiles and polite nods. Several participants even said they’d learned from a person with very different ideas — labeled in the session as Republican “reds” and Democratic “blues.”
“I feel like the divide seems to be greater and deepening in the media and in politics more than in people,” Ashish Pagey, a blue from Eagan, said after the session had been underway awhile. “People are multidimensional and nuanced. They’re not red-red or blue-blue.”
For a few hours, it was almost possible to forget the increasingly stark divisions on display in Washington, on cable TV and social media feeds, in Facebook and Twitter feeds, and around extended-family dinner tables for months. Recent national polling by the Pew Research Institute finds huge and widening gaps between Democrats and Republicans on everything from the role of government to racial discrimination to U.S. involvement in global affairs. Numerous polls in recent months confirm that Americans of different political views are increasingly separated by geography, that they read different things and watch different news sources, and beyond specific issues also increasingly diverge on more fundamental questions like how the U.S. economy should work.
“What is striking is how little common ground there is among partisans today,” stated the Pew report published in October, noting the widest divisions since the Washington-based group started polling on partisan divisions more than 20 years ago.
A group calling itself Better Angels — a term from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address — organized the Eagan session, looking to rebuild understanding one structured conversation at a time. A small group of academics behind the effort are teaching people how to listen despite political differences — and to remind them they have more in common than they think.
Around the country, the group is hosting similar workshops. University of Minnesota Prof. Bill Doherty, a marital and family counseling specialist who’s led workshops in nine states, says there’s proof the group is doing something right. “We’ve never had a shouting match,” Doherty said.
Better Angels was in the works well before the 2016 election, with a developing mission to help lessen what seemed like increasing tension in the American electorate. But the last election gave the effort new urgency.
“I think the election just made many people realize we were entering into a really difficult period … in terms of trying to understand each other as citizens,” said David Blankenhorn, one of the effort’s founders.
Pew studies back that up. In addition to wide differences on issues and societal questions, its polling found job approval ratings for President Donald Trump are at their most politically divided than at any time since Pew began tracking such numbers in the 1950s. While 88 percent of Republicans say they approve of Trump’s performance, just 8 percent of Democrats feel the same way.
Differences between the parties are now considerably larger than differences by age, gender, race, education level and religious belief, and the number of Americans with views more mixed between left and right has shrunk dramatically.
Blankenhorn is a New Yorker and a Democrat who once ran a think tank focused on family and marriage, and he knew something about polarizing issues. Once a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, he very publicly changed his opinion in 2012, alienating activists on both sides of the issue.
After the last election, Blankenhorn called up a conservative Republican colleague in Ohio and suggested working together to get Trump and Clinton voters to talk to each other. They tapped Doherty to draw up a plan for a weekend-long event, then recruited 20 people in Ohio to spend a weekend together. “At the end, we felt like something really important had happened,” Blankenhorn said. “Nobody changed their minds about who they voted for, but they had certainly changed their minds about each other.”
Getting there isn’t easy.
Case in point: the recent “60 Minutes” segment in which Oprah Winfrey tried to engage Trump supporters and opponents in a discussion. As Winfrey tossed out topics, the conversation quickly devolved into participants talking — and shouting — over one another.
“That was like the Roman circus,” Doherty said. “Throw red meat out there and send the lions on each other.”
Doherty’s Better Angels workshops are run more like a counseling session. When it’s time for someone to talk, everyone else has to listen. At the start of each discussion, he lays out ground rules: no background conversations, no commentary, no obvious nonverbal reactions.
In Eagan, Doherty invited participants to introduce themselves and share why they’d signed up to talk politics with strangers. One man, wearing a red name tag, volunteered that he’d spent 30 years arguing with Democrats and figured that it was time to try something different. A woman with a blue name tag said she drove to the Twin Cities from western Minnesota’s Traverse County because political divisions are tearing her family apart.
“I need to learn to listen better and how to respond,” the woman said. “Because I’m not feeling good about myself.”
(Participants at the session allowed a Star Tribune reporter and photographer to sit in, but some did not want to be identified by name.)
Many of the nine men and five women at the Eagan event were recruited by friends or acquaintances familiar with Better Angels. Most were from nearby suburbs or Minneapolis, and a majority were middle aged and white.
Doherty separated the two groups and asked them to come up with a list of stereotypes they believe the other group holds about them. Ideas poured out: The blues said red voters think they are unpatriotic, fiscally irresponsible and soft on crime. The red group was even more blunt, writing that blues think they are racist, uneducated and preoccupied with corporate profits.
Both sides talked about the origins of political stereotypes, and what they actually believe to be true about themselves and the politically like-minded. Then they presented findings to the full group. While a few people appeared unmoved — one woman shrugged and said she remained convinced that her ideas about the other side were correct — some opinions seemed to shift.
During a break, Pagey, wearing a blue name tag, chatted with James Kiner, a Burnsville man with a red name tag. They agreed that sweeping political stereotypes so dominant on social media quickly break down in actual face-to-face conversation. “Questions of what’s best for people shouldn’t come down to deciding that some of us are bad people,” Kiner said.
Not so different?
The rest of the evening at the Eagan session involved an exercise Doherty calls the “fishbowl.” First, the blue group sat in a circle and talked about why their own values and policy beliefs were better for the country. Then they switched gears, opening up about their own concerns or qualms within the progressive movement.
The red group sat in a larger circle around the blues, quietly listening. Then they switched.
Both sides seemed especially intrigued — even encouraged — to hear the self-critiques. Blues fretted about their struggle to win supporters in rural areas, and admitted to assumptions that college degrees automatically make people smarter. Reds worried that they fail to connect beliefs and ideals to the concerns of real people, and about the inclination to ostracize anyone who dissents from conservative orthodoxy.
“What we’re really bad at is talking to the people who aren’t the blues in a room,” said one of the people with a blue name tag.
A few minutes later, someone from the red group shared a similar thought: “We don’t tell a good story about what’s deep down — it’s just the policies and the think tanks.”
Several participants were surprised: The other side’s values sounded a lot like their own.
Blankenhorn said his experience so far — the group has now held about 45 workshops — suggests most of the participants will keep thinking about their interactions with neighbors who think different things but still want to get along. Maybe, he hopes, they could be part of a shift toward a national electorate that listens to each other rather than simply talking about each other.
“To actually achieve an honest disagreement, to see what areas you agree and disagree on and what common ground you can find, you can’t do it just by watching MSNBC or Fox News,” Blankenhorn said. “You have to put a little effort into it, and it involves interacting with people on the other side.”