Two community-level efforts aim to counter the anger that often dominates the Internet.
In the heat of some past election, die-hard Democrat Tom LaForce and committed conservative Tyler Armstrong probably stood near each other on an Edina street, waving the signs of opposing candidates.
This year they put aside differences to moderate a Facebook page called Politics in Edina. About 225 people are fans of the site, which seeks to foster civil discussion of politics and current events. LaForce founded it about a year ago after growing disheartened by abusive, anonymous comments he saw on Internet news, blog and discussion sites.
"I thought, 'Who are these people, and do they really talk this way face to face?'" LaForce said. "I thought maybe if people knew each other and had to use their real name they'd be nice to each other."
Politics in Edina, or PIE, has a Facebook page that sports a photo of a pie slice and the slogan "It's mighty tasty." It's a grass-roots effort to create discussion during intensely partisan times, minus the shouting and put-downs.
This week in Eden Prairie, high school government teacher Steve Cwodzinski keynoted a public forum on finding common ground for conversations that "stimulate, rather than infuriate."
The venerable and nonpartisan League of Women Voters works to do much the same by nurturing informed and active participation in government. Since 2004 the nonprofit Debate Minnesota has tried to promote civility and political discourse by running candidate debates and question sessions in settings like colleges.
Those efforts are often upstaged by media furors emphasizing "over-the-top shenanigans" rather than public deliberation, said University of Minnesota communications studies Prof. Edward Schiappa.
"Once one gets a bit tired of the drama, we do have important issues that need ... important discussion and deliberation," he said. "For someone who studies public argument, it can be a frustrating time."
Countering selective thinking
Schiappa, noting that even the Lincoln-Douglas debates had their share of mudslinging, said a decline in the centrality of hometown newspapers and the rise of the Internet "allows for more selective reading. On both the right and the left, it's easier to have one's values affirmed."
That's what LaForce hoped to combat with PIE Facebook participants having to use real names. PIE posts automatically pop up on Facebook pages of those who are fans of the PIE page.
"I could do a blog, and no one would come," he said.
PIE links to stories about Edina, campaign tidbits, videos of local candidate forums and sometimes poses questions. Lonni Skrentner, a retired Edina High School social studies teacher, is a participant.
"I like the fact that it has an administrator from both sides of the spectrum," she said. "We do have some people who get carried away, and somebody will slap them down a little bit and say, 'This is not how we carry on here.' What it does is create a civil discourse."
LaForce, 46, was upfront at PIE's start that he politically leaned left. As a trained facilitator who teaches teamwork and conflict resolution, he felt he could be an even-handed moderator. But he soon realized that pushing aside his Democratic ideals was hard. He needed a conservative helper.
Armstrong, 23, was already on the site, "popping off on Republican things," LaForce said.
Match made in civics class
The two had met years ago. LaForce was the Democrat in a bipartisan debate before Armstrong's ninth-grade civics class (taught by Skrentner).
Armstrong, now a second-year medical student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, helps moderate PIE from Tennessee. He said it's been fun, but tough to restrain his views. He and LaForce sometimes privately discuss the tone of their own comments.
"As we get closer to the election it gets harder," Armstrong said. "But if we can kind of get past the partisan lingo and stuff, there's a lot more common ground than people admit. ... These are people who want to come to the table and find some general understanding, or at least respect each other's opinion. The goal is not to change minds."
Return of 'We the People'
In Eden Prairie, Cwodzinski was drafted to speak by Progressives on the Prairie, whose founding members are Democrats. The group formed this year to share information and promote discussion and reflection about important issues, said organizer Karen Oakes. It sponsored earlier forums on energy and health care and is not affiliated with the DFL Party, she said.
About 40 people attended the forum, where Cwodzinski noted that "we fought the Civil War when we couldn't find common ground." With widespread division again today, he said, "we seem to have forgotten "We the People.'"
Cwodzinski, after inviting students to attend, heard from a parent who asked whether it was appropriate for him to plug a progressive event. A woman who attended said a neighbor hadn't come because progressives were the sponsors.
In an interview, Cwodzinski said he tires of seeing people "so angry all the time." He ties that to laziness. "We have become a nation where we want things easy."
Holding intelligent conversation requires reading, staying current on the issues and learning both sides of the story, he said. "Compromise requires work. It's easier to be angry."
Oakes, an elementary teacher in Eden Prairie, said she chose the civility topic for the forum in part because she feels her patience with political disagreement slipping away. She catches herself turning off the TV or walking out of the room "if someone is talking about something I don't want to hear."
She blames the breakdown in discussion on lack of common information. "When people were discussing issues like the Vietnam War, everyone was getting the same news and getting the same facts," she said. "Now everyone gets to pick their news. We can't even agree on the facts anymore, so how can we have a thoughtful discussion about solutions?"
She has seen other movements start small and take off. Cwodzinski is hoping the Eden Prairie discussion will spread like a "pebble in a pond.''
PIE's LaForce said he hopes "people sitting around in Maple Grove or Rochester or St. Cloud say 'we should have a site like this.' Maybe the idea will take off."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711