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Editor’s note: This story contains language that may be offensive.
Eight Republicans and eight Democrats are seated at long tables in a nondescript community room in a conservative Texas town, with the ambitious assignment of restoring civility in America. Or at least their sliver of it.
They volunteered to come out on a chilly night in February to engage in respectful conversations in hopes of building one small bridge across America’s partisan abyss.
Here in La Grange — situated on the rolling prairie between Austin and Houston — folks voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. During the campaign, there were raucous Trump trains honking and hollering in the historic courthouse square. Since the election, MAGA is still potent here. The countryside is dotted with epithets like “F*** Biden” and “Impeach Crazy Joe.” Letters to the editor have gotten incendiary.
This so-called Red/Blue Workshop is put on by a nonprofit called Braver Angels that stages encounters and debates all over the country as a way to reduce political polarization. It’s one of hundreds of local and national groups that have popped up in recent years to try to heal America’s toxic divisions. The formula is simple: invite political opposites to sit down, talk civilly and listen to each other. But with the nation facing such deep and bitter polarization, is that enough?
“I just see our country being torn apart with polarization. And so anything that we can do to work together as Americans and depolarize our conversations is important,” retired tax lawyer Karl Schmalz tells the group before they get started. He’s serving as a co-moderator for the workshop.
The other co-moderator, Connie Shortes, a retired corporate executive, gets the evening in gear: “The blues are going to go back there, we’ll rearrange chairs. And the reds will stay up here.”
First up, brainstorming some stereotypes
The participants shuffle to their assigned seats, seeming apprehensive.
The first exercise is self-criticism. Each group is to come up with four stereotypes of themselves — what’s exaggerated and what’s true. After 45 minutes of brainstorming, a local stockbroker named Chuck Mazac stands up to share the work of the red group.
“Of all the stereotypes that we identified,” he says, “the four we have on this list are racists, anti-immigrant, blindly accepting or believing lies, and militaristic gun lovers.”
For the blue group, a retired Austin city employee, Helen Niesner, lays out the stereotypes they came up with. “That we are socialists,” she says, “there are too many giveaway government programs, that we are for open borders, that we are anti-gun and that we are unpatriotic.”
At the end of three intense hours, all 16 participants get a chance to voice their takeaways.
Don Jones, CPA, Republican: “I just wish one of the policies of the red side was to get rid of Facebook. I mean, if there’s ever been anything that has driven the rhetoric and the noise is social media.”
Maxine Coppinger, real estate agent, Democrat: “Well, I found that we are more alike than we are different and that’s the bottom line for me.”
Chuck Mazac, broker, Republican: “I found this very, very helpful, and I’m glad I came, even though I was reticent to be here.”
Betsy Harwood, retired family therapist, Democrat: “I think that what we see here in this room is the true America. It’s a group of people who can get together and talk politely with each other and understand each other. It’s not what we see on the news or what we see in social media. That’s not the real America.”
Can these sorts of “Kumbaya” moments save a nation seemingly at war with itself?
For one thing, this group is uniformly white, gray-haired and college educated. Braver Angels admits this is generally the profile of attendees across the country. The workshops are open to anyone, so participants self-select.
Despite the narrow demographic, co-founder Bill Doherty maintains it’s working. “People come to see others on the other political side as having more common values and aspirations for the country than they had imagined,” he says. “That’s for me the big one.”
Doherty is a Minneapolis family therapist and professor who modeled the workshops on his counseling experience: get antagonists to meet face to face. A recent paper by a group of political scientists concluded that the Red/Blue Workshops “significantly reduced polarization” among undergraduate students at four universities, though the results dissipated over time.
Doherty says, “We don’t claim that one brief workshop is going to make a permanent difference for most people. If you want to use the viral analogy, they are one effective treatment that has some temporary benefits. But they’re not the solution in itself to our problem of polarization.”
The divide may be too wide to bridge
A nationally recognized expert in conflict resolution remains skeptical. Peter Coleman is professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and author of The Way Out: How To Overcome Toxic Polarization. He believes these sorts of gatherings — while valuable — are insufficient because the enmity and contempt between Americans runs so deep these days.
“Just meeting with other people, particularly once for a short period of time, is insufficient to changing people’s attitudes, habits, the media they watch, the internet that they serve,” he says. “All of those factors contribute to this, and you’re not going to change all that behavior with an encounter.”
In fact, there is no single answer to restore our fractured republic, Coleman says, even if states did away with gerrymandering or Donald Trump retired from public life.
“It really is going to have to be a constellation of answers,” he says, “that we come up with together and ideally sparks a social movement.”
Some critics question whether a movement that stresses civic politeness is the right strategy for sweeping social change.
“Although it seems like a laudable exercise to have folks bridge political divides, it is not how political power works and it’s not how change occurs,” says Alex Zamalin, a political scientist and director of African American Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. His most recent book is Against Civility, The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility.
“American history shows us,” he continues, “that real political change — especially when it comes to issues of equality, freedom and justice — happens through social movements, happens through folks putting pressure on politicians.”
More and more groups spring up
Despite its limitations, the civility model of listening and talking across differences has caught fire.
A project called the Bridging Divides Initiative at Stanford University tracks and tries to mitigate political violence in the United States. Its website features a map covered with hundreds of green dots that represent do-good organizations such as American Public Square, Living Room Conversations and the Listen First Project that promote respectful discourse.
“There are a lot of groups like Braver Angels who think of themselves as this bridge-building sector, increasingly,” says Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative. She says going into the midterm elections in November, extremist candidates are using divisive rhetoric that can lead to violence.
“Anything we can do to counter that in our interpersonal relationships, those types of conversations that humanize the other, all have a role to play in reducing political violence in this moment,” Hiller says.
Braver Angels is one of the most successful of the bridge-building groups. To date, volunteers have put on nearly 1,600 Red/Blue Workshops and 275 structured debates in all 50 states. This month they initiate a new project, Braver Politics, that will attempt to lower the temperature in school boards, state legislatures and even the U.S. Congress.
The organization’s name was originally Better Angels, inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln in his plea for national unity in his 1861 inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War. The group changed its name to Braver Angels in 2020 over a trademark dispute and as a way to strengthen its message.
Small steps are possible
It’s difficult to gauge whether the Braver Angels’ Red/Blue Workshop helped bridge the partisan divides in La Grange.
Moderator Connie Shortes says that in the first place, the vibe in the community room was amicable going in, because it’s a small town. “There is no anonymity in a small community,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody else. So there is a high degree of desire to get along.”
She says the dynamic is different, and language more blunt, in workshops she’s done in Austin “where most people that come in the room don’t know each other and will probably never see each other again.”
In terms of noticeable changes, Shortes says Democrats who have participated in local workshops have felt empowered to come out of the closet in their smaller, conservative towns. “I’m noticing the blues being a little more calm about speaking their mind,” she says, “or even revealing themselves as being liberal in that community.”
Braver Angels has staged two workshops in La Grange, with more planned. Larry Jackson, a former editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Fayette County Record, has been an observer at both. He thinks these get-togethers can help repair America’s tattered democracy in small ways, one community at a time.
“I really think that individual actions matter,” he replies. “We’re not going to be able to change America here in La Grange. But maybe we can change La Grange.”