By Ted Wachtel
In May, 2018, a dozen people from a Milwaukee suburb—selected because they represented a cross-section of American political views—met for two hours, to discuss how they felt about the nation since Donald Trump was elected President. Overall, they were pessimistic about the state of the country as Trump neared 500 days in office, with all but two saying the nation was more divided than it is united.
They overwhelmingly used negative words to describe America today: frenetic, bad, tense, chaotic, uncivil and indecisive. Without exception, whether they had voted for Trump or Clinton, they agreed that Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, should not be fired. Even Trump voters who are fiercely loyal to him, believe that it would look bad if Trump did not cooperate fully with the investigation. Despite their political differences, Americans seem to agree on two basic things: they want civility, and they want the truth.
In September, 2017, Oprah Winfrey convened a group of voters from Western Michigan—seven Clinton supporters and seven Trump supporters—to discuss their political differences. Much to all of their surprise, despite difficult conversations, they discovered that they liked each other.
When Winfrey reconvened the group a few months later—in February, 2018—the group members had developed friendships, even with those who most strongly disagreed with them politically. One liberal member of the panel commented, “I actually can get along with Trump supporters. I didn’t think that was possible, at all. Especially on social media…but now some of my closest friends in this focus group are Trump supporters. There is hope.”
It’s reassuring to know that we can put aside politics and get along with each other simply as human beings. But it requires the right context to have a good conversation, which our election process does not provide. Elections foster more conflict than conversation. When there is a political conversation, it is rarely a real discussion of the issues. It is more likely a discussion of how an issue will impact a candidate’s chances in the next election, but not a thoughtful analysis of the issue itself.
When the election is won, the winners go right back to the line of scrimmage, positioning themselves for the next election, raising money for their next campaign and attacking one another in an endless partisan struggle. Distortion, exaggeration and outright lies are normal; insult, blame and ridicule are routine. All that matters is winning. Truth and civility have been sacrificed on the altar of power.
However, there is something fundamentally wrong when a country’s approach to governance provokes so much discord and alienation. During the 2016 Presidential election, family members and longtime friends reported that they unfriended each other on Facebook, and stopped talking to each other at family events. We need processes that can “make America talk again.”
On Saturday, December 2, 2017, two dozen politically diverse volunteers attended an experimental six-hour Saturday event that my colleagues and I organized in the classroom building of the IIRP Graduate School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The event was entitled: How We Can Build A New Reality. The promotional materials described it as “a hopeful, action-oriented experience to explore possibilities in a positive way.”
We deliberately invited people of diverse political views, but made the invitation explicit. “This is not a blame or complaint session; we seek only those who understand that the time for negativity is over. If you find this limiting, please don’t attend. But if you can move forward, believe a better way exists, and that we can create it in a spirit of true cooperation with people across ideological boundaries—this event is for you.”
Participants loved the event, but I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here’s what one said at the end.
“I was surprised, and very pleasantly so, that people with such widely diverse backgrounds and positions were able to come together and have amazingly civil discourse. That was just astounding to me, from beginning to end. That was every small group, every different group. Big circle, small circle, it didn’t matter. It was just wonderful and amazing.”
You can hear all of the participants’ final comments in this 25-minute video. They will touch your heart, and convince you that we surely can get America talking again.