A few weekends ago, I witnessed something I didn’t think happened in our country anymore: civilized conversations between Democrats and Republicans. At a weekend workshop held virtually by the nonprofit Braver Angels, people who otherwise might have ignored each other made a deliberate effort to listen and talk with their sparring partner.
Launched in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Braver Angels’ co-founders wondered whether Americans could still disagree respectfully and perhaps find points in common. I admit I went into the event hopeful but skeptical, and I can say now that, as a lifelong Democrat, the experience changed how I see the Republican Party. The Braver Angels approach depolarization in political discussions by creating and sustaining an atmosphere of respect and civility. As with any transformation, the path from hatred to respect is long and intimidating, but it is achievable with the help of moderators trained in facilitating difficult conversations.
Participants had the opportunity to talk about the pros and cons of their respective parties and the kernels of truth that often feed the wildly inaccurate stereotypes pegged to both political groups. These kinds of guided conversations could help other Americans paralyzed by their political and ideological differences to talk to one another and recognize that we all want our country to thrive, we just have different ideas on how to make that happen.
I noticed that the partisans here were nothing like their elected representatives in Congress. The Braver Angels participants talked respectfully and thoughtfully. Whereas House and Senate members often stick together like glue and follow their leaders’ commands in near-lockstep, Braver Angel participants maneuvered differently. They listened to different opinions and collaborated where possible. When there were different ideas expressed, they were considered in an atmosphere of respect with no outward signs of judgment. Curiosity, dare I say, ruled the day.
These sessions illuminated just how much the media amplifies extreme viewpoints, whether they’re coming from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Donald Trump, and I suspect that’s because conversations like the ones I overheard were, well, not all that scandalous. If I’m being honest, they were boring, but only in tone. That they happened at all was, for me, electrifying. These participants wanted to see their elected officials work together, to find common ground and solve the heavy problems facing our country.
Imagine, for a moment, if members of Congress invited Braver Angels to facilitate a workshop. I think the tone might cool, and anything at this point would be a welcome relief. Democrats and Republicans are guilty of shouting into echo chambers, chumming the waters of discontent and reinforcing existing beliefs. Reasoned debate feels like a relic. But after my weekend with the Braver Angels, I am optimistic that we can re-train ourselves to engage in thoughtful discussions with people on the other side of the divide. I’ve seen it happen, we just have to be willing to take that first frightening step.
Karyne E. Messina, Chevy Chase
The writer is a psychologist and serves on the medical staff of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Bethesda.
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