At the end of our Better Angels workshop, with an equal number of blues (Democrats) and reds (Republicans), one of the blues suggested meeting again in the near future for drinks.
Without missing a beat, one of the reds quipped, “Politics and alcohol, what could go wrong?”
Everyone shared a round of laughter.
While discussing political differences is an increasingly dangerous pursuit, our group had just experienced something rare: a calm and reasonable discussion with the other side.
Of course, we did not accomplish anything revolutionary. But, to be honest, we accomplished much more than we expected.
The day’s ground rules laid a strong foundation, starting with the first rule: understanding each other is the goal, not winning an intellectual fistfight.
This guideline was absolutely crucial. We did not argue with each other until we were blue in the face or red-hot. (Puns intended.) Instead, we started off in our political groups, identifying the most popular stereotypes about each of them. Reds and blues presented their findings, complete with reasons the stereotypes were inaccurate — but also why they contained some truth.
After this exercise, each group watched the other talk. The reds talked about why they’re reds, but also what worries them about their political tribe. And then we switched.
Based on our observations, we crafted questions of understanding for the other group. We were not trying to dissolve disagreements; we were trying to have accurate arguments.
The most important result of the watching and question exercises was revealing the variety of views within each group. In both of them, some members felt discomfort with their party’s positions.
So, at the end of the day, did we have a breakthrough? Not really. But we had taken an important step forward. Perhaps the groundwork had been laid for more in-depth dialogue in a future discussion.
No one was about to switch sides, but personal opinions of the other side changed. And some of us left with different insights and questions about our own groups.
It is hard to understand the other side if you avoid them. When you listen before you speak and discover common ground, it does not erase your differences. But it does put them in perspective.
We are all Americans before we are reds or blues. And if we don’t start listening to each other, we’ll all lose.
Sure, this one workshop was helpful. But we don’t think it can change the country.
But what if these workshops continue spreading across the nation? What if the conversations become deeper? What if a groundswell of bipartisan momentum rises up, rejecting the poisonous state of politics?
Well, that just might change everything.