Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Civil Conversation, Your Time Has Come

You wouldn't know it from watching the news but respectful dialogues are happening every day, right around the corner.

It was 7:30am at the National Prayer Breakfast and Republican Senator James Lankford and Democratic Senator Chris Coons sat on opposite sides of a podium on a vast stage at the Washington Hilton hotel in Dupont Circle. Coming off the heels of a vicious news cycle featuring debates about late-term abortion, new sexual assault allegations, and racism, it was refreshing to be in a room dedicated to bipartisan and multicultural unity and prayer.

President Donald Trump took his place to the right of the podium and—after giving a short speech—stood between Lankford and Coons as they laid hands on him to pray for the country. Tweets ceased and cameras flashed, capturing a rare moment of peace over a simple meal of untoasted bagels, cold fruit chunks, carafes of coffee, and quiche.

And really, a cup of coffee is all it takes to begin a conversation with someone across the aisle, pew, or tax bracket. The Prayer Breakfast is symbolic of various national and local efforts to promote bipartisan respect, civility, and understanding. You wouldn’t know it from watching the news, but there is a growing movement of civility-centered groups, organizations, websites, and social circles sprouting up on every corner.

Moderation, bipartisanship, and fair-minded conversation don’t produce the spicy soundbite or viral moment that generates a thousand breathless op-eds or provide fodder for a heated six-way CNN panel. But it is these undocumented, Facebook Live-less mealtime gatherings that can and are providing a footing for the country to move forward in a post-2016 world.

For every highly partisan attack on an idea retweeted a thousand times, there are dozens of Americans cringing at the ideological gridlock it creates. Many people hope to grease the wheels of change with respectful conversation that empowers even those voices they vehemently disagree with.

The Trump era began the moment he descended the golden escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, but things were going south on the dialogue front long before that—and some recognized this before things got blatantly ugly.

From Living Room Conversations, co-created by MoveOn.org co-founder Joan Blades and Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler to Sanity Media, a new company that aims to highlight people working in the middle ground, conversational space, there are dozens of small movements that have popped up in the past several years. The shocking and very personal divisions that have taken root since 2015 are enough to convince that these movements are necessary.

What the Numbers Reveal

According to a survey by Monmouth University, 70 percent of people said the 2016 election “brought out the worst in people” and a Reuters poll showed at least 13 percent of people severed a relationship with a friend or family member over the election. The same survey showed that 22 percent of people who voted for Hillary Clinton stopped talking with someone after the election.

From the Bernie/Hillary divide to Never Trump/MAGA, divisions along ideological and political lines emerged like never before. Despite polls showing that 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump, there was plenty of disagreement among the church crowd, including even among those who ultimately voted Republican. Some were eager to cast their ballot for Trump, while many others did so reluctantly, feeling as if they had no choice because of issues like abortion and Supreme Court appointments.

The polarity may not seem related to things like the opioid epidemic or rising suicide rates, but it is. The dearth of community and increasing isolation and division exacerbate these tragic, social outbreaks. Community-based movements like those profiled here may help ameliorate even conditions as extreme as these.

Where It Began

Colleges, the place where people should be the most exposed to alternative ideas, began turning off conversation and replacing it with protests, bans, tears, and teddy bears. Conservative speakers were routinely shut out, booed off campuses, or causing student groups to set up “safe spaces” to hide from the words of those they disagreed with. 

This is a symptom of a larger problem related to respect, civility, and recognizing the humanity of those with different beliefs. The combination of negative rhetoric broadcast loudly and a whole sector of the country essentially putting their hands over their ears created a free speech conundrum in academia.

People from both sides of the spectrum became outraged about the outrage and further severed lines of communication. This set off alarm bells for the grown ups in the room.

By opening up a pathway for dialogue—a forum where people understand they are in a place to listen and be heard without judgment—disrespect can be eliminated. It can be done online if appropriately labeled, but is best played out in person—where you can see the worry lines on someone’s forehead or the faded scar on their wrist. In person, where you catch the pride in someone’s voice when they mention their kid getting into college or hear soon-to-be dad nervously mention an upcoming due date.

It is there that we see policies reflected in human form, allowing one the space to fully consider the implications on people they know in real life.

A Better Way

The Civil Conversations Project from On Being is doing it well. The series exists within the already sharp, dispassionate interview platform and includes podcasts, writing, and videos advocating things like “generous listening” and “adventurous civility.” They’ve also created a “Better Conversations Guide” to download and use for hosting cross-ideological gatherings for the purpose of generating positive change toward civility.

The project has advocates like researcher Brené Brown, a very visible and relevant voice for promoting this kind of dialogue. While Brown is clearly progressive in her politics, she urges people to be “curious” rather than defensive or hateful with those who hold opposite viewpoints. Brown says this: “Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?”

The question is one more people should be asking.

The ideological spectrum as a whole is widely varied and includes a sliding scale of beliefs that shouldn’t be reduced only to labels like “liberal” or “conservative.” Too often, people are typecast by the most extreme voices on either side. Media and popular culture create this partisan narrative, which further generates ideological and social division. It’s created the extreme tribalism that defines the current political generation.

The Civil Conversation Project wants to strip away these confining narratives. Living Room Conversations (LRC) is doing the same—offering an online roundtable called “Tribalism 101” and a video entitled “Free Yourself From Your Filter Bubble.” Formed in 2010, LRC was ahead of the curve and a trailblazer that has provided a template for pro-discourse organizations that have popped up since 2016.

Groups like Make America Dinner Again and Experiment in Dialogue” (EID)—whose tagline is “breaking out of political bubbles to break bread together”—are reviving the lost art of the dinner party. EID’s four principles include: building rapport, humanizing one another, broadening perspectives, and synthesizing.

Unlike meeting at Starbucks between a conference calls and a pile of work, dinner setups are intentional, invitational—so one truly feels valued—and open up the space for thoughts far longer than 280 characters. Instead of just sharing what “woke” thing a favored political leader said in a 30-second clip, individuals can elaborate on why and how their own lives brought them to a place where that policy makes sense.

At Dinner and Beyond

Bold TV is an innovative online platform that brings together voices from both sides of the aisle. They transformed the dinner idea into a multimedia one, always intentional about including a well-rounded and diverse group of panelists when discussing issues from abortion to gun control.

Founder Carrie Sheffield felt this was missing in the media space. She aims for thoughtful progressives and conservatives to sit side-by-side and dialogue eloquently on pressing issues.

“The United States is grappling with declining civic trust in media and cross-ideological divides are exacerbated by many media silos,” Sheffield told TAC in an email. “We see Bold TV as an antidote to the frustrating atmosphere surrounding the political process, where far-Right and far-Left media outlets caricature and alienate Americans instead of building common ground.”

Bold isn’t the only one in media—ABC’s More in Common and The Van Jones Show on CNN often features guests with opposing viewpoints, despite the hosts’ proud progressivism.

The idea has caught fire and a documentary on the bipartisan phenomenon came out last year. American Creed features archetypal figures from the Left and Right at Stanford University— Professor David Kenney and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, respectively. The film profiles students at Stanford with varying ideological viewpoints and also features interviews with people committed to the lost art of civil discourse.

The parents of CEO and founder of Citizen University Eric Liu escaped from war-torn China in the 1950s and his second-generation American status has shaped his entire life toward expanding civility for Americans of all ideologies.

“I had the good fortune to be born in America, that I can express my political opinions and not get scooped up in the middle of the night—and that has really fueled my purpose,” Liu said in the documentary.

It’s appropriate that the film focuses on academia, since these are locations so deeply and disproportionately affected by the loss of dialogue. There are organizations now directing their efforts to promote free speech right in the middle of that fire, as well.

The Steamboat Institute, a conservative nonprofit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is deeply committed to the free exchange of ideas. Despite their small size, the Institute has managed to create a powerful “Campus Liberty” tour, hosting true blue debates between those with vastly different viewpoints on hot topics like capitalism versus socialism—coming this fall at a yet-to-be announced campus. Last year, they hosted a debate on nationalism versus globalism between the UK’s Nigel Farage and the former Mexican president Vicente Fox at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland.

They partnered with the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which has been pushing this kind of across-the-aisle work and conversation since 2007, when it was founded by former Senate majority leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George J. Mitchell. BPC is doing the necessary work to slice through extreme partisanship in a more formal way, bringing politics down to earth when ideologically extreme conversations begin to remove the middle ground.

Debates are key to free speech. Better Angels is another group that focuses on bridging divides, hosting debates that aim to help those who may not be sure where or why they stand on an issue. Better Angels also hosts Red/Blue workshops and skills training to foster conversations across the aisle.

People are hungry for this kind of respectful dialogue. Last year was the first annual National Week of Conversation, which was so popular it encouraged the founders to launch the National Conversation Project, which now advocates #ListenFirstFriday every week. They boast over 150 partner organizations, utilizing schools, libraries, faith communities, activist organizations, and nonprofits to accomplish their goal of listening and conversing with respect.

Initiatives like this have inspired those skilled in other areas to take on local or personal campaigns to move the listening needle.

Print, Podcasts, and the Intellectual Dark Web

Annafi Wahed was inspired to attend and write about her experience as a liberal attending CPAC, where she was (to her surprise) welcomed and heard. After she published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “A Hillary Staffer Goes to CPAC”, she set out on a mission to provide fair, unbiased coverage of the news from both sides of the aisle. Her daily newsletter, The Flip Side, takes hot topics and delivers the smartest, most widely read commentary from Right and Left so readers can get out of their echo chambers and into the most thoughtful insights of important policy debates.

Other organizations have followed suit. Independent Women’s Voice, the organization for which I work, noticed that both liberal and conservative women were being denigrated in the media—for both their opinions and their looks. Rather than go tribal, IWV formed “Champion Women,” a sub-group dedicated to upholding and defending every woman’s right to speak freely without being stereotyped, or shamed for not adhering to a specific agenda.

The podcasting world has also taken note. Pantsuit Politics, featuring two women—one Republican, one Democratic—thoughtfully discussing the issues, has gained wild popularity. Hosts Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers just published a book, I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening).

And in the cultural commentary world as a whole, there is a fascination by what’s been dubbed the “Intellectual Dark Web,” unofficially featuring intellectual free speech advocates from both sides of the aisle. Individuals on the list such as Christina Hoff Sommers, neuroscientist and podcast host Sam Harris, psychologist Jordan Peterson, neuroscience researcher Debra Soh, and professor Heather Heying represent the broad spectrum of beliefs that compose the IDW. Essentially, these individuals believe in speech and talking with those who don’t necessarily share their viewpoints. For this, they have been both beloved and scorned, depending on who you talk to. But the wide popularity and fascination with this bipartisan group represents the real hunger people have to welcome tough conversations and ask questions.

“Some say the IDW is dangerous,” Heying told The New York Times last year. “But the only way you can construe a group of intellectuals talking to each other as dangerous is if you are scared of what they might discover.” 

Discovery is really the ultimate goal of all of these national and local conversations. By stepping out of tightly sealed echo chambers, Americans—in their vast array of colors, ideologies, income levels, religions, and experiences—can embrace knowledge, empathy, and compassion. There’s no depth to the human experience if people remain sheltered in painted, political corners smugly convinced of their rightness.

Albert Einstein once said, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment.”

The solution, then, is to break free from such a social environment and entertain the idea that someone else could be right. In the end, they may not be, but operating on the assumption that others hold honorable intentions is key. It is here where genuine trust and respect can flourish to produce a better, brighter America.

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. She works for Independent Women’s Forum, is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and hosts the “Worth Your Time” podcast.



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