A Breakthrough in Lake George

Depersonalizing the divide

The reds and blues of Lake George, NY

At yesterday’s gathering in Lake George, the Better Angels moderators decided to take a slightly different approach.

Instead of kicking off the fish bowl exercise by asking the reds and blues about President Trump and his administration, they asked the participants to talk about the life experiences that have formed their politics.

The Reds

What are the life experiences that have shaped your current political views?

The reds relayed tales of self-reliance and perseverance. They acknowledged the importance of government assistance for “the truly needy” — but they decried a welfare state they’d experienced first hand.

“I was born a poor Democrat on welfare. I was raised to think Republicans were greedy. Over time, I began to realize it wasn’t anybody’s else’s fault that I was struggling. Once I began to take responsibility for myself, I started becoming more successful — and I’ve been a conservative ever since.”

The reds spoke repeatedly of instances in which they felt the government had gotten in the way of their success. One man said that “unnecessary regulations” had made it difficult for him to grow his small business. Another woman criticized the federal government for raising taxes on her family’s business, but refusing to close tax loopholes for the rich.

“Most times the government puts their hands on something, they mess it up.”

The Blues

What are the life experiences that have shaped your current political views?

The blues emphasized the importance of diversity in shaping their worldviews. They recounted their experiences encountering discrimination. They too spoke of the value of personal responsibility, but the blues described instances in which government programs like Obamacare had provided crucial support and improved their family’s lives.

I grew up in a poor Catholic family in the Bronx. I went to school with rich Catholic children studying alongside poor, minority students from the projects. We learned the value of difference, and supporting each other.

The blues talked about the perils of extreme inequality, and how it had sometimes closed off opportunities for them to succeed. They said that corporations and very wealthy people ought to “pay their fair share” to help the less fortunate.

“I believe that it’s not “us versus them” — it’s “we’re all in it together.”

Areas of Common Ground

“When you take the time to listen to people’s stories, the divide isn’t as personal”

By discussing their political views in the context of lived experiences, the participants were able to build empathy. They were able to see each other as people, instead of vessels for an argument. And aside from finding common ground on the issues of immigration, tax reform, and reducing the level of money in politics, the reds and blues emerged from the gathering with a shared sense of hope and unity.

“I don’t think we’re nearly as divided as you would think listening to the news,” said one participant.
“I would like to do this again,” said another. “I’m going to start my political conversations way less confrontationally.”
“You can’t invalidate someone’s personal experience the way you can dismiss their political argument,” said a third. “I wish politicians would do this.”

The next stop for Better Angels is Ithaca, NY.