A Statement from the St. Albans Better Angels
“We can do this”
July 17, 2017 — St.Albans, Vermont, (site of the St. Albans Raid, the northernmost battle in the Civil War)
We were nine “reds,” people who voted for President Trump and hold predominantly conservative views and nine “blues,” people who did not vote for President Trump and tend to hold liberal or progressive views, and we agreed to meet together for two and half hours to talk, listen, and see if we could better understand the experiences, feelings, and beliefs of those who differ from us in today’s politically polarized environment. Eight of us were women; ten of us were men. We ranged in age from 32 to 82. Two of us have a high school diploma, two of us have associate degrees, five of us have bachelor’s degrees and six of us have master’s degrees (three of us did not provide that information). All but two of us live in Franklin or Grand Isle Counties, two rural counties in Northwest, Vermont. Two of us live in Newport, situated in Vermont’s very rural northeast kingdom. Although the state of Vermont supported Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election, Franklin County and all the other northernmost counties in Vermont supported Donald Trump.
Our reasons for choosing to participate were unique to each of us. Here are a few:
“This event is different and I have never heard of anything like it in Vermont before. I’m used to being out-numbered. I would like to hear from the other side and also for others to hear me.”
“We are so divided in this country. It’s important for us to at least make an attempt to understand where others are coming from and why.”
“I want to see public respect between political parties.”
“I’m here to work together; one brain is good, two to three brains are better.”
“I’m trying to understand this country. Thought I knew what it was about, but I don’t anymore.”
“I have a sense of responsibility and I believe there’s not enough following of the constitution.”
“I’ve seen a dramatic change in teenagers since the primaries. It seems that they now think it’s permissible to be rude to females.”
“I refuse to believe that we can’t have productive, harmonious discussion.”
“I want to believe that we’re all going to look out for one another no matter what.”
Before our dialogue began, we gathered at Martha’s Kitchen, a local soup kitchen just a few steps from City Hall, to share a simple spaghetti supper served to us by our Democratic Lieutenant Governor and Republican and Democratic State Representatives from our region.
We began our two and a half hours together by sitting around a large conference table in the Council Chambers of St. Albans City Hall and reviewing our intentions which were to seek understanding, to be open to discovering commonalities as well as differences, and to learn something that might be helpful to others in our community and nation. David Blankenhorn, President of Better Angels, acted as the facilitator for our meeting, which was highly structured. Shanna Ratner, resident of Fairfield, Vermont and co-organizer of the event, acted as co-facilitator. We were only permitted to answer specific questions and given strict time limits in which to answer. Any drifting away from the topic was immediately curtailed. Participants were limited to usually no more than a minute or two to answer and the questions were asked only by the facilitator. David would often rephrase someone’s answer to demonstrate how we develop effective listening skills. Due to time constraints, the number of participants and the strictly observed guidelines, in many cases, we were unable to delve further into the topics we were given than what some may have liked.
We accepted the following ground rules that were set by Better Angels:
1. We’re here to understand others and to explain our views, not to convince anyone to change their mind.
2. Let’s each speak for ourselves and not try to speak for or represent any outside group.
3. Let’s stick to the spirit of the activities designed for each stage of the meeting.
4. Let’s take turns, not interrupt others, listen to everyone, open up space for quieter group members, be respectful (no eye rolling or loud sighs when someone is speaking).
We each completed a form that asked us to list the questions we had for people of the opposite political persuasion. Then we moved across the room to a “fishbowl” comprised of two concentric circles of chairs. The group in the inner circle did the talking while the group in the outer circle listened. “Reds” entered the fishbowl first to respond to a series of questions from the facilitator. In addition, one question came from the “blue” group. In each case, the group listening took notes based on specific questions provided that related to their listening experience. Due to time constraints, everyone was not able to respond to every question. The questions for the “reds” were:
1) What life experiences have shaped your political views?
2) Where are you in your support for President Trump?
3) What reservations or concerns do you have about President Trump?
4) How do you feel about the importance of a social safety net?
Next, the “blues” took their turn in the “fishbowl”. The questions for the “blues” were:
1) What life experiences have shaped your political views?
2) Where are you in your opposition to President Trump?
3) How important is religion or morality in deciding who you will vote for?
4) What concerns or reservations do you have about your own side?
After completing the “fish bowl” listening exercise, we returned to the conference table to tackle one more question: Is the media informing or dividing us?
Then we talked about what surprised us and what we think we have in common.
What Surprised Us
We were surprised to learn how much family shaped our political views on both sides. “My grandparents were immigrants. They were strong Democrats because Democrats helped immigrants enter the middle class. They didn’t just talk about it; they did it. I believe in shared opportunities.” 3
We were surprised to find out that religious beliefs were important to both groups. “It was a commonality I didn’t expect.”
We were surprised by how important the Constitution was to both groups. Some of us are strict constructionists while others are not, but we all value the fact that our government is based on a Constitution. “No one group owns the Constitution.”
Some of us were surprised to find that “reds” were not opposed to the government helping people but preferred to see them helped at a local or state level or in private society with regulation provided at the federal level. “Providing a safety net should be the priority of government — take care of the people.”
We also found a lot in common.
We agreed that the media is doing more to divide us than to inform us, and it’s important to use common sense when evaluating the authenticity of what we view there.
“Journalistic integrity is of concern on both sides.”
“Social media creates echo chambers that rile people up.”
We agreed that personal responsibility is of utmost importance in all things, including our choice of media.
“We can criticize the media, but we also have to own our own role in consuming it.”(red)
“I try to get my news from outside the country, from the BBC, Christian outlets, and others.”
“I now also read responsible conservative journalists and I am learning from them.” (blue)
We shared a concern about the influences of globalism and technocratic elites. “The corporations are calling the shots, not the elitist Democrats.” (red) “The loss of decent jobs, income inequality, and the rise of the technocratic elite are fundamental problems.” (blue)
We share discomfort with identity politics or political correctness. “When I am with Democrats who bash Trump voters, I find myself defending Trump voters.” (blue)
We share a belief that the federal government needs to provide regulations and oversight to insure our economic wellbeing. “Even enterprise can go asunder and needs some government supervision. Government supervision is needed at the federal level.”
We share a concern about moral decline and changing norms. “I think free speech is under attack in this country and I’m horrified by it.” (red)
“We need to encourage people to take care of themselves.” (red)
Differences Are Not All Bad
Finally, we realized the value to our country of our differences as well as our commonalities.
“Putting down Republicans concerns me because our founding fathers wanted us to have opposing views. It’s ok that they think differently.” (blue)
“I defended that flag so that everyone could believe the way they want to believe and live free.” (red)
“We all have the same destination and we’re just taking separate paths.”
“We are built to think differently; it’s in our DNA.”
We Can Do This
Perhaps the most important take-away of all was our ability to be with and listen to one another.
“We can have dialogue without calling names.”
“Common ground exists; compromise is attainable.”
“Just because I disagree with you does not mean you’re a bad person.”
“It’s important that we all came together to learn why we disagree and maybe we can leave here and forge friendships, listening to others and not forcing or making others change based on my view.”
“People are afraid of losing what we think America is about.”
“I now feel less afraid of those who disagree with me politically.”
“People here were pretty darn respectful of each other; that’s not always my experience, especially on social media.”
“There are really great people that I disagree with.”
“I’m encouraged by how well we listened.”
“I’m convinced it’s possible to have a positive, constructive dialogue; sometimes semantics get in the way.”
“I want to try to find ways to make things better here.”
“We’re the ones that have to bring us back together.”
For more information, please contact Shanna Ratner at email@example.com or Better Angels at firstname.lastname@example.org