Bridging the political divide

  • The Better Angels organization holds a moderated group panel of discussions and activities for both politically conservative and progressive-leaning participants Saturday at the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew in Greenfield.  Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • The Better Angels holds a moderated group panel of discussions and activities for both politically conservative and progressive-leaning participants.  Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • The Better Angels held a moderated group panel of discussions and activities in Greenfield on Saturday.  Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Better Angels organization discuss their similarities and differences. Below, the Better Angels holds a moderated group panel of discussions and activities for both politically conservative and progressive-leaning participants.  Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • The Better Angels held a “red” and “blue” discussion on Saturday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Recorder Staff
Published: 10/28/2018 5:12:40 PM

GREENFIELD – Although officially described as a workshop, a gathering of “blues” and “reds” on Saturday was also something of a retreat.

The day-long session to foster dialogue between conservatives and liberals using a Better Angels approach, brought together seven self-described “blues” and four “reds” for a series of exercises at the Episcopal Church of St. James and St. Andrew.

Organizers from Community Conversations — a Franklin County group that’s been meeting for months — attempted to attract an equal number of community members, they explained, but were unable because of a reluctance from the “red” minority in Massachusetts to come forward.

The workshop, one of 130 around the nation since the bi-partisan Better Angels organization was created in 2016, was also attended by more than a dozen observers.

Each side, meeting separately, identified stereotypes that members felt the “opposite” group held about them, then analyzed the myths about each stereotype, as well as the kernel of truth about it. Discussing the findings together afterward, the exercise helped both sides be self-critical, demonstrate humility and see each other beyond stereotypes.

“Blues,” for example, teased apart their self-identified “elitist,” “baby killer,” “tax and spend” and “unlimited migration” and “hates guns” stereotypes as being about wanting firearms and immigration regulations and also valuing a woman’s right to choose and concern for children, as well as providing for human services as a government function.

The “elitist” label was hardest for the blue group to sort out, with members concluding, as one woman said, “We can’t believe what we’re hearing, and we react with shock, and that equates with looking down on people — we think they’re just uninformed.”

The red group, meanwhile, named “gun nuts” “anti-environment,” “money first” “racist,” and “pro-military” as its stereotypes, pointing out the gun-toting image was driven largely by “in-your-face” displays — they said they do support cutting taxes and expanding the military budget, but that they also favor open space protections and that cutting government spending and law-and-order positions do often hurt racial minorities.

Reminded that it was Republican President Richard Nixon who helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, blue organizer Sandra Boson of Greenfield told the gathering she was encouraged: “It kind of made me realize how the country has moved since then into extremes. … It just makes me see that for them, it is a concern that matters. And there is ground for reaching to bridge this gap.”

John Guenther of Greenfield, another blue team member, said, “I believed ahead of time that what Republican politicians and media are saying is more radical than what Republicans in general believe. I could be wrong, but this for me confirms that, that I can find more common ground with people than what I hear on the news.”

Led by a pair of nonpartisan co-moderators, the workshop also included two “fishbowl exercises,” in which each group, seated in a small circle surrounded by the other, discussed why they believe their values and policies are good for the country, as well as their reservations and concerns about them.

“To have a viable society, people need to feel some community with each other,” Guenther said, pointing to segments of society, as well as the nation’s role in the world: “We aren’t a separate entity. We depend on the rest of the world. I think the values of blues are more people-centered, whereas the values of the reds would seem to be more money-centered. The country is made of people.”

“My values are very much concerned about the next generation coming up and the kind of world we’re going to leave behind for them,” said blue member Emma Stamas of Colrain. Yet looking at the shortcomings of the liberal position, she pointed to environmentalists often leaving people feeling overwhelmed about how to tackle the problems we face.

Eveline MacDougall of Northfield, a “blue,” pointed to a “snarky, elitist” stance among some liberals, encumbered by being “politically correct,” while Guenther — pointing to taking a position against coal, for example, said, “Often we feel willing to make changes we think are right without caring enough about other people being affected.”

Later, “red” member James Deane of Greenfield pointed to strict immigration laws and said, “Those old ways of doing things were good for our country.”

George Gohl of Greenfield, the workshop’s “red” team organizer, said, “Lower taxes frees up money for individuals to spend the way they want to, which could be empowering themselves, or they could choose to donate their money to charity. … It increases economic opportunity and can increase charitable contributions.”

Gohl added later, “We’ve always been big on law and order, strong on police, strong on military dense to defend our constitution against foreign adversaries. That’s good for our country.”

Will Sillin of Sundeland, a member of the “red” team, said, “The individual knows really best how to manage their lives. Each individual should have the opportunity to pursue happiness, and the more intrusive government is, the more difficult it is for the individual to rise up through all the layering of … the government trying to direct the individual’s life: the health care mandate, for example. I think the Republican Party pushes back against that, and I think that’s good for every citizen.”

But some “red” members – who all agreed are moderate compared to Republicans nationally – expressed concern over the direction of the Republican party and its leadership, just as some “blue” members expressed similar frustrations about the money-dominated two-party system.

“I’m concerned that our party, or members of our party, might trip over the threshold and go to the fascism, nationalist part of the overbearing thought process,” said Gohl. “There’s a lot of people in our party that have forgotten what World War II was about, and the fact that we have a president who doesn’t really know what the word ‘nationalism’ means … I think we’re tripping toward that. There are still elements that are trying to pull it back, but we’re getting outnumbered.”

Deane also raised concerns that President Trump’s bullying talk “and his demeanor sometimes is losing part of the Republican party. They won’t support the party as long as he has this way about him. He brings out the worst in me but I’m a better person because of it. I’m seeing how angry I can get, how resentful I can get, and I can change that, because he brought it out in me. So I’m able to see the other side clearer. I can be more compassionate because of that.”

As both sides looked toward forming a continuing Better Angels “alliance,” which can work to depolarize the dialogue on local, as well as national issues, workshop participants shared what they came to see were their ultimate similarities.

“It’s ‘We the People’ who are going to be the ones to solve the problems,” said Sillin, summarizing where the two sides seemed to find common ground. “What’s tripping things is Mr. Trump. That comes up and becomes an issue.”

Deane added, “Both sides seem to want the same thing. We talk about it differently.”

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