During the weekends of December 9-11, 2016, the Better Angels project, based in New York City, brought together 21 residents of Warren and Hamilton County in southwest Ohio—ten of whom supported Donald Trump for President and 11 of whom supported Hillary Clinton—in the aftermath of a divisive and troubling election. The aim was to see if by communicating in a structured but still informal setting, we could all learn to understand each other a bit better.
Twelve of the participants were women; nine were men. One was Muslim American, one was African American, and one was Latino American. Two were gay. The youngest was 18 and the oldest was old enough to be the 18-year-old’s grandparent. Seven were college graduates: job titles included child care worker, factory worker, gunsmith, homemaker, political organizer, postal carrier, psychologist, school counselor, retired auto worker, retired R.N., steelworker, college student, and warehouse worker.
This group is not a scientifically representative sample of Ohio, even though Ohio is an unusually diverse and hence representative state historically. Nor is it representative of any region, much less of the country as a whole. But like many American communities today, it is divided by politics and by the recent presidential election. The group met for a total of 13 hours at the South Lebanon Community Center on Broadway Street. The “Broadway Street Gathering,” as we called it, was organized by area resident David Lapp and moderated by William J. Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a volunteer leader at Better Angels, and David Blankenhorn, the president of Better Angels.
We agreed upfront on the following three goals for the meeting: (1) To better understand the experiences, feelings, and beliefs of those who differ with us in today’s politically polarized environment; (2) To identify areas of commonality in addition to differences; and (3) To learn something that might be helpful to others in our communities and in the nation.
We also agreed on four ground rules for our discussion: (1) We’re here to understand others and to explain our views, not to convince anyone to change his or her mind; (2) We will focus on the present and future—what we believe our country needs—and not on the election campaign now in the past; (3) We will speak only for ourselves and not try to represent any outside group; and (4) We will bring our best civil selves to a difficult conversation: taking turns; not interrupting others; listening to everyone and encouraging quieter group members to express themselves; being respectful (as in no eye rolling or loud sighs when someone is speaking); and so forth. Participants also agreed to give the moderators the authority to enforce the ground rules by gently making course corrections when participants veered off.
Participants were hopeful but wary about what was about to happen. One summed it up perfectly in a semi-rural Ohio idiom: “My world has been turned upside-down. My pajamas are on backwards. Maybe this gathering will help me cope.”
We began by trying to identify mutual assumptions about each other: What do Clinton supporters think of Trump supporters? What do Trump supporters think of Clinton supporters? We tried to get at these questions in an unusual way. Each “side” was asked to ask itself, “What are the most common stereotypes that our opponents believe about us?”; and then “Why are those stereotypes mistaken or exaggerated?” Here are the results of the exercise.
Trump supporters think Clinton supporters think Trump supporters are: racist; eager to take away women’s rights; xenophobic; and greedy. Beyond those top four, seven other characteristics were mentioned: uneducated; ignorant; homophobic; sexist; lacking compassion; warmongering; and rich.
Meanwhile, Clinton supporters think Trump supporters think Clinton supporters are: concerned only about certain groups; anti-business; ready to give away the farm; and baby killers. Beyond those top four, seven other characteristics gained mention: willing to give people free stuff; willing to lie for political gain; unwilling to stand up to enemies; welcoming of open borders; unpatriotic; politically correct; emotionally fragile; and opposed to the 2nd Amendment.
Here is how Clinton supporters reacted (verbatim) to the presumed top four stereotypes of the other side:
We care about everybody. But if I have two children, and one of them gets a fever, I do what’s needed to get the one who needs help back to good health. We all do that together.
When we say “Black Lives Matter,” it doesn’t mean we only care about this group. It means “Hey, I’m having an issue here. Can you help me solve it?”
We do want to see the economy grow. We just feel that when something is over, like mining jobs in coal country, we have to move on and explore new options.
When you’re a minority in a different country, you feel weak and you just want to unite. You just want to be with people who understand you.
We aren’t just for handouts, just free stuff for people. I was kicked out of my house because I was gay. I was diagnosed with HIV. I got Medicaid and housing assistance. My HIV medicine is $3,000, and I can’t afford that, and so Medicaid helps me get it. I was on the streets; I was homeless. But now I’m paying for my own rent, my car, my food. I do believe drug testing should be implemented for public assistance programs.
You never see Democrats advising people to go out and get an abortion.
Pro-choice is what we are. We should be creating systems where abortion is a choice, but hopefully not something people have to resort to very often.
Creating policies where abortion is available but rare—that’s where we need to be going.
Do Trump supporters have information that I have, or that I’ve been open to? So I think my first need is to educate them. What they do with that is up to them.
Here is how Trump supporters reacted (verbatim) to the presumed top four stereotypes of the other side:
There used to be a lot of racism in this country, but we’re getting better. Yes, there have been problems, but we’re getting better.
We’re not racists. We’re tired of people having a chip on their shoulder.
There is equal opportunity. If you really want something in this country, you can do it. But you’ve got to get out and earn it.
I didn’t get any special treatment. I had to pay for what I wanted. I didn’t get any grants for school, because my parents were “middle class.”
I was raised not poor, but my family didn’t have a lot. I got married out of high school and when we started, we had nothing. We’ve worked hard. I don’t mind people getting help from others, because we have received help from family members and we’ve received food stamps. So I’m not against help. Now if you are a drug abuser, that’s something different.
I believe firmly in working for what you have. We want you to work for what you get, and not to be mooching.
We don’t want to take away women’s rights. We are concerned about poor sexual choices that a lot of women are making out of ignorance, and about 14-year-old boys having sex with girls. We want to be more proactive, so kids don’t get into those bad situations in the first place. I don’t think that abortion will ever be illegal.
America is a great melting pot. But some groups today are not assimilating. The melting pot really only works if you’re willing to melt. If you just make your own communities, you become the other, and you’re not included.
When they come here and then go back to their home country, I understand why they do, but it’s not helping the nation.
Immigration used to work. We had a process. We were a family and we were a nation of laws.
Having gotten all of these themes out on the table so that everyone could see them together as a set, we then proceeded to discuss and clarify them. Here are some of those questions, again in the exact words of the participants. We start with questions that Clinton supporters asked Trump supporters:
When was America great, and who was it great for?
How does diversity fit into making America great again?
Do Trump’s bankruptcies bother you?
Are you for legal discrimination against gays, such as vendors refusing to serve gay weddings?
How did you handle the video of Trump saying what he does to women?
How can you tell when Trump means what he says?
What makes you think that people are looking for handouts?
And here are questions from Trump supporters to Clinton supporters:
How was Hillary Clinton going to unite the country?
Why did you think Hillary’s emails weren’t important?
Are you afraid that Trump will take away gay rights?
What are your fears about abolishing Obamacare?
Why should we help strangers?
How much should we accommodate immigrants?
Why isn’t America seeking energy independence, when we could do that on our own?
These discussions of our differences were often tense, and at times emotional. Some tears were shed. One participant said: “I’m frightened for my children.” Another said: “I’m just tired of politicians lying to people.” Another, as we were about to go home on Saturday, said: “Today was brutal.” Still another said, “This was harder than I thought it would be,” to which someone replied, “The stereotypes are still alive and well, and breaking them isn’t going to be easy.” There were also moments of laughter and personal connection, as when a Clinton supporter, referring to a Trump supporter who approached her after a session to clarify something he’d said that he believed had upset her, announced: “Now, that guy, I like him.” And said a Trump supporter, talking to a Clinton supporter after one of the sessions: “We’re trying to get better at this.”
On Sunday, we looked for common ground, and, with effort, we found some. We also identified several areas in which we simply cannot agree. By the time we adjourned, we had agreed on the basic wording of ten “findings” that Trump and Clinton supporters alike believe in and were willing to publicly endorse. Here are these ten findings:
On the value of political experience:
For now, the two sides agree to disagree on this issue. Clinton supporters tend to feel strongly that, other things being equal, having had prior political experience makes candidate more qualified to serve the public capably. Trump supporters tend to feel just as strongly that, in the context of U.S. politics today, having had prior political experience does not make a candidate more attractive and, if anything, makes him less qualified to serve the public.
The two sides largely disagree about the understanding and use of words, at least in the context of the 2016 election. Trump supporters tend to put more trust in a politician’s overall approach, style, and ways of doing things than in that politician’s capacity to speak with formal correctness and use words according to their literal meanings. Indeed, Trump supporters tend to equate these qualities negatively with “being scripted” or “sounding like a politician.” By contrast, Clinton supporters are more inclined to trust a politician who uses words accurately and precisely. An example of this difference appeared in the responses to candidate Trump’s promise to “build a wall.” Clinton supporters, who take the words literally, view the promise as either misguided, impossible to fulfill, or both. Several Trump supporters, by contrast, who tend to take the words figuratively, view the promise as either a statement of overall policy direction, a piece of understandable and inspired hyperbole, or both. Same words—“build a wall”—but different meanings, based on different ways of understanding and interpreting the words.
A number of Clinton supporters said that the elections results have made them fearful about the future: afraid for the welfare of the country and, in some cases, personally afraid of what might happen to them and their friends and loved ones as a result of Trump’s victory. Especially during our Friday and Saturday sessions, Trump supporters, while saying that they’d seen stories in the media of Clinton supporters saying that they are afraid, expressed surprise and incomprehension at the idea that the victory of one candidate over another would actually cause some Americans to feel fear. By the end of our meeting, however, a number of Trump supporters were saying that, while they continue to view fear of Trump as unwarranted, they now recognize that these expressions of fear are genuine, not simply manufactured for political effect.
On minority groups:
We agree that no member of a minority group should ever be targeted or made to feel afraid by the President of the United States or by anyone else. We insist upon an America in which everyone can thrive and reach their potential, regardless of color or background or religion. We also agree that the requirement of valuing everyone should not involve downplaying the rights and needs of anyone, and that too many politicians in both parties for too long have ignored the needs and concerns of everyday blue-collar and working-class Americans.
On treating everyone with equal respect:
We agree that U.S. leaders and policymakers should treat all Americans with civility and equal respect. We agree that, starting in the White House and in Congress, on both sides of the political aisle, we should do much less attacking, denigrating, and demonizing.
On political obstructionism:
We agree that those who supported Clinton should support valid, constructive proposals from President Trump and that those who voted for President Trump should not excuse bad performance on his part.
While we disagree on whether and under what circumstances abortion should be legal, we can agree that abortion is not something to be preferred or desired. Therefore we agree on the importance of upstream policies to improve the life prospects of young women (and men), so that fewer of them will have to face the decision of whether to have an abortion.
On immigration and borders:
While we have diverse views on immigration policy, none of us favors open borders or unregulated immigration.
On helping those in need:
We have diverse and at times conflicting views on whether help for those in need should come more from government or from the private sector, or, in the case of government, more from the Federal government or from the states. Yet we agree that a good society is judged in large measure according to how it cares for its neediest members; we agree on the importance of a nationwide safety net, such that help for anyone in need is readily available; and we agree that, whenever possible, the best form of help is to help people help themselves, so that we offer not so much handouts as helping hands.
On character and the American Dream:
We acknowledge that some Americans of poor character become rich and famous, just as some of admirable character remain poor and forgotten. At the same time, all of us strongly affirm the principle that hard work, honesty, and decency are the essential foundations of the American Dream.
The exercise showed on balance that despite political differences, all participants recognized that they are citizens and neighbors with shared feelings and much in common with one another.
As a result of our conversations together, none changed his or her mind about which candidate for President was the better choice in the 2016 election. But most if not all changed their minds, at least a bit, about each other. We learned by talking to each other that we are not as divided as we thought and that we are not as incomprehensible to one another as we thought. Here are some verbatim comments from our Sunday closing session that testify to that result:
My view was, apparently they don’t love America because they are voting for this person. But I see now that they do love this country.
All of us looked over our fence, and saw that we’re not as far from the other side as we thought.
We’re closer to each other than we see in the media.
It was not an easy weekend, but it was worthwhile. This can work.
I came in here as a white from a white neighborhood, and I didn’t really see the fear, but now I can see it a bit more.
Every single one of us wants the country to be a nice place to live.
We also changed our minds, at least a bit, about the necessity and the possibility of Americans with opposing political views learning to lecture each other a bit less and listen to each other a bit more. Here are some other comments from Sunday:
I think we did a pretty good job of keeping the rhetoric on the back burner and keeping our ears open. The country can’t come together unless we do this.
It’s not us versus them. It can’t be just that.
What we did in this meeting wasn’t perfect, but it’s a beginning.
It was relieving.
There needs to be a lot more of this. I would like to get involved—maybe go to other communities, and get this going.
On balance, our experiment was a considerable success, and if we at Better Angels could make it happen, we would endow every community and neighborhood in America with a similar program. We believe that it is the obligation of those in a position to do so to bring people in their communities together in search of a more perfect union.
David Blankenhorn is the president and David Lapp is the lead organizer of Better Angels, based in New York City. Noha Eyada of Mason, Ohio, is a medical doctor, mother of three, and Girl Scout leader who emigrated to the U.S. 18 years ago from Egypt. Willard Spicer of South Lebanon, Ohio, is a self-employed gunsmith and political enthusiast. You can read the report on which this article is based here.
- See Andrew Cayton, “Why Ohio?”, The American Interest Online, September 8, 2016.
This article originally was originally published on February 18, 2017 in The American Interest.