A group of local residents are engaging in political discussions this week in an effort to alleviate tension across party lines.
Better Angels, a Lebanon-based group that aims to use conversation to enhance cross-party discussion, began the ‘One America’ bus tour on Tuesday night in Waynesville. The group held structured discussions on Wednesday night in Lebanon and will again Thursday night in Kettering, although organizers asked that the time and place of the gatherings be kept private because of the closed nature of the workshops.
The tour will start in the Dayton area and make 15 stops across nine states, from Vermont to Tennessee, over the span of three weeks. They will conclude their tour in Philadelphia on July 24.
While the tour kicked off last night in Waynesville with a benefit concert, during which local Tea Party leader Richard Lynch performed alongside Democrat Peter Yarrow at Lynch’s Keepin’ It Country Farm, the Wednesday and Thursday night discussion sessions will be closed to the public.
By working with local political leaders, community leaders and churches, Better Angels has selected nine Republicans and nine Democrats from each respective area to participate in exercises this week. They will be asked to discuss stereotypes attached to each party and the basis for those notions. They will also be asked to explain their support for or against the current presidential administration and why they identify that way.
With the discussion, Better Angels lead organizer David Lapp hopes to bridge an understanding between citizens who believe they are on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
“We’re not interested in erasing our differences and disagreements — I’m not going to convince anyone to change his or her party, and they’re not going to try to convince me to change my party,” Lapp, a Lebanon native, said. “But what we are interested in is clarifying disagreements, reducing the rancor and mistrust, seeing if we can find common ground, and seeing if we can improve the quality of conversation with each other.”
The idea for Better Angels started before last year’s presidential election, when group president and founder David Blankenhorn, of New York, discussed the nation’s political divide with Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Lapp worked for Blankenhorn’s “Institute for American Values” think tank after he graduated from college in 2009, and when Blankenhorn and Doherty felt that citizen-to-citizen discourse could potentially benefit communities in the battleground state of Ohio, Blankenhorn called Lapp to get the ball rolling.
Better Angels held two gatherings in Warren County, in December and April, where they found the discussion to be beneficial. The initial gatherings were met with doubt from the public, however.
“Many people that were asked to participate were very skeptical of the process. They thought that this was just going to be a shouting match, or this was just going to be a useless conversation between the two groups,” Kouhyar Mostashfi, a community Better Angels volunteer from Springboro who was involved in the initials discussions, said. “But after the weekend, everybody was very impressed with the quality of the discussion. We had hard-core Republicans and hard-core Democrats that weren’t talking to their family members of the opposite political parties, that wouldn’t talk to their neighbors, that blocked people from their Facebook accounts, and they realized that, over just a weekend of constructive conversations, there is a common ground between the two groups.”
When NPR ran an hour-long feature on Better Angels, they received national attention for their efforts. Community leaders from California to Rhode Island contacted the organization, asking for advice on how they can hold their own group discussions, and how they can join the movement to reunify the nation.
This month’s bus tour is the beginning of the Better Angels’ effort to reach out to different communities, beyond Warren County, in hopes of gaining trust between community members on both sides of the political fence. The group is currently developing training and written procedures for leaders across the country to follow.
Better Angels hopes that the success of the recent local efforts will translate to the national level.
“Ohio is one of the most important swing states in the country,” Lapp said. “So, we think that if we can come together as Republicans and Democrats in Ohio, we can do this anywhere in the country.”
While this week’s local discussion sessions will be closed to the public, Lapp said that citizens interested in cross-party discourse can contact him at 513-268-6233 if they wish to talk to him about attending one of the group’s monthly meetings, held in Lebanon.