Beyond the binary: How a red/blue couple took Braver Angels to FreedomFest

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Last week in Minnesota, Rick Hotchner and Barbara Thomas hopped in their silver Mazda 6 and took a road trip off the red/blue political binary they know all too well.

Rick is red, Barbara is blue, they’ve been married for thirteen and a half years, and they were going to FreedomFest, a four-day conference in Rapid City, South Dakota, and the largest gathering of libertarians in the US.

“There’s so much talk at Braver Angels about red and blue as if there’s just two sides to the conversation,” Barbara said. “But the problem of polarization affects everybody.”

🔍 Check out Braver Angels Live Coverage from FreedomFest & Braver Angels FreedomFest page

So when people passed by the Braver Angels booth at the conference, which featured everything from #HoldAmericaTogether magnets to an interactive poster asking how folks see the political other, Rick and Barbara sparked conversation with a question that had nothing to do with the red/blue binary: Is there someone in your life with whom you have a hard time talking about politics?

“And Rick will tell you, you usually can’t even finish the question,” Barbara said. “People say, ‘Of course!’”

Shut out by red and blue

They heard it all from the mix of libertarians, independents, conservatives, and even a few anarchists they talked to: stories of polarized families, strained communication, all circling around what it’s like to feel squeezed by a two-party system that shuts you out and doesn’t listen, especially around election time. This Braver Angels thing—would it help?

Barbara Thomas poses with Jennifer Livingston, Steve House, and Rhonda Panczyk at the Braver Angels booth at FreedomFest.

Barbara surprised folks in two ways: First by being one of a handful of liberals at the whole conference—and showing grace when they learned as much after they’d made their opinion of some liberal attitudes quite clear—and second, by admitting that as a proud lifelong liberal, she was frustrated by the tendency she sees on her side to shut down conversations when different views come up.

Rick, for his part, gave them some candid encouragement. He told them what it’s been like to be in Braver Angels spaces with liberals, libertarians, centrists, everyone—and feel like people are actually listening to each other and trying to understand. “It’s been really refreshing for me as a red,” Rick told them.

But I’ve got to back up for a sec, because you’ve got to hear how these two found Braver Angels in the first place.    

A big decision

In the early part of their politically mixed marriage, Rick and Barbara managed their enormous political divide by steering clear of political discussions. As tensions heated up around them, they started talking about politics, and started worrying about politics: They were handling their differences OK. But what about their country?

Rick and Barbara were living in Ireland last summer when they made a big, life-changing choice. Barbara decided to retire before the end of her tour of duty as the deputy chief of mission of the US embassy in Dublin precisely so she and Rick could come home and help mend the country’s torn social fabric.

A Braver Angels friend, plus Sienna Mae Heath, Rick Hotchner, and Barbara Thomas pose with political thinker Dave Rubin, who stopped by the booth.

They found Braver Angels in the fall through a podcast Rick heard with John Wood, Jr.—“Look at this, this is what we’ve been talking about,” he told her. They did several workshops, discussions and a debate, attended our big virtual town hall after the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, trained to do outreach for Braver Angels as ambassadors, and decided that Braver Angels was where they needed to put their energy.

“This is one of the things Rick and I have talked about with the problems in the country,” Barbara said. “No one’s coming to save us. We have to save ourselves.”

Braver Angels on the road

When a friend told Barbara about FreedomFest this spring, she got to work. With a green light from national leadership, she worked up a proposal, a budget, and a plan. And before we knew it, Braver Angels had made its very first financial investment in outreach to a political community. We were going to FreedomFest. And then… we were there.

Rick and Barbara were not the only BA leaders soaking in fresh ideas and that spirit of goodwill at FreedomFest. Braver Angels librarian Jennifer Livingston, herself a libertarian, was there for a second time, along with “conservatarian” Rick Kananen. Sienna Mae Heath, an independent, snapped pics with influencers like Dave Rubin and JP Sears and spoke about her micro-documentary Real Unity. And Republican conservative Steve House, Braver Angels’ senior director of strategic partnerships, worked the room—finding new ways to spread our wings wherever he could.

Do you know of an event us Braver Angels should flock to? A gathering where we can reach folks where they are and show them a glimpse of where we all could be? Want to help get us there? Email moni@braverangels.org with your idea to let me know!

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