Can marriage counsellors bridge America’s political divide?

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Financial Times

What happened when hardened Democrats and Republicans got together in the same room

Lebanon is the perfect place to start a conversation about civil discord. Lebanon, Ohio, that is: an apple-pie-and-opioid small town where a small group has gathered in a church hall to figure out how to bridge America’s political divide — one that is wider now than at any time since I grew up in these parts in the 1960s. That decade was hardly known for its civic peace and harmony either. But back then, the nation split largely over policy. Today it is much more personal. Democrats seem to hate Republicans, and vice versa, for who they are, not just what they believe. Divisions like that are tough to paper over.

Which is why it is so potentially explosive for these 11 Midwesterners to give up the first warm Saturday of an unforgiving winter to sit down face to face. The goal is to use the techniques of couples counselling to help them find a way to hear each other. And the first thing they are told to do — just like in family therapy — is to look hard at their own part in the relationship breakdown.

Their political marriage counsellor is Better Angels, a group that is trying to get ordinary Americans talking — and listening — to each other again. Inspired by a real-life family therapist, its logo is the silhouette of an angel, with a red wing and a blue one. Founder David Blankenhorn says he created the group because he is worried about the kind of political polarisation that says opponents are “not just misguided but are bad people that should be shamed or shunned”.

The goal of Braver Angels isn’t to turn everyone into “purples”, or moderates: dark reds (Republicans) and deep blues (Democrats) are encouraged, in the words of one participant, to “come as they are and leave as they are” — even if that means coming, and leaving, as hard-right and hard-left. They just have to spend a few hours in the same room.

That shouldn’t be so hard for people who are, after all, neighbours in a part of the country known to be neighbourly to a fault. But like partners in the really bad marriage called America these days, many have lost the ability to be civil. They exaggerate, they taunt, they press buttons, they interrupt. These aren’t polite purples, wringing their hands over the state of the nation; these are raging reds and bitter blues, getting up close and personal to hurl barbs across the ditch that Donald Trump helped dig.

Or that’s how things start out, anyway. There’s the guy with the loud mouth, the florid complexion and the apparently uncontrollable desire to say something outrageous: when he discovers that the blue side includes a transgender dentist with a strong New York accent, he starts muttering darkly about men falling in love with llamas.

Not surprisingly, the dentist takes offence. But she wouldn’t survive long in this part of southwestern Ohio — just over an invisible line from Appalachia — without a skin thick enough to ward off a bestiality innuendo.

So nobody shouts, storms off or even rolls their eyes. They just adjourn for more cookies, a traditionally oversized Midwestern packed lunch — complete with “tater salad” and extra mayo — and more counselling. As with injured spouses, their resentment often speaks louder than their compassion: the moderator’s role is to get them somehow seeing each other as human again.

The key, I am told, is “humility”: learn to confess your own faults, not the other side’s. Red and blues start by retreating to their separate corners to come up with a list of the top five stereotypes that their opponents sling at them — and, crucially, to ask themselves whether any of these could possibly be based on the tiniest “nugget of truth”.

Republicans waste no time coming up with their top offender: while they are none too keen on being called privileged, misogynistic, homophobic immigrant-haters, what they really abhor is being labelled racists. “If I even bring up the subject of racism, I get branded a racist,” says one ex-military red who feels he has proved his colour-blind credentials by serving alongside African-Americans in the US armed forces.

Democrats, for their part, dislike being branded anti-gun, anti-values, minority-loving commie tree-huggers. But as the sole black participant in the proceedings generously points out, it’s a lot more painful to be called a racist than a tree-hugger.

He cuts through the hurt, anger and frustration on the red side to observe, with striking acuity, that when blues taunt reds, it’s personal, whereas when reds taunt blues, it’s often about policy. An aggrieved red agrees that such “personal attack titles” are deeply hurtful. And both sides recognise an instant of tribal healing: the kind where each can finally see what the other side is so worked up about.

Slowly, glimpses begin to emerge of who these people are: “I have a gay child,” says one red; “My daughter is dating a black man,” says another; “We lost our house during the financial crisis,” says a third; others on both sides lost jobs then too. Learning these truths helps enemies turn back into neighbours.

Republicans abhor being labelled racists; Democrats dislike being branded commie tree-huggers

Pretty soon the guy with the llama-loving problem is tempering his tone a bit, muting his inner megaphone, and speaking to the other side with more respect. He even publicly questions why, when asked whether there was any truth to the stereotype that some Republicans are racists, his red side had insisted that the charge was baseless.

No progress can be made until both sides — including the reds — can see that there might be a foundation, however shaky, for the other side’s complaints, he opines. Or as the youngest participant, a 19-year-old red, observes: “It’s important to see the nugget of truth in order to fix it. That’s sort of the point of this whole thing.” Pretty soon even the blues are saying she might just be the wisest person in the room.

The moment of civility is fragile, and soon the blues are back to biting their tongues and all-but-rolling their eyes as a vocal red insists that America is run by a secret shadow government (a common far-right belief) and that Democrats are intending to legalise sexual relations with six-year-olds. Now it’s time for both sides to propose ways they can get along better in future: one red suggests that each should “listen 75 per cent of the time and talk 25 per cent; use a pleasant, non-threatening tone; ask fair, honest questions; and agree where appropriate”. “Kind of like a marriage,” chimes in another red who, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be his wife.

She and her blue counterpart — they’ve been paired off, red-blue, red-blue to come up with these new rules of engagement — also agree: “We are both going to dig deeper on the issues and get the facts and know what we are talking about,” they say, begging the question of how that can happen when facts are such a battleground between rival news networks. “And we agree to use fewer trigger words,” pipes up the red — ironically, the same one who has been most trigger-word-happy from the beginning.

They are all inclined to blame their leaders for putting them on the divorce counselling couch in the first place: “We have to sit in a room like this and try to learn to talk to each other again because of our politicians,” says one blue who identifies as purple. “I don’t want to be trapped in a situation where I can’t talk to people in my own community. I’m resentful that the country I was born and raised in is acting this way.”

But even reds and blues have lives outside politics, and soon it’s time to leave the sanctuary of the church and go back to making the fractious marriage that is America work again. With this year’s midterm congressional elections on the horizon, and Ohio likely to be a battleground state, family therapy has its work cut out there. America could do worse than listen to the lessons of Lebanon, Ohio: keep talking, stay humble, shut up and listen, and remember your opponent is human too. Divorce, civic or otherwise, is just not an option.

Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s North America correspondent

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