It started with an election.
In 2018, Dr. Carolyn Dupont, a Blue from Jessamine County, ran as a Democrat for the Kentucky Senate. While on the campaign trail, she met constituents from across the political spectrum who were drawn to her message of decency – warning about the perils of polarization and hyper-partisanship. “People were more interested in that than anything else I said,” she explained.
One of those constituents was Dr. Steve Clements, a Red who not only shares her frustration but also her motivation to address the division. “We are both trying to explain this landscape to 20-year-olds,” Steve said. He’s a professor of political science at Asbury University, while Carolyn is a professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University.
Since Steve teaches a class on state and local politics, he invited Carolyn to speak to his students about her experience running for office. “There are alumni who still reference that class with Carolyn and how impressed they were,” he said.
As they began recruiting members to join the alliance, Carolyn reached out to people she met on the campaign trail.
After the election, Carolyn channeled her energy into building a local Braver Angels alliance and she asked Steve to be her Red co-chair. “Steve and I are real friends,” she said. “He was a natural person for me to reach out to because we have had so many conversations bemoaning the state of politics.”
As they began recruiting members to join the alliance, Carolyn reached out to people she met on the campaign trail: “I followed up with around 30 of them and 20 said yes.” Not all of them were strangers; in fact, many of them knew each other from church, rotary clubs, or other forms of political involvement. “It helped that people have been in Jessamine for a long time,” Steve said. “Many have been here their whole lives.”
Just outside of Lexington – a city of 300,000 people known for its horse farms and racetracks – Jessamine County is a “bedroom community with a rural sensibility.” It’s predominantly Red – voting Republican in every presidential election since 2000 – and has a strong sense of community, which the alliance is rooted in. “If Braver Angels disappeared tomorrow, our relationships would go on,” Carolyn said.
This grounding in community adds an interesting dimension to the alliance – making it both harder and easier to talk about politics. On one hand, there’s more at stake. “If you go to church with somebody and you have a political disagreement with them outside of church, you’re still going to see them,” Carolyn said. However, since some relationships predated the alliance, “there’s a deeper reservoir of trust.”
For Steve and Carolyn, this alliance is an opportunity to give people a place to hash out their opinions without fear of judgment or ridicule. “It’s common to stop talking about politics with people you know because it can go off the rails,” Steve said. “This is our attempt to very modestly cut against that.” But it was a process – during which they gradually developed their depolarization skills through workshops and film and book discussions.
“After a year, everyone agreed we were playing it pretty safe,” Carolyn said. Alliance members began asking for a chance to put their skills to the test by diving deep into a specific political issue. Carolyn had heard about other alliances doing Common Ground Single Issue Workshops, and she wanted to give it a try, so they went for it – deciding on abortion as the issue to explore. “Of course we chose an easy topic,” Steve joked.
“I felt like if we could get past this issue we could talk about almost anything.”
Suddenly, the pressure was on. “Abortion has been one of the biggest drivers of politics in this area for decades,” Carolyn said. While Jessamine County used to be a reliably Blue area, the association of abortion with Democrats turned Evangelicals in the area into single-issue Red voters, she explained.
On top of that, the issue of abortion was also dominating the national discourse. At the time they decided to do the workshop, a leaked Supreme Court draft indicated Roe v. Wade would soon be overturned. Less than two months later, it was. This put Kentucky’s trigger ban into effect, making nearly all abortions illegal unless performed to save the mother’s life. “I felt like if we could get past this issue we could talk about almost anything,” Carolyn said.
Leading up to the workshop, Carolyn and Steve assigned two-hours worth of readings so people came in with a common base of knowledge. They wanted to make sure they incorporated a variety of viewpoints, so they had everyone read a chapter from The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship, written by Daniel K. Williams, a pro-life Evangelical. “He talks about how abortion is an economic issue – an issue of poverty,” Carolyn said. “It was eye-opening to hear a pro-life person saying if we want to stop abortion we need to have some economic answers.”
They also provided fact sheets and statistics to ensure it was a factually-driven conversation, and not solely a moral one. Additionally, they read about proactive policy solutions that could reduce the need for abortions, specifically digging into Colorado’s success with long-acting reversible contraception (LARC). “We were blown away by it,” Carolyn said. “It helped me see how our political system has driven us to frame the issue in the wrong way. We focus on abortion or no abortion, but we don’t think about other solutions.”
“It didn’t even come close to breaking us. Instead, we were heartened by how much we agreed on.”
Given the relevancy and urgency of the issue, Carolyn said the alliance went into this workshop believing it would either make or break them. But the result was nothing short of “miraculous,” she said. “It didn’t even come close to breaking us. Instead, we were heartened by how much we agreed on.” Together, they compiled a comprehensive list of “Truth Statements,” which everyone supported – regardless of their political affiliation.
From there, they each took on a different task. “One member will be sending the list to 55 local pastors. Another has contacted the press, and two others are going to reach out to the director of the County Health Department,” Carolyn said. “I spoke to a Blue state legislator about filing a bill and told them we really need this LARC program because it would address the problem in a way most people can support.”
Each alliance across the country operates in its own way. In Jessamine County, they took their time before tackling a contentious debate – and it worked. “I don’t think we could’ve done the abortion issue workshop if we hadn’t laid a foundation for a year,” Carolyn said. And they’ve come a long way. “After our first workshop, people were astounded,” Carolyn said. “They couldn’t believe we were talking about politics in a civil fashion.”
Steve agreed, adding that there aren’t many places for political issues to be honestly and thoroughly explored. “There’s not a natural arrangement for this to happen,” he said. But he said having the support and structure of a national organization like Braver Angels makes the difference. “It’s kind of like political therapy,” he said. “Or political Sunday school,” Carolyn chimed in.
“Cultivating openness for someone even when you don’t agree – doing this changes a person.”
Either way, the Jessamine County Alliance has had an impact on the community, the members, and the people who lead it. “Somebody asked me why I did this and I told them, ‘I do it for myself,’” Carolyn said. “Cultivating openness for someone even when you don’t agree – doing this changes a person.”
“It changes your sense of how you want to be in the world. And that’s the most valuable thing about it.”
For more information on Braver Angels alliances and how to get involved, go to this link. To sign up for or learn more about the Common Ground Single Issue Workshops, go to this link. To suggest more stories I could report from the Braver Angels community, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.