by: Rachel Peller, Non-Profit Consultant
It could have ended in tears, to say the least. There we were, a mixed group of Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians, meeting to discuss our political differences over several mugs of caffeine, a lone raspberry smoothie, and a table that could easily be bounded by even a sub-par athlete. Some of us had never met one another; others were little more than Facebook acquaintances (two had even met on Tinder and were hopefully enjoying their first in-person encounter).
In Iowa one week before the Presidential caucuses, we were far from the only group discussing politics that blustery night. From Sioux City to Davenport and everywhere in between, we Iowans have been bombarded with political billboards flanking our daily commute and dozens of ads in our physical and virtual mailboxes on any given day. We are unable to get coffee from our favorite cafe because of the swarm of reporters covering the latest presidential candidate appearance and our Snapchat stories are filled with ten-second videos of political rallies, concerts, and forums. Unlike elsewhere in the country, talking politics has become a casual topic in smalltalk, and I've found myself more than once innocently querying a passing stranger if they've decided for whom they'll be caucusing (and even less than a week away, the answer is commonly "not yet!")
But as technology allows us more and more choice over the media we consume, and as the political divide splits along geographical, religious, and generational boundaries, many of these conversations become nothing more than preaching (or venting) to the choir. Surrounding us is an echo chamber of our own opinions reverberated back at us so many times that we are completely aghast the second we see a contradictory statement floating around in the abyss of Facebook.
We have learned to avoid discussing political differences with the loved ones we disagree with as an effort to keep the peace. But when we hold ourselves back, what kind of deeper connections are we missing out on? When we only talk to those with whom we agree, how are we able to even truly understand our own positions, much less those in opposition? And how can we demand that our candidates work across party aisles to create sustainable change when we're unable to even talk with one another?
Each of us at the table that night was willing to bundle up in complicated layers of coats, scarves, hats, gloves, and boots, warm up our cars, drive 30 mph in a 60 mph speed zone through ice, snow, and slush, and spend time talking with actual or essential strangers. Because we so rarely have the opportunity to engage with people of differing opinions without those dialogues turning into heated catastrophes, we longed for this with something deeper inside of us and seized the opportunity as it came.
So there we were: a hippie vegetable farmer, a Catholic high schooler, an immigrant justice activist, the daughter of a Minuteman (you know, those guys who stand by the US-Mexico border with guns), and a religious broadcast journalist, with seemingly nothing in common other than a unique willingness to be present and engage with one another. There was some tension at first - we were hesitant to say exactly who we were voting for, the campaigns we had worked on, or the specific parameters of our belief systems. We dove in head first, unsure of exactly what to expect, but committed to treating one another with the respect we all wanted for ourselves.
There were moments when we recognized our own biases: the Minuteman's daughter stated that the government had no right to kill humans, in reference to abortion, and the immigrant activist admitted, "I felt myself wanting to jump on you for that statement. I assumed that, because you were conservative, you supported war, and even though you already told me otherwise, I still felt that frustration about inconsistency rise in my chest. I would have argued with you immediately, rather than giving you the opportunity to clarify." We agreed that we all tended to jump to conclusions about one another, failing to create opportunities for nuanced positions and discrepancies between our own views and the platforms of our parties, even though we all admitted failing to toe the party line in both major and minor ways.
There were moments we were confronted with our own ignorances about the topics most important to others: when the Catholic high-schooler shared that one of her main concerns for the future of America was the mounting national debt, both self-identified progressives admitted that they never stayed awake at night over this issue. And when the hippie vegetable farmer expressed frustration with the public for failing to acknowledge catastrophic climate change, the conservative participants shrugged and practically jangled the keys to their trucks and SUVs. While nobody experienced a major opinion shift, we felt a new desire to support the work of one another -- at least when our causes weren't in direct opposition.
Over three hours, our group talked about candidates we had met in person, our shared concerns about violence and power, the role of government in securing human rights, and the ways that words, like socialist, liberal, conservative, and libertarian can be simultaneously insulting and empowering. We launched into tirades against sexism and our shared frustration with political apathy. We empathized with one another for surviving in politically divided homes, for receiving severe backlash after expressing our opinions online, and for putting up with divisive clickbait headlines that serve only to obfuscate issues and tear us even more apart. The five of us with seemingly so little in common were open, honest, vulnerable and, most importantly, kind. We saw the humanity in one another and now we can't look back.
By the end, we were laughing, swapping numbers, and coordinating a time to meet again - maybe over a bottle of wine. Beyond all expectations, we had become friends because we had discussed our political differences - not in spite of it.
Rachel Leigh Peller is a social and environmental justice advocate and proud Green party member. She recently organized grassroots outreach efforts for the inaugural Define American Film Festival, which brought journalists, actors, directors, activists, and community members together to discuss immigrants and identity through a human-focused lens. Rachel also consults with Living Room Conversations. Her background in the nonprofit realm, particularly addressing issues of gender, marginalization, and violence, motivated her to pursue a Masters of Public Administration at the Maxwell School. Since returning to Iowa, she has met 13 Presidential candidates (including an accidental fist bump with Rick Santorum) and asked them questions on war, domestic violence, refugees, and paid family leave. She is obsessed with her cats and hopes to someday live in a tiny house.