“There were parts where I just wanted to jump in and say, ‘This is a misrepresentation of the facts!’” Neel Mandavilli, a 20-something who’s worked for Democrats in the state and federal governments, told me a few weeks after the session. “The whole point was to just listen. I found that helpful. I left reminded that there are people on the other side, so to speak, who share that. That leaves some measure of hope for me.”
Gupton, who had gently but firmly pushed the reds to acknowledge racism, said she mostly avoids political conversations for fear of getting into contentious arguments. Although she identifies as a moderate, she told me her more conservative friends might like a Better Angels setup.
“I have a lot of friends who are much more conservative than me, and they are very hesitant to come to a table with people from the other side of the table because they’re afraid they’re going to get beat up,” she said. “But here, you’re not debating people from the other side of the table.”
There was also a conspicuous absence of strong Trump supporters. The reds mostly fit into the more classic business-friendly conservatism of, say, Mitt Romney. They weren’t necessarily Never Trumpers, but many were Reluctant Trumpers. The exception was Mary Ruth Dana, who had the most interesting political backstory in the group: She’s a former liberal who remains strongly anti-war and skeptical of corporate power in America. Her political switch made her an asset to the workshop, because she was, in effect, bilingual—able to communicate with both sides.
In 2016, Dana shocked even herself by supporting Trump. People in her social circles—she’s a painter—didn’t take it well. “I was actually quite distressed by the response I got from people I had known 10, 20, 30 years,” she told me. “They weren’t interested in why I had done it. They were just so appalled at it. The lack of open-mindedness blew me away.”
The benefit of the workshop, she said, was that she didn’t feel like she was walking on eggshells, as she often does in daily life when politics comes up. But although Dana had positive things to say about Better Angels—this was her second workshop—she was reserved in her enthusiasm.
That would come as no surprise to Selbst, from the blue group, who’d struggled during the fishbowl exercise. “I don’t believe everyone had a kumbaya moment at the end,” he said. “People said what they thought was appropriate to say.”
Selbst thought the format was good as far as it went, but he worried it didn’t go very far. “[The facilitators] tended to give equal weight to everyone’s argument and were not interested in any negativity toward that argument [from] the other people,” he said. “I firmly believe everyone should be treated with respect, but not every opinion is equally valuable.”
That’s the rub, even if you don’t agree with Selbst about which opinions are valuable and which aren’t. Ultimately, politics is about issues—not just the ability to talk, and not just procedures. Even if Better Angels can succeed in getting a large swath of the population to speak civilly, who knows if they’ll be able to convert that into productive conversation on real policies? Blankenhorn is disarmingly open about these challenges, though he told me, “I’ve worked for lost causes in this country. I know what it’s like to not get much response for something you’re trying to do. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The stakes are certainly lower now than they’ve been in earlier eras. It’s easy to forget that Better Angels’ name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speech. Lincoln’s phrase endures, but his plea for comity was unheeded: Barely a month later, the Civil War broke out. The country is not as divided today, and it’d be better to avoid getting there.