A Berkeley Activist Tries to Bring Civility to the Trump Era

Living Room conversations
From left, Elizabeth Warner, John Gable, Joan Blades talk politics with Anita Sarah Jackson, front, in Blades' living room. Blades wants to bring civility back to politics. Grant Burningham

If you needed more proof that the country is painfully divided over politics, picture this. A former divorce mediator, trained in the art of keeping husbands and wives from throttling each other, is trying to create a calm, safe space for people to talk about politics.

Living Room Conversations is the brainchild of Joan Blades of Berkeley, California. A political activist and former divorce mediator, Blades is another voice in the chorus calling for more bipartisanship in Trump-riven America. But unlike good government crusaders like the No Labels group, a must join for Washington centerists, Blades wants to focus on individuals one living room at a time.

“We're not hearing a shared narrative,” Blades says, meaning we’re not only divided by opinions, but by the basic facts we need to have reasonable conversations about political issues. She thinks the divisions make it much less likely that we’ll find solutions to our problems that take into account the priorities of both sides, and yes, make concessions too.

Political divisions are partially a technical problem. Facebook feeds, for instance, tend to show news from your friends, who you likely already agree with. Couple that with outlets that cater to our opinions, allowing us to self-select news, and real political conversation seems to be a dying art. (It’s telling that every year there’s a raft of articles about how to deal with Thanksgiving Dinner politics, for many one of the last bastions of political diversity.)

She sees Obamacare as the perfect example of what happens when an issue becomes too partisan to talk about. Health costs are still rising, but Democrats are in a defensive crouch and afraid to open the law to revisions. Republicans are refusing to accept anything but the total annulment of the bill.

Blades co-founded MoveOn.org, the liberal group born of the Clinton impeachment—it a plea that the country should “move on.” The group morphed into an anti-Iraq war group before it become a pillar of support for Barack Obama in 2008 and then a liberal watchdog in the years after.

Now she’s trying to make civility go viral. Living Room Conversations started in 2011 as a reaction to the divided politics of the previous presidential elections. She has hosted less than a dozen of the conversations so far, and says that the model, which was designed to be reproducible for anyone, has spread much further, although she’s not sure of numbers. It’s a small number, but she says they’ve been fruitful.

In 2012, Blades invited Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, to a conversation in her home. Blades (clad in yoga pants, an article in SFGate notes) and Meckler (wearing a cowboy hat) found their differences weren’t as big as Meckler’s belt buckle. It was a meeting that pushed the two to criminal justice reform and reducing prison rates around the country, an issue that’s found adherents on both sides of the aisle.

DSC03169 From left, Anita Sarah Jackson, Bill Bowen and Serena Witherspoon. Grant Burningham

On a recent Sunday Blades hosted another conversation with John Gable, a tech pioneer who has dabbled in politics and “leans right.” The conversation took place in Blades’ living room in her home in the Berkeley hills, surrounded by a verdant English garden. Guests were offered water glasses, Trader Joe’s chocolate, and carrots, which Gable admitted to clinging to when he felt cornered.

Gable founded All Sides, a website that wants to tackle partisanship by collecting headlines about the same news item from left, right and center. Each brought two friends ready to talk and stay civil. There was a mother from San Francisco, another from the East Bay, a college student and a San Francisco Republican Party official, who has a published nuclear thriller. It was the type of diverse crowd that gets thrown together at the beginning of an Agatha Christie novel.

Of course, merely showing up to a conversation about bringing agreement to the public sphere can seem like a political decision in an era where we are arguing about if our government should work at all.

Berkeley may seem like a strange place to start the search for compromise in politics. It’s the town where the counter-culture actually aged into just culture. The night’s topic, nuclear weapons, is a settled question in Berkeley, where they’ve been formally banned since 1986.

The most striking aspect of a conversation is lack of tension. Everyone knows they’re here to hear out the other side, so there’s no bodyslams. “It gets heated in a good way,” Blades says, “No shouting. Sometimes there’s a ‘you must be kidding!’”

But Blades and Gable guide the talk through the high cost of maintaining and upgrading nuclear weapons, which everyone admitted being concerned about, to nonproliferation overseas, the U.S. nuclear umbrella after the Cold War, and the Iran nuclear deal, but everyone stayed cool. And on the main issue there was big agreement: success means not using these weapons for another 70 years at least.

It’s a staid answer in an election season where staid answers seem to be up for debate. Donald Trump for instance has said he’d be open to using nuclear weapons on ISIS and has hinted at big changes to the U.S. nuclear umbrella if he’s elected.

Complaints were few. At the end of several rounds of comments, with no interruptions, Serena Witherspoon, a Berkeley college student, said she felt her ideas might have been misunderstood. She was referring to Bill Bowen, who has the thankless job of being secretary of the Republican Party in lefty San Francisco. Bowen, she said, thought her ideas on nuclear security were dismissed as “a magic wand.”  Still she was really glad to have the talk .

“I’d love to talk to more people like you!” she said.

“It’s good your mind is open,” Bowen said, “It really is.”

“Well, sort of open, I really want to be able to improve my points,” Witherspoon said. They both left with a smile.