Political Divorce: Can This Red/Blue Marriage Be Saved?

Julie and Joe Mandarino became Better Angels moderators to help jumpstart civil conversations between reds and blues.

Recently, my wife Julie and I led an unlikely workshop: We brought together a group of local Democrats and Republicans to talk politics. But the goal was not to debate—it was to listen and learn about the other side.

It’s something I never expected to do. Dismayed by how tribal our political groups have become, I routinely change the subject when politics comes up. So how did I get here?

Last fall, Julie, a former psychology professor, excitedly told me about an article by prominent marriage therapist Bill Doherty discussing the nation’s political divide. “He thinks that our political polarization is like a couple in crisis,” she said. “Each side feels aggrieved and believes the other is the problem and the person who should change.”

Even though Julie is the one who specializes in couples’ relationships, I found the parallel to our current political polarization not only novel, but also spot on.

“There’s more,” she went on. “He had the insight that the same tools he uses to help resolve marital tensions in his office could help to reduce political animosity in the country. So he created a workshop that brings Democrats (blues) and Republicans (reds) together and applies relationship tools to promote communication and understanding between them—and hopefully bridge the divide.”

Julie was talking about the Red/Blue Workshop that Doherty designed to provide a structure in which reds and blues could interact respectfully. In Doherty’s words, his workshop aims to “counter the decades-long trend toward viewing people who differ from us as not just misguided or uninformed, but also as ill-motivated and dangerous.” When he began offering his workshop in 2016, it was so successful that a citizens’ grassroots organization—called Better Angels—formed to offer Red/Blue Workshops in towns across the country. The “end goal,” says Doherty, “is humanizing one another despite our political differences.”

Inspired, Julie and I underwent the Better Angels training to moderate the workshop. We held the first Red/Blue Workshop in Iowa at the Fairfield Public Library on July 14. Marg Dwyer, Seth Miller, and Jeff Shipley stepped forward to recruit seven blues and six reds. These 13 participants accepted the invitation knowing only that the purpose was to have a civil conversation with people of a different political color.

To be honest, I was nervous. Probably everyone else was, too. After all, most of us have experienced disastrous political conversations. Even talking about the workshop with our friends brought unexpectedly close-minded responses, from claiming that sitting at the table with the other side is “legitimizing the enemy” to a flat-out refusal even to consider that the other side might have a valid point of view.

This “I’m right—you’re wrong” stance is what Doherty often sees in distressed couples. He fears the same dynamic is bringing America to the brink of “civic divorce.”

Doherty acknowledges that such political conversations are much harder than couple’s therapy. “These are strangers,” he explains, “Strangers from different tribes. And these tribes have been at war.”

Up front, we made it clear in the workshop that no one was being asked to change their political beliefs. Instead, they were simply asked to listen openly to the other side and look for common ground. This practice of listening without debating seems to be key. By the end of the three-hour workshop, the participants expressed amazement at how much they all had in common. They also reported feeling encouraged about the possibility of crossing the divide and having sincere conversations with friends, family, and others where there previously had been political tension.

We also felt encouraged—enough to envision offering more Red/Blue Workshops. In addition, we plan to form a Better Angels Alliance—a group of reds and blues who meet regularly and, following the workshop guidelines, discuss difficult issues.

Volunteering as Better Angels moderators is our form of public service to help de-escalate the polarization that threatens our national unity. We share Bill Doherty’s hope that “my fellow citizens don’t really want a civic divorce and, if offered the right container for conversation, will choose to access the better angels of their nature.”

All Better Angels events are free. For more information, visit Better-Angels.org. To contact Joe and Julie, email BetterAngelsIowa@gmail.com.