The nation is deeply at odds over politics but one woman believes simple conversations can lessen the gap.
Talk to nearly any academic or pollster about the political divide between left and right, and he or she is likely to tell you it's more of a chasm: Deep, growing wider and, since the election of President Donald Trump, seemingly impossible to bridge.
But Joan Blades is trying to do just that – help the nation's die-hard liberals and rock-ribbed conservatives reach out to each other, over one coffee table at a time.
"As a country we have never gotten to a place of such deep dysfunction," Blades, founder of Living Room Conversations, told U.S. News in a recent interview about the project.
"We've always been proud of this country for having different [political and religious] beliefs, and being a proud, functioning democracy. We're not doing well on this right now," she says. "We need to reinvest and connect with each other."
As the name implies, Blades believes that reinvestment and those connections begin with simple conversation in a living room of a house or apartment – a space nearly everyone has in common. After promising to leave judgment and political agendas at the door, she says, participants engage in the simple yet radical act of respectfully considering one another's points of view on the topic at hand.
"It's just six people sitting around talking, " says Blades, who launched Living Room Conversations in 2011 with Amanda Kathryn Roman, a corporate leadership consultant, after testing the concept in a pilot program. "It's about creating good relationships with each other. This is really a listening program."
And the goal, according to the LRC web site, is to create "a world in which people who have fundamental differences of opinion and backgrounds learn to work together with respect – and even joy – to realize the vibrant future we all desire for ourselves and our families."
By using informal dialogue and simple techniques, "we hope participants will build relationships that generate understanding and enable collaborative problem-solving," the website states.
Hear hear, says Dan Glickman, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist Washington think tank. Glickman, who was agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, says LRC's grass-roots effort is part of a growing, much-needed movement encouraging red and blue voters talking to one another again.
"We all need to listen to each other more," Glickman writes in an email. "The vast majority of Americans are tired of and turned off by incessant partisan bickering while so many problems need solving."
While it's not surprising to see a centrist politician take up the mission, however, Blades – a former businesswoman and political activist from ultra-liberal Berkeley, California – is a co-founder of MoveOn.Org, one of the left's leading public-interest groups.
Since 1998, when she helped create MoveOn, Blades has fueled campaigns to push national politicians to the left, on issues conservatives love to hate. Besides backing Democratic politicians, including former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the party's 2016 presidential nominee, MoveOn supports the Black Lives Matter movement, marijuana decriminalization and immigration reform.
But Blades, who made her fortune as one of the developers of the After Dark screensavers and the "You Don't Know Jack" computer trivia games, says it makes perfect sense for her to have bipartisanship as the driving force for her third career.
"I'm a mediator by training and inclination," she says, adding that she authored a book on techniques for settling differences, especially in contentious divorce cases. Moreover, she says, MoveOn.org was born during the sex scandal that paralyzed former President Bill Clinton's second term; Blades and others had launched a petition urging Congress to censure Clinton and "move on" to solving urgent problems on the national agenda.
Both Republicans and Democrats signed the petition, Blades says. The organization's tack to the left, she says, was a "natural evolution" for the membership, even though the causes they fight for shouldn't be branded with a red R or blue D.
"Our job is to serve our members and allow them to be more effective and better heard" by the powers that be, says Blades. "[Issues like] climate change – that's not a radical thing. Healthcare – that's not a radical thing. But the climate of politics and the media have caused us to be polarized, and that's unhealthy.'
She began Living Room Conversations because "I wanted to understand why the political right was not interested in climate change," Blades says. After approaching some conservative acquaintances with her guard down, she noticed a slight but profound change in her own viewpoint by the time the conversation had ended.
"There was this sense that, 'I kind of like you.'" says Blades, chuckling. "This was never a debate. This is a first conversation."
According to the LRC web site, the program format is simple. Two facilitators, typically a liberal and conservative, get together to agree to host a discussion on a particular topic from a list the organization provides – affordable housing, perhaps, gun rights or racism. After picking a date, a location and inviting guests, the moderators set ground rules calling for a civil and respectful dialogue. Then, armed with a series of LRC guideposts, the discussion begins.
In the years since its founding, LRC has taken on a national scope, with chapters popping up in several Western states; the organization has also developed programs for schools as well as for churches. In December, Blades and John Gable, her conservative business partner, delivered a prestigious TED Talk on the need to reject political labels and find common ground.
Admittedly, she says, it's tough sledding at a time when the president himself is a divisive figure dominating the political landscape, a leader who's willing to insult his political enemies and demonize opposition Democrats.
"It's apparent to more people that there's' something very wrong," Blades says. "At the same time, there's so much passion about what's wrong – what's wrong with various leaders – that it's very hard to have the conversation."
"It's hard. Sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode," she continued, but the effort will be worth it in the long run. "There's no point in not being optimistic. There's' no point in giving up. You have to make it work."