GUILDERLAND — As Election Day approaches, it has become ever apparent that we, the people, need couples’ counseling.
The subject of politics has become a “non-contact sport,” said Mark Curiale, the public information officer for the Guilderland Public Library. To address the issue, the library is hosting a unique workshop devised to bridge the ever-expanding divide between the left and the right.
The library has invited Better Angels, a national citizens’ movement organized to reduce the political polarization in the country, to introduce its Red/Blue Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 27, from 9:30 am. to 4:30 p.m.
The Red/Blue Workshop is the organization’s signature program designed to help opposing views to share ideas in a civil manner. It brings together seven conservative-leaning participants and seven progressive-leaning participants for moderated activities and discussions that clarify disagreements, reduces stereotyped thinking, and begin building the relationships needed to find common ground.
In a conference call with representatives from both the library and Better Angels, today’s political climate was described as more acrimonious than the Vietnam War era.
Last week, the Pew Research Center published its findings on a recent survey focused on the polarization among today’s voters. The divide is apparent when considering the importance of each of 18 issues. Pew Research Center stated that Democrats view 13 of 18 issues as “very big” problems. Conversely, Republicans see only five issues equally as urgent.
Within those big issues, there appears to be little overlap. Several of the topics ranked most important to Democrats are viewed as big problems by fewer than a third of Republican voters.
The survey included a group of more than 10,000 people. Large partisan gaps were observed under climate change and illegal immigration.
The apparent lack of a common ground between both sides has caused some people to conceal their party allegiance within social circles. Outside of the barbs traded over social media, conversations between people of differing views have all but stopped in recent years. The observation was made that people who identify themselves with a particular party often shy away from doing so in public.
“Clearly, there are times when I don’t identify myself as a Republican,” said Roger Collen, another representative from Better Angels. When he suspects he’s outnumbered, he won’t share this political views. Once someone learns he’s a Republican, assumptions are immediately made, though his personal views may not always align with party agenda. By keeping quiet, it prevents the other side from learning that not all politics are “Red and Blue.”
The Pew Research Center did observe somewhat of a common ground when peering into how each person graded the severity of each topic. For example, while only 22 percent of Republicans view the rich-poor gap as a “very big” problem, 61 percent stated it as at least a “moderately big” problem.
The Red/Blue Workshop adopts some of its practices from couples’ counseling, said Riley Hart, the state coordinator for Better Angels. Participants are encouraged to ask questions. Those questions, she said, are vetted through a process that prevents what she called the “gotcha question.” Questions are answered, but the forum does not allow for a volley of comments. It’s designed for each side to learn how to ask questions with respect and to listen to responses with the intent to learn. Instead of identifying factors that define their differences, the program helps the group focus on common principles.
“We at the library are happy to be able to offer our community the opportunity to address the divisiveness in our current political climate,” said Amy McCarthy, the library’s programming and public services director.
As the popularity of the program grows, Hart said it serves as a means to network “alliances” within different communities.
“It’s good for the participants in that they are able to humanize the other side and debunk stereotypes,” she said. “They will also learn skills they should be able to carry out for the rest of their lives.”