LEESBURG, Va. — Liberal Susana Isaacson, 70, and conservative Susan Symingron, 63, are friends who have bridged their political divide but couldn’t find anyone else to join their bipartisan exchanges.
“After the election, I was very saddened by the fact that we have become this country of people who don’t speak to each other,” said Ms. Isaacson.
Vitriol directed at both political camps is rampant on social media.
According to a Gallup poll taken shortly after the presidential election, 77 percent of Americans say the country is divided on the most important issues of the day.
To address this divide, the New York-based Institute for American Values launched its Better Angels project, whose professionals in civil discourse are on a “One America” bus tour.
Better Angels responds to community requests to host small groups of liberals and conservatives in conversations with each other, not about each other.
Community organizers suggest participants, and Better Angels facilitators select those who provide a balance of ideas and perspectives. People pay nothing to attend the sessions, but they have to arrange their own transportation.
“The United States is disuniting. In these large and growing separations from one another, the great task is to find our better angels, which fundamentally means finding better approaches to conflict,” the organization says in its mission statement.
Last week, Ms. Isaacson and Ms. Symingron participated in a Better Angels event in McLean, one of several in the area that ranged from single afternoon sessions to weekend workshops.
Ms. Isaacson said one thing that resonated with her at the event was the willingness and capacity of people to be thoughtful and respectful.
“There was engagement, people were present and willing to engage in conversation — and that tells that we are a lot more willing to talk to each other than we give ourselves credit for,” she said.
“The real purpose of such dialogue is to get past our very sad tendency, lately, to vilify the other side,” Ms. Symingron said.
Over the weekend, 18 self-described liberals and conservatives joined a workshop in Leesburg.
Among the participants was 18-year-old Samuel Hamblin, a transgender man from Purcellville who is active in Democratic circles but had never met a Republican save for his mother.
“I don’t know Republicans, and I want to know the other side,” Mr. Hamblin said. “My mom is Republican, and it’s sometimes hard to listen to [her], and she is the only person I have to look at that’s a Republican. The important thing here is I’m talking to people with a different experience.”
Norman Brown, 61, from Sterling, is a staunch supporter of Donald Trump who doesn’t talk politics at home with his liberal wife and his sons, who support Bernard Sanders.
He joined the event believing that Americans are putting their political beliefs ahead of their country.
“The country’s gotten too polarized,” Mr. Brown said. “There was a time where you were American. Now we’re in one camp or another.”
The Better Angels group is planning more meetings along the East Coast this summer. After the first “One America” event in Waynesville, Ohio, on July 4, the 15 liberal and conservative participants released a joint statement expressing their support for the grass-roots initiative.
“A number of us on both sides began our meeting believing that the other side could not be dealt with on the basis of rational thought,” the group wrote. “We say unanimously that our experience of talking with, rather than at or about, each other caused us to abandon that belief. We say unanimously that real people are more complicated and appealing than the stereotypes we have of them.”