GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) - They sat in a circle, Republicans next to Democrats, Trump supporters alongside Trump critics.
No one pointed fingers.
No one yelled at anyone.
When it was over, everyone shook hands.
On a recent rainy evening, 10 people gathered inside a Gettysburg church - not far from the rolling hills where Union and Confederate soldiers fought a climactic battle that turned the tide of the Civil War - and tried to find ways to heal the deep political divisions that have engulfed America in another sort of civil war.
First, however, the group, which calls itself Politics, Facts and Civility, had to agree on a few rules.
“We’re here to be nice to each other,” said Currie Kerr Thompson, a retired Gettysburg College professor and the group’s leader.
Several participants smiled. A few placed hands over their mouths to stifle laughs.
“It’s natural to interrupt, but we’re going to suppress that inclination,” Thompson continued, peering over his glasses as if he were lecturing one of his college classes. “And we’re also going to refrain from rolling our eyes and making inappropriate noises.”
What followed was more than 90 minutes of utterly peaceful discourse. First, the group focused on America’s drug policies. But then the discussion turned to a broader issue: the roiling political polarization that seems to be worsening as the Nov. 6 midterm elections draw near.
Polls tell us that voters are not just unhappy with their elected leaders - and with the media who cover them. A vast majority of Americans harbor profound worries that the country’s fractured politics - amplified by social media and 24-hour cable news - have turned once-sober policy debates into verbal wrestling matches. The result is a growing belief that only the most extreme voices drive the national discussion. Ordinary folks feel lost. And elected leaders - even at the local level - are left hamstrung, fearing that even a hint at compromise with their political opponents will result in political death.
All of these factors were behind the efforts to form Gettysburg’s Politics, Facts and Civility group - one of the few of its kind in the country.
Thompson, 75, a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Hower, 71, a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump and the leader of the Adams County Republican Party, joined forces in early 2017 when it became clear to both that the discordant national political dialogue had deteriorated even more, in tiny Gettysburg and across the nation. Each felt their town’s role in helping to preserve a fractured union in the 1860s made it a uniquely symbolic place to find common ground between the disparate, angry fringes that now threaten to tear America apart.
But Thompson says he immediately faced a vexing challenge. One of his most “troubling experiences,” he said, was convincing people to come to the group’s meetings. “A number of people,” he said, “don’t want to talk to those people they disagree with.”
But the few who initially joined say they were motivated by a sense of duty to their nation that transcends politics. “I’m the eternal optimist, but I’m a little worried about the country,” said Cindy Daley, 63, who works for a legal services program that helps people find affordable housing. “Our country survives as long as we have faith in it, as long as we have faith in the institutions. And I see that faith just peeling apart.”
No interrupting and no eye rolling - those are among the ground rules for Politics, Facts and Civility, a bipartisan discussion group that meets at Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Gettysburg, Pa.
A promise to keep talking
At the end of one recent meeting, there was no consensus, no plan of action - just a promise to meet again and keep talking. It was a small victory nonetheless - though far less consequential than the Union army’s pivotal triumph at Gettysburg, it was noteworthy that such a diverse group could meet without trading insults or punches.
For many in the group, as it does for most Americans, the mere mention of Gettysburg conjures images of the sort of carnage that can occur when a nation is so deeply divided that it goes to war with itself. Even today, some Gettysburg buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes from the three-day battle in July 1863 that left nearly 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered at a battlefield cemetery just four months after the shooting ended - in particular his call to preserve a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” - remains a touchstone of America’s civic ideals.
In the waning days of the 2016 campaign, Trump came to Gettysburg to outline his goals for his first 100 days in office, including a pledge to “drain the swamp in Washington, D.C., and replace it with a new government of, by and for the people.” In that same speech, Trump also urged Americans to “rise above the noise and the clutter of our broken politics.”
Now, almost two years later, members of Thompson and Hower’s group agree that the nation appears woefully dysfunctional, in part because of Trump’s habit of verbally bashing his critics. A government “of, for and by the people” seems like a distant dream.
“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers,” said Chad Collie, citing an African proverb to call attention to the divisions between Republicans and Democrats, quickly amending it by adding references to the mascots for America’s main political parties - donkeys for Democrats and elephants for Republicans.
Collie, 42, a contractor who voted for Trump “despite opposing his bad behavior,” says Trump’s Gettysburg speech helped convince him that the real estate developer and reality TV star was ready for the presidency. At the same time, Collie believes Trump has contributed mightily to the acrimony that continues to color American politics.
“When you reduce things to short sound bites,” Collie said, “there’s no wonder that everything turns into polarization.”
Dale Williams, 68, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain, agreed. Like Collie and others in the group, Williams felt that the nation’s polarized climate is hindering dialogue between disparate groups.
“That’s the frustrating thing for me,” said Williams, a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Gettysburg who now volunteers as a counselor to inmates at the Adams County Jail. “How do we get people to talk to each other?”
“Let’s find things we can agree on,” Collie suggested.
Williams nodded. “When I think about trying to solve the nation’s problems, it becomes frustrating,” he said. “Maybe we should try to find some local issues we can agree on.”
Williams, who cast a write-in vote for a candidate he declined to name because he could not bring himself to vote for Clinton or Trump, said in an interview that he is hopeful that America can come together. “Even during the Civil War, the citizens of Gettysburg took care of the Confederate wounded soldiers,” he said.
Bringing others to the table
The Rev. Herb Sprouse, the rector of Prince of Peace Episcopal Church, which has hosted the group for more than a year, said he yearns for some sign that the most extreme voices on each side will find a way to reconcile, or at the very least promise to speak respectfully to each other.
“How do we cultivate people beyond our circles of conversation?” Sprouse asked at one point. “How do we plant the desire for reconciliation?
Finding answers to such questions, Sprouse said, is hardly easy.
“Even maintaining civil conversation under certain circumstances can be very hard work,” he said, looking at each member. “From time to time, we’ve had conversations that have had their provocative moments. But a group like this is only in the room because we value the attempt, and maybe we think that if we do it we’ll get better at it, and maybe it has some impact around us.”
Sprouse paused and looked around the circle.
“It’s not that we have to agree. It’s not that we have to believe the same things,” Sprouse said. “But we have to be in a relationship that allows society to function.”
Darcy Maier, 59, a social worker who specializes in care for seniors, described herself as a “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat” who has “never voted for a Republican president.” She joined the group because she feared that the nation’s political fissures were widening to a point where they might not ever be repaired.
“I certainly would never have envisioned myself on this quest of trying to heal the political divide,” Maier said. “After the last election, though, it seemed like the possibility of actual revolution or civil war might be real if we don’t take active steps to prevent it.”
At the same time, others are less hopeful that the group will succeed.
Zach Brillhart, 21, the leader of Gettysburg’s Young Conservatives Club, predicts that the nation’s political divide will likely widen.
“I don’t see groups of people suddenly getting together, coming together and operating as one,” Brillhart, who voted for Trump and is not a member of the civility group, said as he handed out campaign literature at a retirement home on the outskirts of Gettysburg. “I think you’re always going to have a division.”
Back to the battlefield
Gettysburg, a 2-square-mile college town of roughly 7,800 residents, has long been the cultural, social, economic and political nexus of Adams County, a rolling, 522-square-mile landscape of apple farms, horse pastures and truck warehouses in south-central Pennsylvania that is home to nearly 103,000 people.
But Gettysburg is staunchly progressive and Democratic, while the rest of Adams County is something of a Republican bastion. Hillary Clinton captured nearly 65 percent of the nearly 2,800 votes cast in Gettysburg in the 2016 presidential election. But Trump took nearly 69 percent of the more than 45,000 votes that were cast throughout the county.
Despite their political differences, Thompson and Hower realized they had much in common. Both were educators. Thompson taught Spanish at Gettysburg College for nearly 30 years; Hower still works as a substitute teacher in the local public schools.
They had something else in common: Their ancestors fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Three of Thompson’s great uncles served with North Carolina militia units that were among Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces that stormed into southern Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Two of those great uncles were killed later in the war.
Meanwhile, several of Hower’s ancestors fought on the Union side at Gettysburg. One of them, she said, was captured during a skirmish on the city’s outskirts and was held as a prisoner of war by the Confederates.
Thompson, who was raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina and still speaks with traces of a Southern drawl, calls himself a “blue voter” - a Democrat. But he says he is hardly a party loyalist.
“I think my party has been blind on many things, like not recognizing the legitimate frustration of people who are not just unemployed but underemployed,” he said.
At the same time, Thompson said that far too many Democrats also have been “too prone to blow … off as racism” any attempt to curtail illegal immigration.
“I think the blue voters have not paid attention to many of the needs of the red voters,” Thompson said at his home outside Gettysburg, not far from a field where his great uncles’ units camped before the battle. “This extreme politicization is hurting us emotionally, morally and intellectually.”
Appealing to the nation’s ‘Better Angels’
Thompson hopes the group he formed with Hower will spark a national effort to bring a degree of peace and civility to the nation’s political debates. Beginning this fall, he plans to join forces with a national movement called “Better Angels” - the name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address - that offers seminars on how people can discuss their political differences.
“I have to recognize that it may not work when people are as divided as we are,” Thompson said. “But I would rather spend what time I have left trying to help bridge the divide than to be saying antagonistic things to tear us apart.”
Hower agrees - though, like Thompson, she is hardly willing to stray from her rock-solid support of Republicans in general and Trump in particular.
She is such a fan of Trump that she carries a cardboard box in her car filled with Trump election signs and other campaign memorabilia. Ask her to name Trump’s accomplishments and she quickly ticks off a litany - his tax cuts, his attempts to curtail illegal immigration, his scuttling of the Iran nuclear agreement, his negotiations with North Korea and China.
She pooh-poohs the ongoing investigation into whether Trump or anyone involved with his campaign had involvement with Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. She also has no problem with Trump paying a pornographic actress and a former Playboy model to buy their silence about affairs they say they had with him before he was president.
“It would be nice if we could come together to support the man, because it is our country,” Hower said one evening as she set up campaign signs on the eve of Pennsylvania’s May primary. “He’s not perfect.”
Much of the criticism of Trump, she added, seems to come from a disconnect between America’s heartland - Trump Country - and the more progressive East and West coasts.
“There’s a definite divide,” Hower said. “It’s a different way of looking at life. It goes deeper than the surface issues. In my opinion, it has to do with the individual spirit.”
Whether the group that Hower and Thompson started can smooth out Gettysburg’s divisions - and offer a template for the nation - remains to be seen.
Hower says she is happy that the progressives in the group don’t see her as a conservative Republican “with horns.”
Thompson is more hopeful.
As the meeting ended, he read a short passage from an essay in which the French philosopher Albert Camus observed that “violence and hatred dry up the heart.”
The group fell silent.
“I don’t know which side is going to win, but I can tell you if the polarizers prevail, no one will win,” Thompson said. “Wouldn’t you rather fail trying to bring people together than succeed in tearing them apart?”
The group members nodded.
Moments later, Thompson smiled and added: “Today Gettysburg; Tomorrow the world.”
This is the first installment in “Divided: A Road Trip Through Trump’s America,” a five-part series that details some of the issues facing five corners of America that supported President Donald Trump in 2016 - and how the people who call those areas home view the state of the union as the Nov. 6 midterm elections approach. Photos and video by Chris Pedota.
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com
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