How one grassroots organization is healing the divide in a politically fractured America

Aiding Americans in civil conversations in divisive time
WATCH: Divided states of America: finding common ground among political enemies

Chris and Kim Watson may live together in the same home in Oregonia, Ohio, but they are on opposite sides of the United States’ growing political divide.

Chris is a staunch conservative, while Kim is a steadfast Democrat.

After Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016, Chris says he had to keep his head down and stay out of his wife’s way.

“I was in a terrible funk,” Kim says. “I didn’t leave the house for five days. I was very depressed.”

One couple with two opposing political beliefs in the Trump era
One couple with two opposing political beliefs in the Trump era

One thing the couple says has helped to keep their marriage on solid ground is Better Angels, a national grassroots organization that fights political polarization.

The group was created in Lebanon, Ohio, three weeks after Trump’s victory with the goal of helping liberals and conservatives to understand each other beyond their respective stereotypes.

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Co-founder David Lapp says relationships between Republicans and Democrats have been fractured by contempt.

“If I hear you’re a Democrat, you’re a ‘libtard,’” Lapp says. “And if I hear you’re a Trump supporter, then you’re a racist, xenophobic sexist.”

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The group has 9,000 members across the country and holds debates and workshops. It teaches participants how to improve their listening skills and focus on common ground instead of what divides them.

One of the group’s other co-founders, Bill Doherty, is a couples therapist, and Lapps says some of the same principles apply.

“We’ve got a country on the brink of a civic divorce,” he says.

Global News recently attended a Better Angels health-care debate at a church hall in Lebanon. The turnout was about 20 participants, split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

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Kouhyar Mostashfi says the group has helped him remember people on the other side of the political divide are Americans, too.

“After the election of 2016, I started looking at Republicans as the enemy,” Mostashfi says. “I thought of them as an impediment to making the country move forward.”

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A Better Angels debate on health care held in Lebanon, Ohio, on Dec. 4.
A Better Angels debate on health care held in Lebanon, Ohio, on Dec. 4.

The focus of Better Angels meetings isn’t convincing the other side why they’re wrong but, instead, understanding why the other side feels the way they do.

The organization also suggests participants focus on policies instead of motives. For example, just because someone wants tighter control at the southern border doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike immigrants.

Bill Fry says he is from the Tea Party and describes himself as “very, very red.” He participated in the Better Angels debate because he’s nervous about what the future holds as the two sides grow further apart, he says.

“This has to be done because our politicians aren’t doing it,” Fry says. “They’re never going to because of the money that comes in from lobbyists and special interests.”

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Conservative Rick Krauthoefer voted for Trump in the last election and says he’ll support him again in 2020. But Krauthoefer admits tensions are high and getting worse.

“Our country is ridiculous right now,” he says. “We have not been this divided since the Civil War.”

Kim Watson joined Better Angels early. She’s been participating in events since 2016. It took her husband Chris a bit longer to be convinced.

“I kind of thought, ‘Here’s another thing Kim’s doing. I’ll stay at home and take care of my animals,’” Chris says. “But we can actually have a very intelligent conversation and be on both sides of the fence about a lot of different things now where we couldn’t do that before.”

Kim Watson speaking at the Better Angels health-care debate. Chris Watson (seated) acted as moderator.
Kim Watson speaking at the Better Angels health-care debate. Chris Watson (seated) acted as moderator.

With another election 11 months away, Lapp says the organization has big plans for 2020. It has a national bus tour on the agenda and a national convention set for next summer in Charlotte, N.C.

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For more information, visit the Better Angels website.