ST. PAUL — Sam Erb made Republicans seem like the worst self-hating psychos on the planet.
“We are racist, homophobic, sexist, deplorable, Islamophobic and any other kind of phobic there is,” said Erb, a dedicated Republican from Minneapolis.
But then, listening to Beth Varro, it seemed like Democrats were the monsters of humanity.
“We are baby killers,” announced Varro, a Democrat, as she made a list on a poster-board. “We think we are the elites, the intellectuals. We want open borders. We are anti-business.”
The self-flagellation face-off was set up by Better Angels, a group formed after the 2016 election to encourage civil conversations between Democrats and Republicans. It began in South Lebanon, Ohio, and now organizes workshops and conversations nationwide. The meetings have become more common around the Twin Cities as of late.
The group allowed the St. Paul Pioneer Press to attend a Jan. 26 session in an Inver Grove Heights library for a peek into the emotional discussions. Afterward, it didn’t seem like anyone was ready to change sides — yet there was a dramatic thawing between the two groups.
“This is encouraging,” said Paul Kirst, a New Brighton Democrat. “This is what we need to get back to good government.”
Start by declaring your politics
In most social gatherings, people hide their political leanings. But at the Better Angels meeting, they wore them on their chests — by picking a red or blue nametag designating Republican or Democrat.
Moderator Kim Martinson said Democrats dominate the metro-area meetings, because the region usually leans blue. “In Ohio, they have a hard time finding blues,” she said.
Red nametagged Emily Helgeson, of Eagan, explained why Republicans shy away from public exposure.
“We reds run into so much anti-conservative behavior. There are only so many times you can be called a racist and sexist,” said Helgeson.
She was among six Republicans who joined seven Democrats as the Inver Grove Heights meeting began.
The group split in two, so members of each party could air prejudices they had experienced.
In the red group, the stereotypes tumbled out of every mouth.
They felt attacked and accused of being pro-gun “and pro-violence,” unconcerned about the environment or the plight of minorities.
The Democrat meeting was similar, with different stereotypes.
They felt attacked and accused of being soft on crime, wasteful of taxpayer money, and eager to demand government help for minorities.
Now present your case
Then, the next phase of the workshop: Discussing why each party was best for the nation.
Each group sat in a circle to talk as the other group listened — at times visibly struggling not to interrupt.
The reds went first.
They wanted to show that they were not enemies of various groups — only that they opposed government programs to give those groups special treatment.
“Just because we don’t want the welfare state doesn’t mean we hate the poor,” said Helgeson.
Lisa Sinna, from Stacy, said liberals make the mistake of seeing people as members of groups rather than as individuals. “That stifles their personal growth,” she said.
Another Republican added: “If you have a problem, you fix it yourself. That’s how you grow as a person.”
Then Democrats circled up to formulate their message to America.
Alexandra Atrubin, of Minneapolis, said a winning issue for Democrats was climate change. “Without taking the long view on that, all of this is moot,” she said.
Several responded to what they had just heard from the Republicans. America’s past treatment of minorities, said Atrubin, should be considered along with individual expectations.
Most Democrats linked conservative positions to President Donald Trump, which is something the Republicans did not do. For example, Democrats tied the issue of border security to Trump’s proposed wall — which Democrats consistently opposed.
Kirst said Democrats should send a message of restoring civility in political language. “Right now, if you believe differently from me, I hate you. That’s terrible,” said Kirst.
The payoff: Reuniting divided groups
In the final phase of the workshop, the groups reunited in one big circle. Several of them — this was the payoff for the entire session — spoke with members of the opposite party.
Republican Sinna said she was surprised to hear that Democrats don’t want open borders — allowing anyone, for any reason, to enter the U.S. from Mexico.
“That is not what you want?” she asked the Democrats. “Well, that’s what I hear. That’s what people are campaigning on — open borders.”
“That blows my mind,” responded Democrat Atrubin. “That would be a horrible way to run a country. Just don’t put kids in cages. Give them water.”
Several Republicans nodded in agreement.
When it was over, Democrat Atrubin applauded the Better Angels format. “This entire workshop is worth it,” she said.
Republican Erb hung around, chatting with Democrats.
“I am having a great time,” he said.