Home Nonmilitary action Shortly after the 2016 election, Philippa Hughes began inviting Trump voters to...

Shortly after the 2016 election, Philippa Hughes began inviting Trump voters to her home for dinner to build bridges. Did it work? – Democracy and society

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Shortly after the 2016 election, I started inviting Trump voters to my house for dinner. I wanted to understand why nearly 63 million people voted for a man I found odious and totally unsuited to public office. I wanted to have a face-to-face conversation that wasn’t filtered by the media. Growing polarization threatens the very fabric of democracy. I believed that by bridging our divides, we could fix our democracy.

Since then, I have brought together hundreds of people from all political backgrounds to talk to each other over the past five years. Today, we are more polarized than ever in the United States and around the world. Attacks on democracy and freedom have multiplied in non-military ways. Putin has launched an unprovoked and brutal ground war against a democratically elected sovereign people. I wonder if my attempts to bridge our gaps were worth it.

Those early meals around my small dining table eventually became a relational social sculpture, in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, titled ‘Looking For America’. I’ve traveled across the country bringing strangers together to share a meal and tell humanizing stories about what it means to be American. By understanding the motivations and context that shape our beliefs, we would be better equipped to find solutions to our common challenges. I also hoped that people would find common ground through respectful and compassionate dialogue in search of a shared American identity and that empathy would bridge our divisions.

Building bridges is not easy

I never had a problem finding liberals to accept my invitation to dinner. By contrast, my invitations to curators have generally been met with resistance and skepticism. Many feared being ambushed by morally self-righteous liberals who would call them stupid and evil. I didn’t blame them. I assured them that the purpose of the dinner was to understand each other and not to persuade, and that there would be no name-calling.

Many progressives have criticized my work for similar reasons, calling it main kumbaya waving

During that time, I got to know hundreds of bridge-building and depolarizing groups and individuals. And I started to notice a trend. The vast majority of bridge builders were left-wingers. A few organizations like “Braver Angels” were run by a mix of right-wingers and left-wingers, but even their events seemed heavily skewed to the left. I wondered why people on the right didn’t seem so willing to cross the divide. People on the right seemed less attracted to deep personal stories underpinning typical left-wing depolarization efforts, and seemed to prefer debate and conflict. However, the lack of enthusiasm from the right did not discourage me.

Many progressives have criticized my work for similar reasons, calling it main kumbaya waving. I began to wonder if they were right after the January 6 insurrection, when rioters tried to stop the course of a free and fair election and a majority of Republicans supported their actions. What worried me most was that most of the rioters were not far-right radical extremists. They had been “normal” Trump voters, doctors, lawyers, business owners, real estate agents. They were the same people I had invited for dinner conversations. Perhaps crossing the gap had been futile. Perhaps I should have focused my efforts on fighting for issues I believed in, like the right to vote and reducing the vast economic inequalities that threaten our democracy.

The danger of tribalism

I had told my detractors that the people who came to dine at my house did not necessarily have extreme opinions. The far right was a small percentage of people who didn’t seem at all interested in civil discourse and the media had exaggerated their voice. The media didn’t focus on the vast majority of calmer Americans from all political backgrounds who wanted the same things, secure jobs, safe neighborhoods and a future for their children. Most people in America were exhausted by vitriolic polarization. We simply disagreed on the policies to be pursued or on the common objectives.

However, when more than half of Republicans described the events of January 6 as a patriotic fight for freedom and the Republican Party officially called the riot ‘legitimate political speech‘, it became clear that more than political differences were at stake in this battle for our democracy. I began to wonder if it was even possible to bridge the gaps. Tribalism had hijacked our community and our shared humanity.

I felt a modest optimism for unity when I heard conservatives condemning war.

I remember an image of two older white men at a Trump rally in 2018 wearing matching t-shirts that said, “I would rather be russian than a Democrat. I had grown up in the 1980s during the last remnants of the Cold War and had learned to hate Soviet and then Russian totalitarianism. I rejoiced when the USSR collapsed. Henceforth, the hatred of the members of a political party had replaced the aversion for an undemocratic oligarchy.

There’s no other way

This t-shirt image haunts me today as Putin relentlessly attacks Ukraine. Will Republicans hate Democrats so much that they won’t want to unite with us against a cowardly oligarch who threatens democracy? I had once thought that we would unite in response to a global pandemic. I had once believed that we would unite to condemn the January 6 attack. These moments of unity quickly passed. Would this moment pass too?

I felt a modest optimism for unity when I heard conservatives condemning war. Many Republican lawmakers applauded Biden’s call for unity during the State of the Union address. Mike Pence said there was no place in the GOP for Putin apologists. Some believe that Trump’s power and relevance are finally waning. My optimism is limited, however, by the fact that the GOP has become Trump’s party and that Trump refuses to condemn Putin. Would this moment be twisted and politicized like the face mask? Or can we finally free ourselves from our blind hatred for each other to save democracy?

Despite everything, I continue to bridge the divisions because I see no other way out. The polarizing industrial complex has been slowly tearing us apart for decades to gain power and profit and it will take decades to mend the vast social fractures they have fabricated. My protest and activism is not about hating, but about reaching out even when the hand isn’t reached out to me first, even when I’m disappointed. We must relate beyond our differences, because we cannot create a world in which all humans thrive and prosper without each other.