It’s a simple premise in a complex climate.
On Saturday, the area group Taste of Civil Conversation will hold a discussion at Herberton Hall next to the Keene Public Library.
The conversation, which is free, open to all and scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m., is something group moderator Tom Bassarear of Keene has been holding versions of since shortly after the last presidential election.
“The day after the election in 2016, I just went, wow, this sucks,” Bassarear, a professor emeritus at Keene State College, said of the tone he was hearing in political discussions. “I wasn’t a fan of Trump, obviously, but it was like: I really am concerned about the divisiveness in the election. The rhetoric, the vitriol ... And I said, ‘We’ve lost any sense of bipartisanship.’ ”
Bassarear, who identifies as left-of-center politically, recalled his liberal friends saying they no longer wanted to talk to Republicans, and his conservative family members saying the converse.
“And it’s like, why can’t we talk about it?” said Bassarear, who taught education at Keene State. “So I decided that I wanted to start a civil conversation group.”
The 69-year-old took to the Internet and found plenty of examples of such gatherings around the country.
The popularity of these groups underscores a broader trend being studied in U.S. politics that started well before President Donald Trump came on the scene.
Since the 1990s, American voters have become increasingly polarized ideologically, according to Pew Research surveys, a landmark 2015 study published in the Public Library of Science, and other political science projects.
While then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 sparked the last major party realignment in U.S. history — with a mass defection of southern Democrats to the GOP — there were still significant groups of voters who would identify as conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans. Today, those monikers would strike many as oxymorons.
The 2018 book “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” by political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck dives into the notion of “partisan sorting,” where American political identities become more predictable and less diverse.
While the efforts of Bassarear and other civil-conversation attendees are connected by a shared desire to hear different perspectives, the rise of the Internet and social media make it easy to self-select information to insulate oneself from opposing views.
“I would think that the idea of communicating amongst people would be appealing, but again, with us being in this echo-chamber world, it’s easier to just get the news that already agrees with what you want to believe,” said Mike Darcy, 42, of Hinsdale, a regular attendee of the sit-downs.
Darcy, a small-business owner and selectman, said the conversations have about eight consistent participants, with the group being no bigger than around 10 to 12 most weeks. What keeps him coming back, Darcy said, is the value he’s found in the discussions, for which Bassarear sets some basic ground rules.
“Sometimes I feel pretty good and feel like, wow, we can still manage to see eye to eye on things,” said Darcy, who used to identify as right of center and now considers himself a moderate with slightly more liberal views. “Other times, I walk away very frustrated and wonder if I’ll go back.”
Bassarear said the past two years have been a balancing act, with small tweaks to the format coming as needed. The ground rules have come mostly from the groups he’s researched online.
“We don’t interrupt the speaker, you avoid making sweeping generalizations — like all Democrats, all Republicans — you don’t use pejorative language; like with Trump, you don’t say ‘jerk, idiot,’ you say ‘president’ — you know, ‘I disagree with the president, I think the president is overstepping the lines of decency,’ ” Bassarear said. “But those are all statements that aren’t pejorative, that’s my opinion.”
Both he and Darcy said the group could use more conservatives and young people, though Bassarear noted that the Republicans and Trump supporters who come have said they don’t mind the imbalance because they’re able to speak freely and listen to a variety of moderate and liberal views.
“I want to see it continue, and I want to see the efforts made,” Darcy said, “because if we’re still talking, then we haven’t shut off to each other and just fully gone into the blame game.”
Those interested in attending or starting their own group can contact Bassarear via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.