Online event tackles ‘toxic polarization’ through conversation

(NEW YORK) — As the midterm elections inch closer and political conversations heat up, one organization is hoping to bring people together despite their differences.

America Talks, in partnership with Gannett and USA Today, launched in 2021 aiming to connect Americans of varying political ideologies. Participants in the online event answer a short survey and the questions ask how they feel about political topics so that they can be paired with someone who has different perspectives than their own. Then, they are matched with someone from across the country and given a guide to help foster the conversation. The idea is based on contact theory, a sociological concept that person-to-person contact can help reduce friction.

The second annual America Talks takes place on Saturday.

Brian Roy, an Independent from Benton, Kentucky, and Brian Webb, a Libertarian from Sheridan, Wyoming, found common ground and friendship during their America Talks conversation last year.

“We began to talk about the differences in Wyoming and in Kentucky. We talked about real everyday things that were not divisive and mean-spirited. And so we’ve continued that dialogue, and he sends me pictures and we talk and we talk about the weather, how cold it is in Wyoming versus how wet it is,” Roy told ABC News, adding that “he checked on us during the aftermath of the tornado back in December.”

“We just had a real genuine conversation, and you know what, we don’t enter into politics. So it’s been good and it’s refreshing, and I wish it would happen here more at home where I live, but it’s still very difficult to communicate with some people,” Roy said.

Mizell Stewart III, vice president of news performance, talent, and partnerships for Gannett told ABC News the program is about “elements of what Americans agree on rather than what divides Americans.”

“In other words, let’s engage people in conversation that is really person to person, not through a social media filter,” Stewart said.

Half of Americans who voted for Joe Biden and almost 60% who voted for Donald Trump view the opposing party as “presenting a clear and present danger to American democracy,” according to the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

And the divisions date back to before the Trump era. Since at least 2012, Americans are more likely to say conflicts between Democrats and Republicans are stronger than between other groups, according to a Pew Research Center study out of 17 countries. Americans also say the country is more divided now than it was before the pandemic.

“I am someone that enjoys politics,” said Roy. “I enjoyed talking about politics up until about two or three years ago, and then it got so contentious, and it got so unfriendly, even among family and very close friends that it got to where it was just no longer a discussion that I wanted to join in.”

While divisions run high, the Pew Research Center also found both Republicans and Democrats when questioned had certain things in common, like wanting their preferred candidates to address the needs of all Americans “even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.”

According to Mizell, those kinds of commonalities are what America Talks is all about.

“…As we begin to peel away layers of expectations, if you will, in conversations like this and really engage in dialogue, what we find is that we have much more in common than we realize,” he said.

That is the lesson Roy has taken away.

“We’re all Americans. We all care about our local communities. We care about our state, we care about our country,” he said. “And when we get down into the weeds of partisan politics, everybody… is attracted to a sound bite, most of them negative, and that’s the sad part.”

“There’s no two-way conversation and I just wish people would relax, calm down,” he added. “When they look at the flag…I wish people would look at that and try to remember that we’re all in this together. And we can agree to disagree.”

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