Democrat Lynn Heady of Nashville avoids politics with family members because it’s a topic that often leads to arguments. When the retired school administrator who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 is near a television blaring the news, she can feel her blood pressure rise.

“I don’t want to listen to either side. I find it equally disturbing and stress-inducing – I think anybody who cares about this country right now is experiencing some stress. I was the guy that was just really nasty on Facebook,”

Democrat Lynn Heady of Nashville

“I used words like ‘libtard’ and ‘idiots’ and stuff like that. I would never say I was a mental case but I sure would get aggravated.”

Republican Greg Smith of Waynesville, Ohio

Republican Greg Smith of Waynesville, Ohio, admits he got so insulting on Facebook, his friends told him to take a break from social media. Around that time, the avid Trump supporter saw a decades-long friendship disintegrate over a political spat. More than two years after Donald Trump took the oath of office, many Americans find themselves not just taking sides – sometimes vehemently – but growing mentally anxious and exhausted, experts say.

“We know the polarization has been growing for decades but I think it’s spiking now because there’s so much division around and about this president,” said Bill Doherty, a long-time family therapist who has been watching the anger up close. “I think it’s worse now because there’s a central figure. A lot of reds did not like Obama at all, but their loathing of Obama wasn’t even close to the loathing blues have for Trump.”

A protester and Trump supporter scuffle during a rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump on Saturday, March, 12, 2016, at I-X Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Michael Henninger, Associated Press)
A protester and Trump supporter scuffle during a rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump on Saturday, March, 12, 2016, at I-X Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Michael Henninger, Associated Press)

“Reds” are Republicans and “Blues” are Democrats according to a group called Better Angels, which Doherty helped start in 2017 when it became clear half the country was having trouble getting over the election result and the other half resented them for not being able to accept it gracefully. Doherty, a family social science professor who also runs the Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, has tried to resolve a number of family splits over political differences.

There was the adult son living abroad, who upon finding out his mother and father voted for Trump, told them “you’re no longer my parents.” In another case, a wife told her husband that she would divorce him if he voted for Trump. To her, “it was like voting for Chancellor (Adolf) Hitler,” Doherty recalled. “We don’t share values.” Americans think their political opponents are less evolved.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP/Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP/Getty Images)

A study last year by political science researchers from four different universities found that many Americans are “dehumanizing” the political opposition. More than three-quarters of respondents rated their political opponents as less evolved than members of their own party, the study concluded. One of its authors, Alexander Theodoridis of the University of California-Merced, calls efforts such as Better Angels an “encouraging” step to lower the temperature of political discourse. But he’s not optimistic.

“There is little reason to expect dinners and meet-ups to overcome the divides in our body politic,” he wrote in an email to USA TODAY. “For many Americans, they are a clash between people like ‘us’ and people like ‘them.’  It becomes increasingly easy to attribute pernicious motives to our opponents, and increasingly difficult to stomach compromise with them.”

In January, 87% of Republicans approved of Trump’s performance during 2018 versus only 8% of Democrats who did, according to a Gallup poll. That 79-percentage-point difference is the largest Gallup has measured in any presidential year to date.

An anti-Trump protester and a Trump supporter clash outside a Donald Trump campaign rally at the Anaheim Convention Center on May 25, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)
An anti-Trump protester and a Trump supporter clash outside a Donald Trump campaign rally at the Anaheim Convention Center on May 25, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

The prior record of 77 points belonged to Barack Obama in 2016, his last full year in office – Sometimes the anger has gone beyond talk. In 2017, protesters  temporarily prevented Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from entering a public school in Washington, D.C. In 2018, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was refused service at a Virginia restaurant only days after hecklers harassed then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she ate at an upscale Mexican restaurant in Washington. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Trump adviser Stephen Millerwere also confronted at D.C. restaurants. Then late last year, Cesar Sayoc of Florida pleaded guilty to mailing crude explosive devices to prominent Democrats, including Obama, and other critics of President Donald Trump.

The fight for civil discourse

Democrats and some disaffected Republicans blame Trump – along with his pugilistic nature and demeaning tweets – for exacerbating a political divide most experts say started long before he arrived at the White House. But groups like Better Angels are less interested in assigning blame as they are in promoting healing and civility.

Organizations such as the Bridge Alliance, Listen First Project, and Living Room Conversations have spent years encouraging civil political discourse. No Labels has been promoting compromise through its “problem solver” caucus in Congress. Listen First launched the National Conversation Project, an effort to improve how Americans of differing stripes treat each other.

Harrisonburg, VA, -- David Blankenhorn is the founder and president of Better Angels, a nonpartisan network of scholars and leaders whose vision is to reunite America. Members of the Better Angels meet during their national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. The group was formed two years ago to bring liberals and conservatives together in a way to improve relations between reds and blues and de-polarize national discourse. -- Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY (Photo: Jack Gruber, USAT)
Harrisonburg, VA, — David Blankenhorn is the founder and president of Better Angels, a nonpartisan network of scholars and leaders whose vision is to reunite America. Members of the Better Angels meet during their national convention on June 7, 2018 at EMU in Harrisonburg, Va. The group was formed two years ago to bring liberals and conservatives together in a way to improve relations between reds and blues and de-polarize national discourse. — Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY (Photo: Jack Gruber, USAT)

Harrisonburg, VA, — David Blankenhorn is the founder and president of Better Angels, a nonpartisan network of scholars and leaders whose vision is to reunite America. Members of the Better Angels meet during their national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. The group was formed two years ago to bring liberals and conservatives together in a way to improve relations between reds and blues and de-polarize national discourse. — Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY (Photo: Jack Gruber, USAT)

Better Angels, whose name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861 as America was about to plunge into civil war, is trying to take the lead on the national effort to improve civility.

“America is facing a cultural crisis as we no longer just disagree but dislike, distrust, and even despise those who see the world differently,”

Pearce Godwin, founder of Listen First Project

“A nation founded on universal ideals of freedom and opportunity has become one of sectarian strife.”

Pearce Godwin, founder of Listen First Project

It’s doubled its dues-paying membership to roughly 7,000, spread across every state. It’s drawn the support of philanthropic organizations including left-leaning (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) and right (Koch Foundation). And it’s hoping to take its message of political civility to college campuses and the halls of Congress.

Addressing your political anxiety

Better Angels is not only trying to blunt the vitriol but to address people’s anxiety over politics. The organization is teaming up with Wisdo, an online app that aims to help users experiencing a range of psychological conditions, such as depression, eating disorders and poor self-esteem. Together, the two have launched a project to address political anxiety.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re blue or red, political anxiety is common to both sides and I think most people are grappling in their head how to get out of the place they’re in now.”

Wisdo co-founder and CEO Boaz Goan

People who enter the app can start a chat with someone in a “safe group” who can help them navigate a relationship that’s been impaired by political division or look for folks on the opposite side of explosive issues, such as gun control, to better understand a spectrum of opinions. The tone is respectful. People rarely respond in capital letters. And participants seem genuinely interested in engaging with those who hold contradictory positions.

A Donald Trump protester and supporter argue outside a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Ariz. June 18, 2016. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)
A Donald Trump protester and supporter argue outside a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Ariz. June 18, 2016. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

In a chat room response to Luke, Better Angels’ Ciaran O’Connor tried to allay anxiety by tamping down expectations – but the frustration still seeps through.

“My issue is trying to convince people whose minds are already made up that their might be a different way of looking at things, and then having to walk away because their lack of movement infuriates me. I would suggest approaching these conversations as a means to achieve accurate – rather than imagined or exaggerated – disagreement versus trying to convince anyone to change their mind.”

chat room participant who calls himself Luke W.
Pro-life and pro-choice groups clash outside of the U.S. Supreme Court to protest or support Donald Trump's Supreme Court Justice Nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. (Photo: Camille Fine, USA TODAY)
Pro-life and pro-choice groups clash outside of the U.S. Supreme Court to protest or support Donald Trump’s SCJNominee, Brett Kavanaugh. (Photo: Camille Fine, USA TODAY)

Better Angels makes clear its mission is not to get people of differing stripes to agree on policy. Rather, it’s to get reds and blues to see how the other side views divisive issues such as immigration, environmental policy and gay rights, and to talk openly about them. At its convention later this month, activists from the progressive Black Lives Matter movement and the ultra-conservative tea party are scheduled to speak. But Theodoridis, the political scientist from California, said the overarching limitation to groups trying to bridge the rhetorical divide is that they often attract people predisposed to civil discussion.

“So, they are already pretty open when it comes to reaching across the aisle,” he said. “We already have the intervention where people who disagree are compelled to interact. We call it Thanksgiving.  Polarization persists.” Heady, the Nashville Democrat, doesn’t blame Trump for igniting the political fire dividing the nation.

“It doesn’t belong to him. He’s (just) in the right place at the right time.” she said. “Whether or not Hillary would have divided us … I truly do not believe that she would have added fuel to the fire. (But) he’s exacerbated what was already there and already growing. I think things can be taken care of,” he said. “We didn’t get this way overnight. We’re not going to get healed up overnight.”

Heady, the Nashville Democrat

Smith, the conservative from Ohio, ended up reconnecting with the friend he lost after joining Better Angels. He remains hopeful the nation can mend itself as well, given time.

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