Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society

Jan 8, 2018

How much discussion of politics was there among your extended family over the holidays?  As differences between the political parties intensify and political discussions become more polarized, many people are avoiding engaging in such debates entirely.  But for one new group in Rockbridge County – that’s the whole point. WMRA’s Faith Pinho has the story.

[sound of RCDS meeting]

The Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society formed a couple months ago with the explicit intent of having political discussion – and though it may seem like an oxymoron, they are committed to being respectful and well-mannered, too.

Their name reflects that. The guy who came up with it, Atin Basu, describes himself as neither conservative nor liberal but, quote, “classically liberalist,” with a preference for minimal government and individual freedom. He’s an economics professor at Virginia Military Institute.

ATIN BASU: So the idea that you can come together and talk together and kind of achieve something together, you know, I think that’s part of what civilization is all about. And certainly discourse is part of it, right. The ability to communicate in a way that doesn’t put somebody else down, respects them. … Right, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

But it’s not always easy. The group is currently made up of Basu, the classical liberalist; a Trump-supporting libertarian small business owner; an anti-Trump preschool teacher; the treasurer of the local Republican Party and a self-described strong progressive Democrat.

CHRIS GAVALER: At many times, it really feels like we’re speaking different languages.

That’s Chris Gavaler, the liberal Democrat and a professor of English at Washington and Lee University. He said that while the mix of political perspectives is essential to the weekly discussions, the group’s respectful rapport took time to cultivate. 

For him, the breakthrough of trusting each other came when another member, Republican committee treasurer Charles Kostelni, brought up a recent documentary he had watched. It was about an African-American soldier returning from the Vietnam War. In the story, no taxi driver was willing to give the veteran a ride home from the airport because he was black. Kostelni’s admiration for the veteran struck Gavaler.

GAVALER: Man, that sounds like a liberal talking. So it was like, I was trying to figure out, how could you have just said all that stuff earlier and you’re saying all this stuff now. That means that I’ve misunderstood you. And so recognizing our misunderstandings, our stereotypes that are blocking our ability to actually see each other – that’s key.

[background sound of RCDS meeting]

Since that conversation, the group has melded closer together. They have met every week since mid-October, usually over a few beers – all different brews, of course – at a pub in town.

[beer pilsners clinking]

Conversation topics vary. In one meeting, discussion may range from talking about the media…

CHARLES KOSTELNI: See, it’s so funny because here you go again, I see Fox News as trying to balance out.

…to healthcare…

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Healthcare is so important. The government does everything mediocre. You don’t want to give that to the government, you know.

…to President Trump.

GAVALER: My gut sense … is that there’s actually something psychologically, profoundly different about Trump from any other politician I’ve ever encountered.

Despite the touchy topics and opposing views, conversation remains polite.

KOSTELNI: Go ahead, I’m sorry.

GAVALER: No, no, no, please.

[background sound of RCDS meeting]

The group has talked about expanding, possibly creating new chapters of the society in nearby areas. They also plan to invite Rockbridge County’s Democratic state senator and Republican delegate to future meetings. They hope to influence their representatives to reach across the aisle.

There is one thing they can all agree on, though: these conversations are the lifeblood of democracy. Kostelni, the Republican committee treasurer, said that in the age of fake news and confirmation bias, these meetings have given him optimism.

KOSTELNI: And that’s really the beautiful thing about what we’re discovering with the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, is that a lot of the frustration and emotion against each other is due to misinformation and misunderstanding, and it’s not due to actual ideological differences. That’s exciting, isn’t it?