About 50 people, many of them meeting for the first time, have gathered in this Greek Orthodox church hall in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. Over a buffet of chicken, pasta, and tossed salad, they politely get to know one another, five to a table, including this reporter, asking icebreaker questions provided on a sheet of paper. The atmosphere is cordial if a little hesitant.

After all, they didn’t come just for the meal. 

They cast sidelong glances to the front of the room to five spotlighted director’s chairs. Each chair sits behind a printed sign, from left to right: “agree strongly,” “agree somewhat,” “neutral,” “disagree somewhat,” and “disagree strongly.” 

Why We Wrote This

In a divided nation, Ted Wetzel draws voters out of political bunkers to talk through their differences. To him, respectful disagreement can be patriotic, a way to renew the republic.

Each chair will shortly be claimed by one of the dining companions; nobody knows who they will be. 

As the meal ends, Arlin Smith, one of the event organizers, fades the music playing from his laptop and picks up a microphone. “Let’s get ready to rumble!” he growls, emulating boxing announcer Michael Buffer. 

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