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.
Before the “rumble,” Mr. Smith offers some guidance: Listen to the speaker, try to understand where he or she is coming from, use positive language, and be responsible for your own feelings. “We all have emotions. So when you feel those feelings kind of rattled up, try to get comfortable. Lean into the situation and take control of your own self,” Mr. Smith tells the diners.
Then he hands the mic to Ted Wetzel, the creator of this grassroots effort to help Americans of all political stripes disagree constructively and, perhaps, rebuild civic bonds in an era of intense polarization and social atomization. He titles this gathering “Dinner and a Fight,” but “Fight” is crossed out and replaced by “Dialogue.”
Mr. Wetzel, a retired small-business owner, wears a red checkered shirt and jeans with gray sneakers; half-moon reading glasses hang from his neck. He looks both elated and antsy. “This is the eleventh Dinner and a Fight, so give yourselves a round of applause,” he says.
As the clapping ends, he explains that he’s about to reveal tonight’s “divisive topic.” (Previous topics have included face masks, guns, and gender identity.) Once the topic is announced, anyone can take a director’s chair: First come, first served.
“Does America have any easy problems?” he asks, pausing for some nervous laughs.
“They’re all tough problems. So we need to be exploring.”
Mr. Wetzel’s disputation dinners in northeast Ohio are among a cascade of bridge-building efforts aimed at countering America’s scorched-earth partisanship. They seek to promote civil dialogue as a path to finding common ground on issues that don’t yield easy solutions, such as policing, immigration, and race relations.
Red-blue divisions aren’t exactly new; some dialogue groups have been at it for decades. But Donald Trump’s rise to power, undergirded by social media tribalism, injected an outrage-driven intensity into public life that many traditional venues for discussion, from civic clubs and churches to office parties and family gatherings, struggled to handle. The violent Jan. 6 Capitol riot over the 2020 elections only served to deepen the political chasm.
For proponents of dialogue, reaching across that chasm is complicated by a suspicion on the right that liberals are setting the agenda. “Typically, [these dialogue forums] are very blue,” says Peter Coleman, a psychologist who studies polarization at Columbia University. “One side is more eager to do it than the other side, and that is part of the problem.”
But by advertising a fight and using folksy language and metaphors, Mr. Wetzel seems to have cracked the code. His speak-your-mind dialogue dinners attract conservatives and liberals, as well as independents. Older pro-Trump voters break bread with Bernie Sanders-supporting millennials. Racial and religious minorities join the conversations. Many come back for more.
“It’s hard to get people who really see the same world differently into the same room, and he succeeds at that,” says Bill Lyons, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an informal adviser to Mr. Wetzel.
Lately, Mr. Wetzel has expanded his initiative by recruiting attendees to join small panels that meet over several months to draw up policy recommendations. The first group, focused on threats to U.S. democracy, started in September. He has also found partners to hold dinners in California, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., next year, and eventually wants to create a playbook so like-minded groups can hold similar events in their communities.
The long-term goal, he says, is a rediscovery of bonds that are stronger than the political tribalism that divides us. “We’re really not that polarized. We’re proving to people that they can come together,” he says.
For now, each dinner is something of a gamble: Who will show up? Will opponents find common ground? Might disputation turn into confrontation? It takes a large dollop of faith to believe that getting a roomful of strangers talking can hold back the partisan tide. Mr. Wetzel’s brother likens his work to “boiling the ocean.”
But Mr. Wetzel isn’t about to quit. He’s just getting started.
It all began, appropriately, with a meal, and a fight. It was 2017, and Mr. Wetzel and his wife were meeting two other couples for dinner. The two men were his former colleagues, back when he was a young engineer before he went into sales and management, then bought a specialist painting company in Akron.
He had been looking forward to seeing old friends. But the dinner talk got heated over the topic of President Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants and the perceived threat of sharia (Islamic law) to U.S. freedoms. The testy conversation continued over dessert and into the parking lot. “It didn’t end well,” says Mr. Wetzel. He knew that his rancorous reunion was being repeated all over the country, as friends and families clashed over politics. But he wanted to study the underlying problem, to figure out what really ailed American society and democracy. So he took a three-month sabbatical, which turned into a year and a half. Eventually he sold his paint company so he could work full time on this project.
Among the first people that Mr. Wetzel asked for advice was Professor Lyons, then director of the Center on Conflict Management at the University of Akron. “He came with great humility. I was a little bit doubtful that anything would happen because he was so humble. He recognized a need, a problem to solve, but he didn’t know what to do,” he says.
He sent Mr. Wetzel away with a list of books to read and advised him to reach out to communities of color to build his network. “Ted is a really good listener. He took a lot of notes,” Mr. Lyons says.
At his brick ranch-style house in a Cleveland suburb, Mr. Wetzel filled a wall with sticky notes as he kept researching polarization and talking to others who shared his concerns. He self-published a book, “Is America Broken? 11 Secrets for Getting Back on Our Feet.”
But he didn’t have a formula yet for how to bring people together to disagree constructively. He tried holding a seminar at a church, but it fell flat. “Not one person said, let’s do it again,” he says.
In 2019, Mr. Wetzel attended a national conference on civility in Alexandria, Virginia, where he learned about a dialogue method developed in 2004 at Arizona State University (ASU). The five-chair method offered an alternative to standard debates between hyperpartisans who reinforce a binary choice. Instead of a simple binary, the method gives moderates a greater voice since three of the five chairs are taken by those who somewhat agree/disagree – or are undecided. The occupants of the chairs start the discussion and can question one another; then the audience joins in.
Serendipitously, Rob Razzante, an ASU Ph.D. graduate trained in the five-chair method, grew up nearby; Mr. Wetzel coached him in Little League. Last summer, Mr. Razzante joined Mr. Wetzel on his back porch, which looks onto a generous lawn flanked by mature oak and maple trees. No fences divide his yard from the surrounding lots, as is typical of his Ohio neighborhood.
By then, Mr. Wetzel had tried the five-chair method in Professor Lyons’ classes and found it effective at guiding a respectful dialogue. Now, he told Mr. Razzante that summer evening, he wanted to bring it to the wider community and to insert it into a communal meal. And he wanted to call it a fight. Why? Because people “want to get into it,” he says.
Mr. Razzante liked the dinner format, but wasn’t sure about the name. He wasn’t alone: Other ASU dialogue facilitators also blanched at this branding. “The Arizona people were constantly trying to get him to call it a dialogue,” says Professor Lyons.
Mr. Wetzel resisted. It was a fight – and a dialogue. He says the name is both humorous and honest about the fact that disagreement in public can be awkward.
Doug Oplinger, a former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal who has worked on other civil dialogue efforts in Ohio, also tried to dissuade Mr. Wetzel from advertising a fight. “Oh my word, Ted. You can’t do that,” he recalls telling him.
But his determination to use that phrase was of a piece with his approach to the challenge, says Mr. Oplinger. He asks “wonderful questions” and absorbs information, but he also thinks outside the box. He “believes he can do things … [and] ‘you can’t tell me I can’t,’” Mr. Oplinger says.
The first Dinner and a Fight took place here in September 2021, amid a national surge in COVID-19 infections. Most of the 30 attendees had been personally invited by Mr. Wetzel or his associates. Mr. Razzante agreed to moderate. After dinner ended, the topic was announced, along with a dialogue prompt, which participants could support or oppose, or be neutral.
It read, “Wearing a mask is the American thing to do.” The room fell silent. “You could cut the tension with a knife,” recalls Mr. Wetzel. He grins. “It was awesome.”
Of the five chairs on stage, “disagree strongly” filled in seconds. Another man jumped up and said that he was “even more strongly opposed” than the man who had taken that chair. Neither wore a mask, says Mr. Oplinger, who was struck by their fervor. “It was one of the most dramatic things I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Ihsan Ul Haque, a Pakistan-born cardiologist, took the “agree strongly” chair. He had met Mr. Wetzel at an interfaith dialogue and became an informal adviser. “It’s my civic duty to my adopted country,” he says. “We need to have a civil dialogue. We need to agree to disagree.”
That night, he says, was a “high temperature” dialogue. He faced anger at his support for masking. But after others had left, he talked with someone at his table who opposes wearing a mask, and listened to the person’s defense of individual rights. “I’m not going to convince anyone all the time, but I can understand where they’re coming from,” he says.
This is another feature of these events: Attendees return to their tables for dessert and continue talking about the topic, what they have learned, and the dialogue itself. “It gives people time to process,” explains Mr. Razzante.
Mr. Oplinger says the post-dialogue table talk often alights on the fact that a frank but civil conversation occurred. “Everyone says we need to do more of this. We need to go deeper. Just getting together and talking to people who are not like us gets the creative juices going,” he says.
To do that, the dinners need to bring in conservatives, including Trump supporters, who may suspect that dialogue groups are pushing progressive politics. “They turn off red Americans. They think it’s a plot, that we’re sneaking up on them,” says Professor Coleman, author of “The Way Out: How To Overcome Toxic Polarization.”
That dilemma confronts most organizations that work on polarization: Red-blue dialogues tend to get centrist or progressive Democrats talking to moderate, white-collar Republicans. The dialogues may be productive, but aren’t fully representative.
Has Mr. Wetzel, who leans liberal, found a special sauce for inclusive bridge-building? He’s hesitant about claiming victory, but says, “We do seem to attract more of the disenfranchised everyday people who say, ‘This is what I’m looking for.’”
Daniel Messina, a Republican software developer, says conservative and libertarian friends push back when he invites them to these dialogue events in Ohio. They praise him for going, but say they fear being outnumbered by liberals and that “people are just going to pig pile” on them.
Mr. Messina helps coordinate workshops for Braver Angels, a national dialogue group formed in 2016, and has joined several of Mr. Wetzel’s dinners. He tells his friends they’d be surprised at how friendly and civil the conversations are, and how much all sides can agree on. “You walk away a little more hopeful,” he says.
“We’re allowed to be passionate here. We’re not allowed to be offensive here,” says Mr. Wetzel. Back at the church hall, he is warming up for tonight’s dialogue. He’s picked a topic – elections. It is both timely, less than a month from Nov. 8 midterms, and combustible.
“We are not here to decide the 2020 election,” he adds, looking over his glasses at the attendees who have moved from dinner tables to the seating area. “You can breathe.”
Then he reads the prompt, which has been carefully wordsmithed by Mr. Wetzel and his collaborators. (The challenge is to craft a prompt that is provocative but allows for shades of opinions.)
“The results of the U.S. voting system do reflect the will of the people,” he reads. He declares the five chairs open as Mr. Smith fades up “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA.
The first chair to fill is “disagree strongly.” It’s taken by Mike – participants wear name tags – who is joined in “disagree somewhat” by Natalie. The other chairs fill more slowly; Mr. Messina takes the center chair.
Mr. Wetzel thanks the volunteers and asks for opening statements of a minute, which he will time with a stopwatch. “It’s really good for people who need to find their off-ramp,” he says.
To start, much of the discussion concerns whether 2020 ballots were secure. Both Natalie and Nathan, who sits in the “agree strongly” chair, worked as poll watchers that year, but came away with different views. While Nathan praises the “bipartisan effort” to secure voting in Ohio, Natalie says ballots were mailed to her two sisters who live out of state. “That’s a real concern to me. I want people’s votes to count and fraud to not be an option,” she says.
Audience members challenge her claim, pointing out that Ohio mailed applications, not ballots, to households in 2020. A young man in the audience says he previously worked on the printing of ballots in Ohio and that “the checks and balances on the back end are insane.”
Then the next speaker from the audience, an older man who arrived with a group of Kiwanis Club members, repeats electoral fraud claims, saying that “it only takes one county sometimes to tip the whole state … and that is what we saw happen.”
Mr. Wetzel and his stopwatch keep the conversation moving. The dialogue remains civil, if somewhat stilted. None of the fraud proponents say outright that 2020 was stolen by Democrats. Nor does anyone utter the name of the former president, who has been spreading untruths for the past two years about an election he lost.
Toward the end, Marsita Ferguson rises from the audience and takes the mic. Ms. Ferguson works at a university in Cleveland and has brought several students to the dinner. She asks why nobody has talked about a history of denying the vote to Black Americans and women, why nobody is talking about a new wave of voter suppression in states like Georgia. “I strongly disagree that the will of the people is reflected in anything in this country when it comes to government,” she says.
It’s time to head back to the tables and review the debate over brownies. Mr. Wetzel praises a “great conversation,” saying that he feels “way more than informed” now. He compares it to a snow globe being agitated. “When we came in, all the stuff [was] sitting right on the floor – and we shook it up,” he says.
If U.S. politics were a snow globe, the glitter would be calcified into opposing armies fighting over a castle. This polarization long preceded the Trump presidency; bipartisanship as measured by cross-party votes in Congress has been in decline since 1979.
But this is not just a hardening of ideological differences. It’s also an emotional tribalism, a sense, say voters in surveys, that the other side is not just wrong but immoral.
The good news is that it’s possible to counter this animosity by humanizing the other side. Even light-touch interventions, such as asking Democrats or Republicans to talk about a friend or neighbor whom they respect and who supports the other party, lead to warmer mutual feelings. Studies show that correcting misperceptions about the other side also reduces polarization.
This builds what Professor Coleman at Columbia University calls “reservoirs of emotional positivity” that can buffer partisan talk, something he’s observed in his Difficult Conversations Lab.
The bad news is that reducing animosity doesn’t necessarily dissuade partisans from supporting extralegal measures, including violence, to defeat the other side. A 2021 Stanford study currently in peer review found that successful online depolarization measures generally didn’t reduce anti-democratic attitudes, though a larger study found that some measures did move the needle.
Reducing polarization can be “a valuable outcome in itself,” says Jan Voelkel, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who co-wrote both of the studies. “Just think about the families that are divided” by politics, he says. But anti-democratic practices may need to be tackled directly in order to lessen the threats to a fair electoral process.
Simply getting reds and blues to talk civilly “is a narrow conception of the problem. Our democracy problems extend far beyond an inability or unwillingness to talk to one another,” says Joseph Bubman, who runs Urban Rural Action, a nonprofit that brings together urban and rural cohorts to work on social problems. He says groups like Braver Angels, for which he’s worked, are helpful but don’t address the underlying forces that fuel political distrust and violence.
Mr. Wetzel recognizes these challenges. He knows that what he seeks – a reboot of American democracy, which he calls “We the People 4.0” – is beyond what a shoestring operation like his can achieve. But he also says that citizen-led efforts to make civil discussion a building block of democracy are essential. “It’s patriotic to have a good constructive disagreement,” he says.
Mr. Smith, his co-host, says he isn’t deterred by the enormity of the challenge. “I come from the perspective that people can change in their hearts; they can change in their heads,” he says. “I tell Ted, if we change one person, just one, we’ve made a difference.”
Back at her table, Ms. Ferguson vents about the dialogue and how little time was spent on issues like voter suppression and the Electoral College. Her tablemates, who lean left, seem to agree. Clayton Cox says that he came tonight with Mike (“disagree strongly”) who is a staunch conservative prone to conspiracy theories. The two meet regularly for breakfast in Cleveland, explains Mr. Cox, and “we go at it” over politics but remain friends.
Mr. Wetzel has left a wrap-up sheet on each table for groups to fill out. At the top it reads, “We will not solve this vexing topic today, but we can make progress.” The first question asks for something agreed upon at the table. Their answer: “Election education is important.”
The final question is about what “our community” tends to forget. The table chews this over. “It’s OK to disagree,” says Ms. Ferguson finally.
“We’re all in this together,” adds Mr. Cox.