In 1998, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, co-founders of Berkeley Systems, a software company, drafted a one-sentence petition they hoped would end the public blood-letting and disruption of government that had resulted from President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The President had been accused of the affair in January, and the country had already endured nine long months of acrimony when Blades and Boyd wrote: “Congress must immediately censure the President and move on to other pressing issues facing the nation.”
(As a reminder, this was the year India conducted three atomic tests, and Pakistan, in retaliation, conducted five; U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, prompting a U.S. attack on suspected terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan; and Iraq withdrew from cooperation with UN arms inspectors.) Blades and Boyd sent the petition to fewer than one hundred friends and family members and within a week had gathered more than one hundred thousand signatures.
That was the humble beginning of what became the largest, best-known, and best organized progressive organization the United States had ever seen: MoveOn.org.
Eight years later, Blades teamed up with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner to co-author The Motherhood Manifesto: What American Moms Want and What to Do About It. The two women simultaneously co-founded the organization MomsRising and dedicated it to “bringing millions of people, who all share a common concern about the need to build a more family-friendly America, together as a non-partisan force.”
Today MoveOn and MomsRising count more than nine million Americans as members. Yet, despite the common-sense, “let’s work together” origins of both groups, relationships between conservatives and progressives are as adversarial as ever. Blades, a mediator by training and preference, has not given up. Her newest initiative is Living Room Conversations—an attempt to get average citizens, if not elected leaders—to sit down and talk with each other to build relationships, personal understanding, and restore our democracy. Her co-host in a widely covered January 2013 Living Room Conversation was Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
On the Living Room Conversations website, Meckler says: “I am an enthusiastic champion for Living Room Conversations because over the last several years I’ve come to realize that the largest divide in this country is not between the citizens of one party or another, but between the citizens and the ruling elite in Washington, DC, and the state capitols. Those in power want us to hate each other, neighbor against neighbor, city against city and state against state. They like conservatives to hate liberals, Democrats to hate Republicans, and they want us hating each other over any issue where they can foment discord. They do this because it is profitable for them. While the majority of Americans say that Washington, DC, and government in general are broken, the majority of those in office think things are working well because they gain money, power and prestige from the division they sow. The status quo does not serve the people of this country, and Living Room Conversations is a critical step in helping people to see that they have a lot in common with those they’ve been told by the politicians and the media that they should hate.”
Agreeing with Blades and Meckler that there are no strangers we need to befriend more than those we live amongst, The MOON spoke with Joan Blades by phone in July.
The MOON: What do you hope to achieve with Living Room Conversations that you’ve been unable to achieve with MoveOn, or MomsRising?
Blades: Living Room Conversations are designed to create a structured and safe container that will empower citizens to speak to people with different views about issues they care about. The mission of Living Room Conversations is to restore connections in our communities and health to our democracy.
All that is required is two friends with differing views to co-host a conversation about an agreed-upon subject. Each co-host invites two friends to join the conversation. The conversations do not require a facilitator. Everyone agrees to simple ground rules and shares responsibility for creating a respectful space for conversation. Living Room Conversations are open source—meaning that people are free to use them, even experiment, and strongly encouraged to share their results so we all learn from each other.
What I’ve learned through MoveOn is that Washington, DC, has become an environment in which it is nearly impossible for our leaders to work collaboratively, and without working collaboratively our democracy cannot function effectively. Leaders in DC are actually at risk politically these days when they work with the other side.
The good news is that most citizens have common sense, goodwill, and want the best for their communities. Living Room Conversations enable citizens with diverse viewpoints to sit down, listen to each other, build relationships and maybe even work collaboratively in a way that we think could become a model for our leaders. By sharing their experiences online, we hope to generate a positive cycle that encourages thousands—if not millions—of people to take a chance and co-host a conversation about an issue of concern in their own community.
The MOON: What makes you think Living Room Conversations can succeed in changing political discourse in the U.S.? Isn’t the tone set by mass media, which feed on controversy and conflict? Hasn’t politics descended to the level of dysfunctional spectacle? How are private living room conversations going to change all that?