By Faith Pinho
An English professor, an economist, a Republican committee treasurer and a small business owner walk into a bar. It’s not the beginning of a joke – it was the scene last Wednesday at the weekly meeting of an unusual club for a partisan age: the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society.
Four men from different backgrounds and professions formed the society last month in the style of historic gentlemen’s clubs and intellectual salons. Their goal, they said, was to create a space where everyone from hard-right Republicans to far-left Democrats could come together to discuss politics respectfully.
“There is a shared issue, which is he and I, Republicans and Democrats, progressives … and conservatives, want to feel good about being Americans,” said Chris Gavaler, professor of English at Washington and Lee University and self-described “strong, left-leaning progressive.”
“So our goal is actually the same. We’re just going about it in literally opposite ways.”
Trump’s presidency plays a role
Since President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections, Gavaler said he threw himself into politics. He helped found the liberal advocacy group 50 Ways Rockbridge in January. He made headlines in the Roanoke Times this July for his commitment to writing Congressman Bob Goodlatte every day.
Society member and small business owner Chris Williams said he was ready to never talk about politics in public again after a “spectacle” this summer at a Lime Kiln Theater concert, where he was blasted for being a Trump supporter. He said he was having a “pleasant” conversation with a woman when someone else walked up and told his conversation partner that Williams was a Trump supporter. The woman then berated him, drawing attention from about 20 people standing near them, he said.
“It was very public, very uncomfortable. … And that’s kind of what our society has become, you see more and more of that,” Williams said. “So less and less, people want to disclose their political preferences.”
Yet political opinions were on full view at the meeting last week, as the four men hunched over their beers – four different brews – amid the Devil’s Backbone Brewery happy hour crowd. Customers filled and vacated the surrounding tables as the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society lingered for an hour and a half.
“There are people … they won’t talk to you because of your political views,” said Charles Kostelni, treasurer of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee. “I mean, that’s no good. We can’t raise our kids in an environment like that.”
The men talked about a range of topics, from President Donald Trump’s recent visit to South Korea to the influence of media. The conversation reached moments of intensity, especially during the discussion on healthcare.
At one point, Gavaler threw his hands up in the air and said, “From a liberal’s perspectives, it’s like, what the hell’s going on?”
“That works both ways,” said Kostelni between sips from his pilsner of Sweet Virginia Dunkel.
Yet the ebb and flow was punctuated with laughter and interruptions were politely excused. On a few occasions, a member of the group would pause to repeat what another member said, for clarity.
“We’re at the point where we can be vulnerable with each other,” Gavaler said. “That is to say, to say an opinion and not worry about being attacked and knowing that the other person is going to understand it in terms of, okay, let’s talk this through.”
Discussions about race
Gavaler and Atin Basu, professor of economics at Virginia Military Institute, agree that the group melded with trust a couple weeks ago, during a particularly difficult conversation about racism. According to Basu, Kostelni and Gavaler were sparring about how to acknowledge race in modern times.
“And at that point, it seemed like, you know, things would kind of explode,” Basu said.
But then the conversation took a turn: Kostelni brought up an episode he had recently watched in Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War, where an African-American returning soldier could not catch a cab home because no one was willing to drive a black man.
“And from then on, I think the realization was, look, we don’t disagree on the fact that there is racism, or that it has an effect. But we might disagree on … ways in which to resolve the issue,” Basu said.
“It’s the notion that this person who I’m talking to is not a jerk or evil,” Basu added.
“He’s just another thinking person who has an opinion which is just as valid as mine, you know. He’s just taking a slightly different take on it. … And that’s the idea that there’s really a lot of common ground here.”
Though the group has met regularly for only a month, its members have high hopes for the future. They plan to invite Republican Del. Ben Cline and Democrat State Sen. Creigh Deeds to their next meetings, with the hope that they could influence their representatives to reach across the aisle.
As the men swigged back the last of their pints and the waitress cleared the table, Kostelni smiled at the other three.
“It’s fun, isn’t it?”