As we approach Tuesday’s presidential election, it’s hard not to reflect on the major themes of American discourse over the last few years: Partisanship. Polarization. Disconnect. Discontent. These days, many of us worry about discussing politics with “the other side” and often retreat to the comfort of our familiar political echo chambers.

Those dynamics are what inspired me to establish The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable. Over the last eight weeks, the Roundtable brought together 24 Pennsylvania voters for a series of virtual conversations about the presidential election and the state of our nation including the pandemic, the accompanying economic hardship, and the overdue reckoning over systemic racism.

The voters we brought together include Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They are from Philly and Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Allentown, and points in between. They are Black, white, Asian, and Latino. They are different in so many ways. But what they share is a desire to have respectful conversations about politics and policy with people who represent the same electorate but come from a completely different world — a sentiment that is easy to believe we’ve lost in our society. I wanted to give them a safe space to discuss this pivotal moment in our nation. I wanted to offer an inside look at journalism, our workflows and decision-making. I wanted to help foster relationships rooted in trust.

Ahead of Tuesday’s election, The Inquirer asked some Roundtable members to share personal reflections to find out what they took away from the project with the hope that readers like you can learn from their experience as America turns to its next chapter.

— Ray Boyd

staff

Melissa Robbins

Lives in: Philadelphia

Identifies as: Independent

Voting for: Joe Biden

On changing minds, including her own: "The vast majority of Trump supporters, I viewed them through the same lens, as hateful, racist people. And through having these conversations, I learned that that is clearly not the case. Some people truly are naive and truly do live in their bubbles. I’ve grown to understand that so many white males have been indoctrinated by their way of living. The country has been created for them and their families. So they lack this ability to see outside of themselves.

“The one thing that this panel has taught me, communication and conversation is necessary, even if you vehemently oppose the ideological positions of some of these people. It’s rough, uncharted territory when you’re dealing with a bona fide racist. But when you’re dealing with people who hold racist values, and don’t understand why they hold racist values, you’re able to engage that person, you’re able to paint a picture and you get them to understand how racist structures were created. Then you can find yourself making a little bit of progress. It’s worth it. You have to talk to people, whether you agree with them or not.”

Staff

Scott Young

Lives in: Newtown

Identifies as: Republican

Voting for: Joe Biden

On breaking the echo chamber: "What I learned from the other side, in each case, was from people I wouldn’t otherwise be interacting with, given the COVID circumstances. The reality is that I live in suburban Bucks County and the general demographics of the people that I interact with on a social basis are pretty homogenous.

"My wife’s a registered Democrat. She’s voted Democrat every election since 1988. By virtue of that, we’ve certainly had different viewpoints on — not so much the last election, I wasn’t all in for Trump. But certainly the election prior to that. I was a Romney supporter, she was a big Obama supporter. We had frequent [debate], trying to keep it as rational as possible. What that ends up being is kind of a dual echo chamber. We only heard one other person’s perspective. So this is the first time that I’ve had the privilege of a moderated session with a group of other people.

“The [roundtable] feels legitimately like people are just sharing ideas, without any objective. So that’s the biggest thing I take away that I’m going to try to put forth in day-to-day life. I’m going to see my dad, who is a hard core Republican. We’re going to play golf, and I know it’s gonna be four hours of nothing but political conversation. I already thought it through like: OK, my true objective is not to change his mind. It’s just to hear what he has to say. And hopefully he’ll do the same.”

staff

Ezelle Sanford III

Lives in: Philadelphia

Identifies as: Democrat

Voting for: Joe Biden

On engaging with energy: “The most surprising thing [about the roundtable] is how much energy it took. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. But when you’re so used to hashing things out with people who think very similarly — my friends and I don’t have the same views on everything, but more or less you’re sort of preaching to the choir. In this process, I found myself thinking deeply about what people were saying, about different political perspectives — does this sort of fit with what I see here? Or is this divergent from what I see? What should I say in this space?”

staff

Lauren Jessop

Lives in: Easton

Identifies as: Republican

Voting for: Donald Trump

On advice for others who want to talk: “Just be self aware. Be aware of your own biases. Think and process before you respond. Just be respectful. Treat people like you want to be treated. Don’t put people on the defensive. Don’t lecture. Listen. Ask a question. That leads to conversation. [I want to hear from] people who I know have opposing viewpoints, just to have a better perspective of where they’re getting their opinions from and how they’re basing it. I think that’s important, to help understand people that think differently. You hear their opinions, [but without conversation] you don’t always hear how they formed them.”

Staff

David Graham

Lives in: Johnstown

Identifies as: Republican

Voting for: Donald Trump

On seeing the sunny side: "I think every newspaper or TV station in every town in Pennsylvania should do something like this [roundtable]. And people in the communities could come closer together because of it. Maybe we could somehow end this sheer divide between left and right. Though I believe most Americans still live somewhere in the middle. Everybody probably has views that are extremes of the left or right. But in this country, for some reason, it’s become so polarized.

“I think that if every community did something like this, even not necessarily having anything to do with their media outlets, they could grow closer together. I’ve become an optimist because of this. Just the chance of everybody finally becoming one big America again.”

staff

Adele Barone

Lives in: Falls

Identifies as: Libertarian

Voting for: Jo Jorgensen

On seeing another view: “I’ve never been vehemently opposed to mail-in voting. Honestly, where I live, I didn’t really see the point of mail-in voting because if you can go to Walmart, you can go to the polls. I was basing that opinion on my local polling places. I’ve never really been in line. If there are four people at my polling place, that’s a lot. The gas station is often more crowded than my polling location. And being in the group, it kind of clicked to me why a lot of people, especially in Philadelphia or in more populated areas, wouldn’t want to with the pandemic. I didn’t realize that there were actually still places that sometimes had six- or eight-hour lines and that were just overly crowded. So it opened my eyes to other people’s problems.”

staff

Drew Jennings

Lives in: West Bradford

Identifies as: Republican

Voting for: Writing in Bill Weld

On crushing your own cynicism: “I’m as jaded and cynical as a person can get ... [but now], I really feel hopeful for humanity due to the fact that there are people actively connecting. We’re not going to change the world but I’m hopeful that we are going to show people that civil discourse exists and can exist in the modern world and it’s useful. Tiny little baby steps. The key thing for something like this is to come open minded, and the current world is not going to make you that way.”

staff

Vanessa Benton

Lives in: Philadelphia

Identifies as: Democrat

Voting for: Joe Biden

On finding faith in your own beliefs: “This is a very emotional election for me as a black woman. And so anyone who is supporting Trump at this point, sort of, raises my senses or at least makes me wonder about whether they’re racist or not. And you don’t always know, and I’m not saying that everybody who does support him is, but it is sort of like this red flag that makes you perk up and wonder. And that then makes you wonder about other ways you might be treated, not on a Zoom call but in the general public. It makes you wonder about one’s safety. So it can be hard to hear what a person says after you find out that they support Trump as president. [Having these conversations] probably deepened my understanding or reasons why I’m supporting Biden and Harris, or voting the way that I am. You had people who share the same beliefs as me kind of confirm those beliefs and then I learned additional information from them. It’s almost like being in church, right? Kind of nodding a lot.”

staff

Albert Tanjaya

Lives in: Pittsburgh

Identifies as: Democrat

Voting for: Joe Biden

On widening your worldview: “There was one person who brought up something about the mask … it put me in like an ‘aha’ moment. Someone shared a personal story about their experience of trauma. And because of that trauma that they had with the area of the mouth and the face, they couldn’t wear a mask or scarves or anything like that for a long period of time without experiencing PTSD. And that was something I never thought of while discussing the pandemic. You see people on social media that are being ridiculed for not wearing their mask, and most of [their arguments] are pretty illegitimate, they don’t want to be ‘imposed’ or ‘oppressed’ by the mask. But there are people who cannot wear these masks due to traumatic reasons. And that’s something I never thought about.”

staff

Gabriela Femenia

Lives in: Philadelphia

Identifies as: Democrat

Voting for: Joe Biden

On learning new ways to talk to others: “I think that most people who fall into party lines either do it because they’re already highly ideological. In which case, you probably can’t convince them to leave their ideology. I think, before [these conversations], my approach with somebody who is, say, a very hard-line libertarian would have been to try to make a practical argument to them, because I cannot make a party-based argument to them. [Now that I’ve spent more time talking to folks of different ideologies], I think I might try to meet them on their philosophical ground instead."

staff

Kaitlin Ahern

Lives in: Scranton

Identifies as: Democrat

Voting for: Joe Biden

On not getting defensive: “One of the most important things that I recognized during this roundtable experience is that, myself included, people are defensive because they feel threatened. They feel like their beliefs may be threatened. I’m the same way. It was a very raw and authentic experience. So we got to see what happens when someone feels like their views or ideologies are threatened or disrespected. That’s something I took away from that. You have to be patient when someone has a different opinion or values than you because it’s very personal to them. It might not be personal to you, but you have to understand that in order to have a civil conversation.”

Interviews by Abraham Gutman and Elena Gooray.