Craft beers were on ice. Someone uncorked a $ 10 Pinot Noir. A Japanese curry simmered on the stovetop as smooth jazz streamed on Spotify.
The roomful of strangers milled about the condo in downtown Washington, D.C., filling out name tags and laying down a medley of potluck offerings.
The spread included an artichoke and chicken lasagna prepared by a conservative "constitutional constructionist," a platter of green beans contributed by a libertarian, a garlicky broccoli pasta baked by an independent Austrian-American, and chocolate-covered strawberries hand-dipped by a Pacific Northwest liberal and survivor of sexual assault.
It was mixed company that might not have ordinarily dined together like this, family-style. But the eight participants cleared their calendars for a Sunday supper club known as MADA — "Make America Dinner Again" — a nationwide project that makes tablemates of Americans with clashing political ideologies.
A look at the participants of a recent MADA dinner. Clockwise, from left: Host and co-facilitator Kasey Randall, Cindi Stevens, Kate Paull, Chris Cermak, Ran Liu, Hugo Dante, Chip Copeland and Kyle Dunovan. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
Their host, Kasey Randall, a 29-year-old Independent who designs apps and other digital products, implored his guests to "try the cucumber water."
Then he laid out the ground rules.
"We do want to make everybody feel safe, welcomed and comfortable. Because this discourse can raise some tension, it can raise some emotions, and we want to maintain that civility."
There would be no interrupting. No judging. The event's co-facilitator, Ran Liu, a first-generation Chinese immigrant with socially liberal streaks, referred to a computer screen behind the dining table. "Border control" was a suggested topic. Another was "Kavanaugh confirmation," just days after controversial judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite facing decades-old allegations of sexual assault and misconduct that he denied.
Chris Cermak, a financial journalist and political Independent interested in challenging people's views on government regulation, listens as Dante Hugo, right, makes a point. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
Liu informed her MADA companions about the evening's "safe word," which could be deployed should someone feel attacked: "Hummus," she said, to scattered laughs.
It was as good an ice-breaker as any.
Before long, the group was at it, debating federal government bloat, the charter school model, and pontificating about whether GDP is the best measure of economic growth. Much of their discourse was wonkish.
"I'm not sure we've seen the effects of the Trump presidency on the economy just yet," said Kyle Dunovan, a Bernie Sanders supporter and post-doctoral fellow in neuroscience.
Guests listen as Cindi Stevens, a conservative libertarian, speaks about how excessive government 'coddling' can stifle the 'American spirit.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)
He invited Chip Copeland, a 57-year-old conservative whom he viewed as his "political antithesis," to explain how Donald Trump's government is outperforming that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, on the economy.
"The Obama administration added more stress to the economy with things like the health-care bill," Copeland said.
This kind of table talk among strangers, and during perhaps the most politically divisive period in recent U.S. history, might have mortified etiquette guru Emily Post. But all of the diners at Randall's home understood what was expected of them as MADA guests. The invitees were screened to ensure they brought a diversity of ideologies to the table, and were willing to share.
The dinner was among more than two dozen similar events that have popped up via online registered events in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco, where the concept originated after the 2016 presidential election.
'Wait a minute'
At the Washington potluck, the conversation rarely rose above a low boil. Only at one point did a round of scoffs break out — when conservative libertarian Cindi Stevens suggested Democrats have long held a monopoly on political shenanigans.
"It's like, 'You guys have been playing these political games for decades, and you have the entire media on your side!'"
"Wow, well, come on," Dunovan protested.
"Like CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, Washington Post," Stevens went on. "You name it. The whole machine."
"Wait a minute," Liu said.
Kyle Dunovan, right, a supporter of Democratic socialist senator Bernie Sanders, says he considers his dining companion, Chip Copeland, a self-described 'constitutional constructionist,' as his 'political antithesis' as they discuss the economy over dinner. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
Randall agreed with Stevens, but pointed out conservative media have diehard followers and a powerful platform of their own. Dunovan allowed that few people ever bemoan "their silos," whether it be MSNBC's progressive firebrand Rachel Maddow or Fox News host Sean Hannity.
"I don't complain about Rachel Maddow, and I highly doubt you have a problem with Sean Hannity," Dunovan said.
To which Stevens objected: "I don't watch Sean Hannity."
The spread included a Thai noodle slaw, green beans, Japanese curry with chicken, and a dessert of fall cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
When Dunovan, the Bernie Sanders supporter, mentioned that he also watches Fox News as part of a conscious effort to expand his media diet, Stevens challenged him.
"Is that it? Fox News?"
Liu jumped in, asking Stevens: "Do you have recommendations? No, seriously."
Stevens rattled off the names of a handful of websites, including the Daily Caller, which has published articles by white supremacists, and Breitbart, which Steve Bannon, the site's former boss and Trump's former chief strategist, once described as "the platform for the alt-right."
'People have no idea'
While the debate over the media grew a little heated, the conversation became emotional when the subject turned to the politicization of sexual assault.
Her voice trembling, Kate Paull, a 23-year-old accountant for a global health organization, spoke of opposing Kavanaugh's confirmation, even though she understands the presumption of innocence is a tenet of American justice.
"People have no idea how serious sexual assault and just abuse of women is in America."
Kate Paull, who works at a global health organization in Washington, D.C., discusses her frustration with the nomination process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She was dismayed by how the allegations of Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, were politicized by lawmakers. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
Between deep breaths, she lamented how it seemed to her that the judge's main accuser, research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, was little more than a "political tool" for lawmakers who seized on a confidential letter Ford wrote alleging Kavanaugh tried to rape her in 1982.
"I think things like sexual assault and rape are really not allocated the attention they should be in our society," Paull said. "Things are really not taken seriously. I think there's so many reasons that girls don't report — and will never report — something like this."
Topics of discussion at the potluck included the economy, unemployment, appropriate metrics for measuring progress, education, the current and historical roles of media in politics, and Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation process and the complex issues it raises about sexual assault and presumption of innocence. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
Several of the diners said later they were moved by her words.
Stevens, the libertarian, seemed to home in on an earlier remark.
"I saw a lot of people nodding heads about [Ford] being used by the Democrats," she said.
Paull, who had been quiet most of the night, didn't disagree. But it wasn't just the Democrats she was angry with, she clarified in an interview later. She was upset that so many Republican senators would disregard Ford's testimony and "make a mockery of sexual assault," and that both parties turned the issue into a partisan battle.
"That's the thing that really bothered me," Paull said. As the rest of the dinner guests packed up and exchanged contact information, she also confided that she is a survivor of sexual assault.
'Gave me a lot of hope'
A week after the event, the guests said they were pleased with their first MADA, and hoped to join another one soon. Several were surprised so many of the guests counted themselves as socially liberal but conservative or moderate on fiscal policy. There was much more common ground than many had expected.
Hugo Dante, an economics-minded Hispanic millennial from small-town Alabama, even made friends, arranging a coffee date with one participant and lunch with another.
A group photo of all the guests. Throughout the entire evening, the name 'Trump' was only mentioned once, during a discussion of the current economic boom. (Matt Kwong/CBC)
Although Paull didn't speak much, she also left with positive feelings about the evening. Two hours of political debate went by in a flash. She had fun.
"If you can show you're willing to sit down at a dinner table, that at least shows you're willing to hear a different opinion than mine. That gave me a lot of hope in our country's future," she said.
"I was starting to get the impression we were losing the ability to talk to each other."
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