I donated a Jefferson Dinner to a fundraiser auction a few months ago, which was a twist on the Blueberries & Cherries dinners I had been hosting with Trump supporters. Gala attendees donated to the N Street Village by purchasing a seat at my Jefferson Dinner table and then I invited additional guests who I thought would add to the political diversity. Unfortunately, the two conservatives I’d invited didn’t show up even though I’d confirmed with them the day before.
This is how I described the Jefferson Dinner at the auction:
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” said Thomas Jefferson.
Take a seat at the table with Philippa Hughes, who has hosted a series of dinners with politically opposed guests since the 2016 election, and a few surprise guests to discuss the most controversial issues of the day and find our common humanity. Thomas Jefferson’s dinners have been credited with saving our Republic. We can do it again!
I was pretty disappointed when the conservatives didn’t show up and worried that the dinner would turn into a boring liberal echo chamber. I was wrong about that. Turns out, there was PLENTY of dissension and the mood became tense at times. Especially when the conversation turned to race.
Race is a really fucking uncomfortable thing to talk so I understand why people generally avoid the subject. But we have got to talk about it and KEEP talking about it. We’re nowhere near done talking about it, even though many people feel like we have talked about it enough. Conversations about race inevitably get personal. And they force us to confront our own racism. And nobody wants to be called racist. That’s one of the reasons we avoid talking about it. (Andy Shallal’s conversations about race at his business are an awesome example of how to have these conversations.) I’m not great at it myself and I’ve been told that more than once. But I’m not going to get any better at it unless I keep trying.
I had originally wanted to begin our dinner conversation around the topic of economic inequality because I have been wondering if there might be a way we can find common ground there (and because I think this issue is threatening our democracy!). I know conservatives generally feel that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor because of the choices they make, which is at odds with liberal thinking on the subject. (I know I am oversimplifying here! But you get the gist.) However, I have been thinking about how the parties seem to be breaking apart and there might be a way to form new parties around the notion of “getting money out of politics and ending crony capitalism,” which seems to exist on both ends of the political spectrum. (See this Robert Reich video).
Without the conservatives at dinner, I decided to switch up the topic and suggested we discuss a NYT op-ed I’d read a couple weeks ago that said liberal self-righteousness and willingness to write off a significant portion of the country who supported Trump could lead to the re-election of the president in 2020. That piece was about self-righteousness toward the right, but it got me thinking about how liberal self-righteousness toward others on the left and center could be problematic when it comes time to vote. We’ve had some exciting victories in special elections over the past year and it was awesome to see Stacey Abrams’ opponents throw their support to her as soon as she won the democratic primary. I feel cautiously optimistic.
At the same time, the unresolved dissension at last week’s dinner had me a little worried about mobilizing the left to get out the vote for Democrats in the midterms and in the next presidential election. Our party system seems to be fracturing and I wonder if that could ultimately be a good thing for our country. It’s going to take a while to reorient the parties, though. In the mean time, I’m not sure how to proceed. Part of me thinks we have got to keep voting for Democrats regardless of whether they are perfect on all the liberal issues and change the system from within. Part of me worries that there will be no incentive to change the system from within once they are elected so we need a long-range plan for electing people (who don’t identify with any party) who want to radically alter the system.
My thoughts continue to evolve. I’m scheduling more Jefferson Dinners in the next few weeks. I hope you’ll organize something like this, too. Let’s figure this out together!