OHIO — People vote for the candidates on the ballot. So what people running for office say and do may affect political polarization as much as public behavior. The Braver Angels believe they have an answer for the divisive campaigning.

What You Need To Know

  • Political debates can resemble sports contests more than policy discussions

  • Ohio House candidates from both parties met for a Braver Angels debate alternative

  • The event outcome was mixed, but there’s potential in the Braver Angels format

Two candidates for the Ohio House of Representatives, a Democrat and a Republican, took part in a Braver Angels-style debate that might show a new way of talking politics.

Looking at the state of politics today, if political debates resemble sports, it’s not imagination.

Cooling the conflict lets candidates speak their minds, leaving more room for substance over style. That may be why candidates for Warren County House District 56—Democrat Joy Bennett and Republican Adam Matthews—agreed to appear at the Braver Angels conversation Oct. 26.

“What I love about Braver Angels is that they are working to help us learn how to have these difficult conversations in a constructive way, where we don’t devolve into name calling, but we actually discuss the issues,” said Bennett.

Matthews echoed these sentiments.

“Having Braver Angels come in and have this type of debate tonight is another reflection of a way forward where we can stand to our principles, but do it in a way that respects the dignity of people on the other side,” he said. 

Things looked up for the event, with a packed house, eager candidates and an experienced moderator, Chris Watson, who was featured in an earlier Talking Politics story with his wife, Kim.

Watson set the topics at the top of the event, and he instructed audience members to pose questions to him to avoid a confrontational tone with candidates.

With everything in place, Bennett and Matthews got down to business. But even the best laid plans don’t always work.

One unidentified audience member took Bennett to task with a statement, not a question.

“She’s denounced extremism, and yet she herself has shown up to school board meetings ‘white silence is violence.’ She voted last year wearing a Handmaiden’s Tale outfit,” the person said.

A second audience member, who also preferred to go unidentified, criticized Matthews.

“I’m wondering if you can ask Mr. Matthews about his extremist stance on anti-abortion. It’s very clear what he feels about for the mother being forced to have the baby,” the second person said.

Both audience members eventually asked the candidates questions, but only after their opening statements heightened tensions in the room.

Braver Angels tries to buffer rude behavior, but political differences are real and deeply held—a reality that makes candidate debates a potential mess.

There’s no guaranteed way to keep a lid on cranky political behavior, but with both Bennett and Matthews endorsing respect and careful listening—Braver Angels cooled the partisan flare-ups.

And that may be a good game plan for making politics less like sports.