It is tempting to see the political strife marking America these days as unprecedented, but history shows this country riven by conflict between regions, classes, races, and ideologies for centuries. One might even say that the anger and divides of the current moment are an outgrowth of what's come before.

Meanwhile, antidotes to our civic poisons run through the American bloodstream as well. Throughout our political battles, Americans have continually found ways to neutralize their discord and catalyze diversity, turning them into sources of strength. In a sense, the country has made it this far because its conflicts always have been counteracted by positive sentiments of equal force: shared traditions, and shared ideas about the future.

Some of these traditions, such as the protections of the Bill of Rights, are enshrined in law; others come from less tangible but still commonly held values around core American ideals, such as religious tolerance and personal freedom. In the words of the late political writer Molly Ivins, "it is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America."

Today, those antidotes are seriously weakened; while some remedies seem to still hold promise, few of us know how to employ them anymore. It's as though we've forgotten the basic craft of conversation.

In the midst of this chaos, projects have been springing up across the country to connect people across political and racial differences in an effort to strengthen our natural defenses. "After the election, people have been coming at us with their hair on fire," said Liz Joyner, who is the executive director of a civic engagement project, The Village Square, that was founded in Tallahassee, Florida, in 2006. The project has built a reputation for tackling controversial topics, such as energy, race, and faith, in public events that attract a socially and politically diverse crowd of followers.

Ironically, Joyner made this comment in early 2017, soon after the 2016 presidential election. Today, of course, Joyner's observations, and The Village Square's work, are only more relevant, as America flirts with a level of social and political conflict not seen since the race riots of the 1960s, and in some ways not since the Civil War. Could a little nonprofit in Tallahassee hold the secrets for healing wounds that seem to be literally ripping this country apart?

The Village Square has its roots in the experiences of three friends who, in 2006, found themselves on different sides of a proposed coal power plant — yet remained friends. "We'd have full cage-match discussions and then go for a run or a beer," said Bryan Desloge, a county commissioner from Leon County. The plant didn't go through, but each member of the trio was struck by the fact that their friendships survived the debate. So were their other friends. Liz Joyner, who had worked in election campaigns for Democrats and had a background as a social worker, soon became the group's executive director and spooled it up. Since that time, The Village Square has put on hundreds of events and opened chapters in Sacramento, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Fort Lauderdale.

"Break a little bread"

The Village Square's philosophy, not surprisingly, is centered on talking — and not just any talking, but across political differences. Its website features a fable-like origin story for American democracy, which (as the story goes) was a form of government created by people who "believed that when common folk can talk to each other and think for themselves, they come up with some pretty good ideas and can be their own bosses." Then, as technology developed, trouble arose. "Soon enough there was a box that pretty much everyone could buy that had people inside it who talked. It wasn't long before the people in the box talked every single minute of every single day. Watching the box got to be more fun than a barrel o' monkeys and that country of nonstop talkers, sort of just stopped talking."

Joyner imagines American democracy as a hundred-story skyscraper that people want to build even taller, except that the foundation is crumbling and the building is now wobbling. "There's something foundationally wrong with the levers of how democracy works," she told me, and this was back in 2017. "Our belief very strongly is that it's because we don't have as many vibrant relationships as we used to."

Those are big, thorny claims — many of us probably believe our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers are pretty good. And, if anything, Americans talk now more than ever. But Joyner is pointing to deeper problems. Despite our constant emails, texts, and tweets, our social circles are actually shrinking. And, because of increasingly isolated lives, our relationships outside those circles are becoming superficial. The result has been a wall of mistrust between people of different belief systems — not only in Washington but among our citizenry — that seems only more and more insurmountable.

The Village Square seems to have figured out some novel ways to climb this wall, at least for the community of Tallahassee. After 10 years of effort, it reliably offers a familiar experience of togetherness where uplift is always on the menu, a sort of civic church where religious believers aren't scorned. One key ingredient is to offer a variety of options for how citizens can use language.

In order to participate in the political sphere, people often are expected to be public speakers, but not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of crowds. Knowing this, Desloge led his county government to partner with The Village Square to host opportunities for people in Leon County to meet elected officials in churches, coffee shops, music halls, even bars. This approach fits into a more convivial mode of political life that is emerging all over the country. "You have to stop and break a little bread, look people in the eyeballs," Joyner said. She wants to revive the idea that you can chit chat with someone on the opposing side of an issue "and leave the room feeling like, 'hey, I kind of like that person.'"

Why would this make much difference?

For the complete version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.

Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine's newsletters.