Attendees at a Better Angels “Red/Blue” workshop
Jonno Rattman

Can Marriage Counseling Save America?

Borrowing techniques from couples therapy to bring liberals and conservatives back together

Photographs above and throughout are of attendees at a Better Angels “Red/Blue” workshop held in San Francisco this fall.

Back in the 1970s, Kingsley Amis—the grumpy British novelist now remembered mostly as the father of the slightly less grumpy novelist Martin—made a remark that even today holds a high place in the anthologies of human grumpiness: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.” Amis died in 1995, so he had the misfortune of living to see the workshop triumph as the primary means of socialization and instruction in American commercial and cultural life. He might have even lived long enough to hear the noun turned into a verb: “We really need to workshop this …” It might have been what finally killed him.

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Grumpy myself, I share Amis’s dim view of the workshop as a sly instrument of regimentation, a technique of smiley-faced uniformity, a venue for mandatory “sharing” and ostentatious empathy. For a grump, the workshop’s ties to group therapy make it immediately suspect. Its implementation in aid to the trendy causes of human-resources departments confirms the worst suspicions. The sight of easels and flip charts and fat Sharpies has the power, for some of us, to induce feelings of deep trauma.

Yet there I was one bright summer Sunday, wreathed in skepticism, gathered with a dozen others in the community room of a suburban public library in Northern Virginia to test whether this nation, or any nation so fragmented and so polarized, can be united and saved by a workshop.

This was not just any workshop, of course. I was at a “skills workshop” put on by a grassroots citizens’ group called Better Angels. The group got its start in the shell-shocked weeks right after the 2016 election, and it takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s famous plea, in his first inaugural address, that his divided countrymen heed the “better angels of our nature.” (They didn’t.)

Paid-up membership in Better Angels stands at a little over 8,000, but the group creates a commotion bigger than that of organizations many times its size. On any given day somebody somewhere in the United States is hosting an event like the one I attended. There are an average of eight to 10 such events a week. The mission everywhere is the same, explained by the inspirational mottoes on the posters the organizers had hung in the library. “Let’s depolarize America!” “Start a conversation, not a fight.”

The skills workshop teaches workshoppers how to do this with specially designed techniques for listening and speaking to people whose political views differ from their own. It is just one item on the Angels’ menu of workshops, which also include highly stylized public debates between liberals and conservatives (called “blues” and “reds”), and a relatively new session, “Depolarizing Within,” during which one is taught to turn inward and depolarize oneself, in preparation for depolarizing the rest of us. BA’s work has been featured on PBS and NPR, both of which strongly approve.

Lots of organizations are in the civility business these days, as irenic activists recoil in horror at the rhetorical violence and deep division that have come to characterize American political disputation. Living Room Conversations, Bridge the Divide, Make America Dinner Again—all have the same goal of calming our heated debate by bringing well-meaning people out of their cultural bubbles, those insular Facebook feeds and message boards and book clubs where people talk only with people who think the way they do and express growing alarm at people who don’t.

The success of the civility movement over the past several years is hard to gauge, though the level of public rancor suggests that it is not really catching on. From one perspective, these organizations seem to have succeeded mostly in forming a new bubble—what activists call “the civil-dialogue space.” Americans are beginning countless dialogues about how important it is to begin a dialogue.

Attendees at a Better Angels “Red/Blue” workshop
Jonno Rattman

Better Angels is different from its counterparts, and more worthy of attention, for at least two reasons. First is the rigorous and ingenious design of the workshops, nearly all of it bearing the imprint of Bill Doherty, a prominent family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and a co-founder of Better Angels. Doherty is what you might call a therapy entrepreneur, creating different counseling programs and marketing them to willing customers—“educating couples in all stages of stuckness,” as the Doherty Relationship Institute website puts it. Beyond his private practice with families and couples, Doherty specializes in public programs of the kind BA now offers. One of his recent initiatives was the Police and Black Men Project, which brings together cops and African American men “to develop relationships of honesty and trust.” (Not sure this one’s catching on either.) “Bill’s the one who realized that most of the techniques of family therapy, the tools to resolve intrafamily conflicts, could be used to resolve intrasocial conflicts too,” says David Blankenhorn, the president of Better Angels and another of its co-founders.

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Doherty’s workshops are an artful mashup of techniques shared not only by psychotherapy but also by America’s vast facilitation industry of life coaches, diversity instructors, and leadership counselors. As a business sector, facilitation is too ubiquitous to be a mere “space.” Better Angels deploys role-playing, fishbowl discussions, scripted Q&A sessions, and other exercises that will be familiar to every workshopping citizen. They all have an impeccable American pedigree. In Better Angels, one sees traces of Carl Rogers and Richard Farson’s Active Listening and Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training, from the 1960s. Several sessions contain elements that resemble Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—a big hit in the ’90s—particularly habits 4, 5, and 6 (“Think Win/Win,” “Seek First to Understand,” and “Synergize”). There are also echoes of John Dewey’s “reflective thinking” and his six steps to group problem-solving. Dewey came up with his program in 1910. We have been trying to teach one another to be civil for a long time.

BA’s second distinction is what the Angels sometimes call the 50-50 rule: At all organizational levels—from the leaders of the local chapters to the paid and volunteer staff members who keep the enterprise going—Better Angels insists on precise parity between reds and blues. Achieving this is not easy. The great weakness of the civil-dialogue space is that it tends to bring liberals into dialogue with other liberals, while conservatives, if they even notice, look on in horror or puzzlement. This is nobody’s fault, just a matter of taste and self-selection. “That whole ‘workshopology’ industry,” as Blankenhorn calls it, “skews blue.” If you don’t insist on the presence of reds, he says, “it just turns into blue BS very quickly.”

I admire the principles behind Better Angels but was dubious about their practicality. Before I attended any BA events, Ciaran O’Connor, the group’s chief marketing officer, suggested that I watch a documentary film about one of the first workshops, a weekend-long event held in rural Ohio in April 2017. The movie was well made and even moving in spots, as a group of 15 stalwart reds and blues depolarized one another and began viewing their opposite numbers with respect and affection. The workshop closed with an appearance by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary, who led the assembled workshoppers in a hushed rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

Now, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who will join hands and sway gently back and forth while singing “We Shall Overcome” with Peter Yarrow, and Republicans. And indeed, while the 50-50 rule holds within the organization’s leadership and funding, and while BA’s “Red/Blue” workshops require attendance to be equally divided, membership is another story. Dues are minimal—$12 a year—and no politicking or propagandizing is allowed. Still, membership is overwhelmingly blue.

So the Angels bend over backwards to project an image that is not merely nonpartisan but scrupulously non-left. The standardized material the moderators use in the workshops has been scrubbed of any suggestion of bias, cultural or political. You won’t find cant about “safe spaces” or “family values.” One moderator not long ago compiled a list of fact-checking sites for his workshoppers that classified sites run by The New York Times and The Washington Post as nonpartisan. “Whoo, boy,” Doherty recalled in an interview. “Can you imagine? Reds just don’t think that way about the Times and the Post. We’d lose every red on the planet.”

Doherty chooses his wardrobe carefully before he ventures out to a BA event: no shades of red or blue lest he offer hints of his own political inclinations. “I don’t want to put anybody off,” he said. In several online bios, however, we learn that Doherty left a Catholic seminary to become a therapist, a community organizer, a college professor, and a Unitarian. We are free to speculate.

If reds, suspicious by nature, fancy that Better Angels is a subtle exercise in political indoctrination, they should come see for themselves. The first thing the Angels would have you know is this: They don’t want to change your mind—they want to change you. If you’re a crypto-monarchist or an anarcho-capitalist, a neo-Trotskyite or a committed syndicalist—even if you’re a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican—the Angels assume an official indifference toward your political beliefs, no matter how idiotic they are. The great enemy of national comity, in their view, isn’t the conflict of ideas but the mutual contempt with which the contest is waged.

“Our job here today is to learn how you maintain, or create, a good relationship with people even though you don’t agree with them,” one of the moderators said on that sunny Sunday at the library in Northern Virginia. “We’re not here to learn how to convince each other of some political agenda.” Of the two moderators, I later learned, one was red and one was blue. But at the time I couldn’t have told you which was which. The attendees were an easier mark. The well-fed fellow with the neck beard wearing the too-tight Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt—definitely a red. The woman with the short gray hair, gingham wraparound skirt, and All Things Considered tote bag—blue, blue, blue.

I’m stereotyping, of course. One of the themes of Better Angels is that civil dialogue requires us to concede that many of the stereotypes about our own side contain elements of truth—“kernels,” in Doherty’s lingo. The stereotyping exercise that opens BA’s flagship “Red/Blue” workshop is a good example of the group’s method. After the participants identify themselves, reds and blues gather in separate groups with a moderator. The dreaded easels, flip charts, and Sharpies are brought into play. The moderator asks each group to list untrue things that the other side believes about them. “What this does,” Doherty says, “is bring up the worst stuff anybody can think of—but it comes from one’s own side. So it’s all out in the open, but curated, as it were.”

After observing half a dozen BA workshops, I’m astonished at the lack of variety these exercises elicit, uncoached by the moderator. Reds routinely say blues think of them as racist, homophobic, anti-government. Blues say reds believe they’re elitist, socialist, unpatriotic. Next, the moderator scribbles as each group volunteers what they see as the truth about themselves: We’re not socialists, the blues will say; we just believe that government has a responsibility to help the needy. Far from being heartless, say the reds, we favor capitalism precisely because it lifts people from poverty. Then the groups are encouraged to concede the kernels of truth. While rejecting the charge of elitism, blues might acknowledge that they can often be condescending in argument. Reds might say that blues misconstrue their professions of color blindness as racism—but let’s face it, there really are some racists lurking on the right side of the political divide. The final step of the exercise is for the two groups to reunite and explain to each other what they’ve come up with.

The response is invariably disarming. Most participants come to believe that they have much more in common than they’d realized. Blues seem less statist and more pragmatic than reds thought. Reds seem more tolerant and less coldhearted than blues imagined. In a properly curated setting, it seems, all of us are eminently reasonable when we are explaining our own views of what’s required to make a better world. From attending Better Angels events, I have learned that nearly everyone believes in helping the needy; no one thinks we should encourage dependency on government. All of us favor taking the long view and condemn shortsightedness. We must live within our means, never encourage bad behavior, and think objectively and rationally rather than subjectively and emotionally. We shall overcome. As long as we don’t get too specific. When it comes to politics, a Better Angels prospectus says, “we support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.” Whatever those may be.

Better Angels is too young and underfunded to have compiled the kind of hard and reliable data that would reveal whether the warm feeling engendered by the “Red/Blue” workshops has a lasting effect. That’s why BA promotes the skills workshop, to teach people the practical ways in which they can “be the change we want to see for our country.” Our moderator in Northern Virginia told us, “It’s really just Communications 101, basic facilitation stuff.” When discussing politics with someone disagreeable—or at least someone you disagree with—avoid bald assertions of fact in favor of “I”statements that begin with “I feel …” or “What I’m hearing from you is …” Don’t ask loaded gotcha questions. “You just have to remember that people are people,” our moderator continued. “So simple, right? But sometimes it can be hard.”

The notion that our national divide may simply be a matter of ill temper is at once reassuring and depressing—it’s reassuring to know that the cause seems superficial and remediable, but depressing to think that something so inessential could cause all this unpleasantness. Is it really a matter of temperament, though? It’s true—and notable—that contempt is the ingredient that kills personal relationships more swiftly than any other. Eliminating contempt may not be sufficient to save a relationship, but, as marriage research suggests, it is almost certainly necessary. Perhaps the same is true for the nation.

And yet Better Angels participants, from my experience, are already well-mannered folk. They are also by nature people who enjoy the workshop atmosphere: the cathartic self-disclosures and debriefs, as well as the moment of reconciliation and uplift on which such encounters are designed to end. It’s the self-selection problem again. The great question facing BA is whether there are enough such people to change the tone of national politics.

It won’t take too many, to hear the Angels tell it. Blankenhorn says that 1 percent of the population of any given community, if sufficiently motivated, can influence that community in decisive ways. He points to groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club, with membership rolls in the low seven figures. The difference is that Better Angels has no policy agenda to push. “Relationship-building is at the core of who we are,” John Wood Jr., BA’s director of media development, says. “We’re not trying to get people to agree ideologically—except in the sense that we should be able to agree that there are core values that unite us as a people, that run deeper than ideology.”

Deeper than ideology? Most political actors you run into these days will have a problem imagining anything deeper or more intimate than ideology. I met Wood at BA’s second annual national convention, held on the campus of Washington University, in St. Louis, this summer. In the meeting rooms and hallways there was much discussion of a blistering Washington Post op-ed about Better Angels and the civil-dialogue space, which had appeared the week before. “ ‘Love politics’ has a genuine appeal,” wrote a left-wing fundraiser named Julie Kohler. “But like love itself, love politics is complicated.” In truth Kohler didn’t think it was complicated at all, as her article demonstrated. “Love politics flattens anger,” she continued, and “righteous anger” was the only proper political response to the litany of outrages she presented: a “right-wing media ecosystem that sows disinformation,” “Trump’s demagoguery,” “structural inequities,” and so on.

Kohler’s article seethed with the authentic voice of people who practice politics nowadays. Change the specific issues but not the tone and it could have been written by any number of right-wing Twitter boobies. When I read it in St. Louis, I wondered how the Angels might respond face-to-face to these avatars of grievance and anger. “What I’m hearing from you is that you’re coming from a place of frustration over the way the other side is …” Kerpow! The Angels would be lucky to finish the sentence.

Blankenhorn gave his own response in a brief talk to the Angels one evening in St. Louis, defending the group’s mission of elevating a new style of politics over the same old disputes about substance. He acknowledged Kohler’s anger. “Everyone thinks the stakes are too high not to fight,” he said. Fighting, and winning by whatever means necessary, was the urgent thing, the demand of maturity, according to Kohler and her fellow ideologists. “But what if this is precisely wrong?” Blankenhorn asked. “What if fighting is the childish way? What if the tough-minded thing is to practice love?”

It’s a handsome thought indeed, and all credit to Blankenhorn and his Angels for advancing it, for practicing it, and for showing the rest of us, no matter how grumpy, what it might look like. But as Kohler and her rivals on the other side know, the world—for better or worse—isn’t a workshop.

This article appears in the December 2019 print edition with the headline “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”