CARY, N.C.—One Saturday morning this past fall, a handful of progressive voters were seated in a neat circle, pondering why more people don’t agree with their preferred policy solutions for the country.
This kind of hand-wringing has been common among Democratic voters since the 2016 election, especially in liberal enclaves (like urban Wake County, where Cary is located) in red states (like North Carolina). But there were a few things different about this particular klatch that were unusual—chief among them the concentric circle of conservatives sitting just behind the Democrats, listening intently.
The 20 or so people, both the inner circle of liberals and the outer circle of conservatives, had gathered at a suburban church for a workshop hosted by Better Angels, a group that seeks to promote understanding across the country’s yawning partisan divide. And this “fishbowl exercise” was showing some of the challenges in that task. The liberals—“blues,” in Better Angels parlance—were supposed to be outlining why they thought progressive policies were best for the country, as well as what hesitations they had about them. And they were supposed to do both without referring to or blaming conservatives, or “reds.”
As the exercise showed—or as you probably already know, if you’ve had a political debate any time in the past year, or three years, or decade—that’s uncommon. In Cary, one participant kept unwittingly critiquing the Republican Party, nearly to the point of slapstick. As a chuckle spread through the group, his face fell. “Am I doing the same thing again?” Leslie Selbst asked, with mild exasperation.
He’s hardly alone in this binary view of politics. Even more than the standard understanding of polarization—the widening chasm between preferred political outcomes—the U.S. is riven by negative polarization, a loathing for the other side. To cite the classic metric, the number of Americans who wouldn’t want their child to marry someone of the other political party has skyrocketed since, roughly, the 2008 election.
This is not a novel insight. There’s so much pearl-clutching about polarization and the need for centrist solutions that it has spawned a cottage industry of groups peddling ideas for compromise, along with a counter–cottage industry of commentators who argue that civility is overrated and polarization underrated.
What is intriguing about Better Angels is that it isn’t seeking to formulate a broadly acceptable centrist platform, nor appeal to the vast middle who (Americans are told) really truly just want the country to work. It’s not trying to end partisanship; the group’s very concept, with its red versus blue structure, presupposes polarity. Its premise is not that everyone needs to agree, but simply that they need to be able to talk to one another, and that such a skill has been lost. That seems more manageable and realistic than getting everyone to see eye to eye on policies, but it’s still no easy feat—and even if the group is successful, is fostering an open dialogue within a polarized system enough to fix American politics?
Sometimes it takes an unexpected leader to reach across the political divide, like Richard Nixon going to China. David Blankenhorn, the president of Better Angels, is not that type of leader.
He’s traversed the aisle several times in his career. Blankenhorn was reared in conservative Mississippi, attended Harvard, then became a community organizer. The think tank he established and led for many years, the Institute for American Values (IAV), found allies on the center-right. In 2010, Blankenhorn served as a witness defending California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, during a court challenge. Two years later, he changed his mind, announcing the switch in a New York Times op-ed. “That experience was pretty searing for me,” he told me, wryly noting that he has the rare distinction of managing to lose friends on both sides of the debate.
On November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump’s election, Blankenhorn woke up to a morose mood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives. He called David Lapp, a friend and colleague from IAV, who was in South Lebanon, Ohio—between Cincinnati and Dayton— where, by contrast, the atmosphere was buoyant and hopeful. The men decided they needed to do something to bridge that emotional gap, and within a few weeks, they’d gathered 10 Trump voters and 10 Hillary Clinton voters for a discussion in Ohio. With a nod to the notion that the U.S. was a house divided against itself, they recruited Bill Doherty, a veteran family therapist, to design and lead the talk.
“It was just really for all of us a transformative experience,” Blankenhorn said. “We felt we had lightning in a bottle. You remember right after the election, emotions were very high. Words of real anger, passion, fear. At the end of the day, they decided that they wanted to continue to talk together. They said it was the first time they’d actually talked together after a year and a half of talking at and about each other.”
So the nascent Better Angels hosted another session. And then another. Then they had a bus tour. They created a day-long workshop, and then a three-hour truncated alternative. They began recruiting members and held a national convention in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in summer 2017. The group has now hosted hundreds of workshops and claims roughly 5,400 dues-paying members.
Post-Trump searches for the national soul are nearly as numerous as broken presidential norms. Many of these have involved coastal elites going on what my former colleague Molly Ball called safaris in Trump country, with actors from HuffPost to Third Way to Mark Zuckerberg venturing into the heartland and trying to make sense of the people who live there. They joined an already crowded field of people and groups concerned about polarization. Many of these groups, such as No Labels, have argued that the problem with American politics is that a silent majority of centrists are marginalized. “The far right and far left are holding America hostage—becoming ever more strident, uncompromising and making governance impossible ... while the vast political center has remained on the sidelines,” No Labels says. The commitment to centrism brings risks, though. No Labels, for example, granted Donald Trump its “problem solver” honorific in 2016. As Ball reported, Third Way cherry-picked evidence from a tour of Wisconsin that supported its centrist premise.
Better Angels dispenses with centrism from the start. “We’re very clear that we’re not asking people to change their mind on issues,” Blankenhorn said. “We’re not trying to develop a centrist political philosophy; we’re not trying to create a centrist political movement.” (He acknowledged that this claim may be met with skepticism: “A lot of people who say that really are trying to create a centrist movement.”)
The goal is simply to create a space and method for people who disagree to talk politics, conversations that have become surprisingly rare. A 2017 study by political scientists at the University of California at Davis found that three in four Americans almost exclusively talk politics with people with whom they agree. More and more, Americans avoid discussing politics with people they know hold opposite views—if they mix with them at all.
Accepting political disagreement as a fact of life means embedding a bipolar setup into everything Better Angels does. Its leadership is half red and half blue. So are delegates to its conventions, and attendees at its workshops. Of course, many voters are certain they’re some form of purple, or at least reasonably independent. So rather than try to force participants into adopting either “conservative” or “liberal” or “Democrat” or “Republican,” Better Angels uses the consciously contrived red-blue binary. Years of opinion research show that most voters pretty consistently favor one party or the other, even if they sometimes cross over.
The workshop I attended in Cary was the three-hour version. What immediately jumped out was how little time blues and reds spent talking about the opposite side. Instead, the format forced them to speak almost exclusively about themselves. Local organizers had recruited 10 blues and 10 reds, and a pair of facilitators led the group. After introductions, the reds and blues split up, each with a facilitator, and were asked to list stereotypes that they believe the other side has about them. Then they were asked to assign a “kernel of truth” to each stereotype—that is, to accept why the other side might hold it.
It will come as no surprise that the groups ended up with very different results. What was surprising was that rather than just come up with different answers, they almost seemed to have been answering different questions. The red group compiled a list almost entirely composed of feelings—“closed-minded,” “racist.” The blue group, meanwhile, brought back a list of policy-heavy words, such as “socialist.”
The exercise also demonstrated how difficult self-critique is. I sat with the red group, and while the crew quickly named racism as a stereotype, they were deeply reluctant to identify the kernel of truth. Linda Gupton, a member of the red group, tried to argue that there are white-supremacist elements in the Republican coalition, but was shut down. Only as the exercise finished did she convince the rest of the reds, pointing to the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
After a break came the fishbowl exercises, as participants laid out why they believed their side’s policy prescriptions were good for the country, and then what reservations they had about those ideas. Observing a group of mostly strangers, united by nebulous partisan agreement, discussing politics as their opponents looked on was strangely riveting. Watching them try to do so without criticizing the other party—sorry, color—was a little like watching amateur gymnasts on a slackline: You knew they’d fall off eventually, but you were rooting for them all the same, and it was gripping to see them try to hang on.
The fishbowl exercises seemed to build real goodwill. The reds were excited to hear blues voice concern about self-righteousness on the left, and about their fears that a social safety net might create a culture of dependency. The blues were heartened by red concerns that conservative social policies would leave people behind. Of course, one possible reason this exercise was popular was that it allowed each side to have its critique of the other articulated, without having to say it themselves. Nonetheless, there was a warm, fuzzy feeling as the workshop wrapped up. I left feeling a little better about partisans’ ability to have reasoned conversations. That’s exactly what Blankenhorn said Better Angels workshops can provide. The goal is to lower negative partisanship.
The following week brought Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Senator Lindsey Graham’s outburst in his defense, and the final confirmation vote—perhaps the most viscerally polarized moment in American politics in my lifetime.
Are those warm, fuzzy feelings durable, and are they strong enough to build a social movement?
“We want to change the country. We don’t want to simply be the organization that has some workshops and people feel better about having gone to the workshops,” Blankenhorn said. He points to the impact of groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, and the Tea Party as what he wants to emulate. That’s a delicate balancing act, especially without creating a political agenda, because all those groups are defined by policy advocacy. Blankenhorn thinks Better Angels can find a workaround.
“Our members are never going to agree on a climate-change policy or a gun policy or anything like that,” he told me. “We might be able to agree on some procedural changes that would reduce polarization.” For example, the group could decide to advocate for federal judicial term limits—an idea that has some supporters on both sides of the aisle and might lower the stakes of judicial appointments, thus reducing a polarization pinch point.
A bigger reach also means expanding offerings. In addition to holding workshops and national conventions, Better Angels has started local chapters where people can get together on a semi-regular basis, in a less structured format. Better Angels is also working to establish debates, having found that some reds prefer that to the arguably touchy-feely vibe of the workshops.
And it means expanding who comes to programs of all sorts. Demographically, Blankenhorn said, Better Angels tilts older, whiter, and more white-collar than the population (though so does the electorate), and he’s hoping to rectify that. The group I observed was not quite representative of the general population in the Raleigh area, but it had a mix of younger and older voters, as well as people of color in both the red and blue groups.
The bigger problem is that the kind of people who are willing to spend a morning or a day on such an exercise are the kind of people who are already convinced that dialogue is important, and are more willing to hear the other side out. As participants went around, many had strong political views, but many had also participated in other efforts at cross-partisan dialogue. Reducing affective polarization will require getting more of the affectively polarized to show up at events like this. Still, even this group found the exercises useful, if largely as self-abnegation.
“There were parts where I just wanted to jump in and say, ‘This is a misrepresentation of the facts!’” Neel Mandavilli, a 20-something who’s worked for Democrats in the state and federal governments, told me a few weeks after the session. “The whole point was to just listen. I found that helpful. I left reminded that there are people on the other side, so to speak, who share that. That leaves some measure of hope for me.”
Gupton, who had gently but firmly pushed the reds to acknowledge racism, said she mostly avoids political conversations for fear of getting into contentious arguments. Although she identifies as a moderate, she told me her more conservative friends might like a Better Angels setup.
“I have a lot of friends who are much more conservative than me, and they are very hesitant to come to a table with people from the other side of the table because they’re afraid they’re going to get beat up,” she said. “But here, you’re not debating people from the other side of the table.”
There was also a conspicuous absence of strong Trump supporters. The reds mostly fit into the more classic business-friendly conservatism of, say, Mitt Romney. They weren’t necessarily Never Trumpers, but many were Reluctant Trumpers. The exception was Mary Ruth Dana, who had the most interesting political backstory in the group: She’s a former liberal who remains strongly anti-war and skeptical of corporate power in America. Her political switch made her an asset to the workshop, because she was, in effect, bilingual—able to communicate with both sides.
In 2016, Dana shocked even herself by supporting Trump. People in her social circles—she’s a painter—didn’t take it well. “I was actually quite distressed by the response I got from people I had known 10, 20, 30 years,” she told me. “They weren’t interested in why I had done it. They were just so appalled at it. The lack of open-mindedness blew me away.”
The benefit of the workshop, she said, was that she didn’t feel like she was walking on eggshells, as she often does in daily life when politics comes up. But although Dana had positive things to say about Better Angels—this was her second workshop—she was reserved in her enthusiasm.
That would come as no surprise to Selbst, from the blue group, who’d struggled during the fishbowl exercise. “I don’t believe everyone had a kumbaya moment at the end,” he said. “People said what they thought was appropriate to say.”
Selbst thought the format was good as far as it went, but he worried it didn’t go very far. “[The facilitators] tended to give equal weight to everyone’s argument and were not interested in any negativity toward that argument [from] the other people,” he said. “I firmly believe everyone should be treated with respect, but not every opinion is equally valuable.”
That’s the rub, even if you don’t agree with Selbst about which opinions are valuable and which aren’t. Ultimately, politics is about issues—not just the ability to talk, and not just procedures. Even if Better Angels can succeed in getting a large swath of the population to speak civilly, who knows if they’ll be able to convert that into productive conversation on real policies? Blankenhorn is disarmingly open about these challenges, though he told me, “I’ve worked for lost causes in this country. I know what it’s like to not get much response for something you’re trying to do. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The stakes are certainly lower now than they’ve been in earlier eras. It’s easy to forget that Better Angels’ name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speech. Lincoln’s phrase endures, but his plea for comity was unheeded: Barely a month later, the Civil War broke out. The country is not as divided today, and it’d be better to avoid getting there.
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