In the summer of 2019, I showed up to a gathering like I’d never seen before. Arriving in St. Louis, I took a taxi to a local community college where a nonprofit called Better Angels was convening — this, in an era before proximity with other human beings was considered dangerous.
I take that back. Even back then, spending too much time with someone on the other side of the political aisle was viewed with some trepidation and suspicion, which is precisely what made this gathering so striking.
Better Angels, now Braver Angels, set out to bring together America’s warring factions for very different kinds of conversations.
What stood out the most to me was how these people — divided equally between conservative- and liberal-leaning participants — were laughing. And not the kind of polite laughter you hear at a wedding dinner. I’m talking about gut-busting, belly laughs every couple of minutes.
In sharp contrast with the wearisome caricatures of awkward, strained relationships across the divide, these people really seemed to like each other. But how? How is it that these people, as different as they were, could enjoy each other so much?
It was a question that I had been asked before at public talks with my friend Phil Neisser, an atheist-Marxist professor with whom I wrote, “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).”
After learning for myself how beautiful relationships could thrive despite profound differences in worldviews, I had been working with Liz Joyner, founder and director of the Village Square to collect similar examples of both contemporary and historical friendships in America with the Respect & Rebellion project.
What made this specific gathering so remarkable, though, was seeing these relationships happening at scale — with hundreds of these kinds of friendships nurtured across the country by the same organization. (As two of many examples, see this feature on a red-blue relationship between “Two Karens,” and another pair united in friendship though divided over the legitimacy of the 2020 election).
How did this come to be?
A whirlwind history
In late 2016, the national mood was tense soon after President Donald Trump’s election. Talking to a friend in rural Ohio, where the mood was downright ecstatic, David Blankenhorn said, “Manhattan feels like a funeral.”
“So, how about this?” Blankenhorn continued. “We get 10 of your neighbors who just voted for Trump together with 10 of your neighbors who just voted for Clinton. Let’s spend a weekend with each other; it’ll be an experiment.”
That’s just what happened three weeks later — on Dec. 9, 2016 — when equal numbers of Trump and Clinton voters gathered together in a small church social hall in South Lebanon, Ohio, for a singular experiment. Was it possible for people who otherwise felt deep distrust and estrangement to move towards each other with a little help?
Short answer: yes!
As one woman expressed after that first event, “All of us looked over our fence and saw that we’re not as far from the other side as we thought.”
That didn’t happen randomly. Respected marriage and family therapist Bill Doherty helped design the format for these gatherings, drawing on many of the same things that help estranged couples find each other again. And after that first experimental gathering, 150 Americans gathered the following June for two days on a small campus in Virginia for the Founding Convention of what was called “Better Angels” in its first two years of existence.
Prompted by a trademark dispute, the organization adjusted its name to highlight the real courage we all need to tap into the “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address in 1861, said would be crucial to maintaining the national “bonds of affection” that “must not break.”
In the years since, creative listening exercises like this have helped citizens on both sides of the political spectrum understand each other and move beyond damaging stereotypes, such as conservatives being categorically “anti-science” and liberals “anti-religion,” or liberals being “against America” and conservatives “against minorities.”
As Braver Angels members know well, these kinds of blanket stereotypes are really only possible to maintain by keeping yourself far removed from actual conversation with your political opposite. Through a variety of ways, Braver Angels has been puncturing these stereotypes one citizen at a time, and one event at a time, reminding Americans across the country about the strength of their common foundations.
Today, Braver Angels is the nation’s largest grassroots organization bringing liberals and conservatives together to bridge the partisan divide, with more than 10,000 active, dues-paying members, 50,000 email subscribers, 80 local alliances and 2,500 active volunteers.
Reweaving the civic fabric
This burgeoning citizens’ movement couldn’t come at a better time. Just as we’ve come to realize the value of taking proactive steps to protect our wetlands and other natural ecosystems, it’s become obvious how urgent it is to protect what’s been called our equally fragile civic ecosystem.
Increasingly, Americans are recognizing what could happen if we don’t.
Right before the 2020 presidential election, Braver Angels spearheaded a concerted national “Hold America Together” effort that I wrote about, along with Erika Munson, who helps to lead the Braver Angels efforts in Utah.
I find it encouraging that reweaving our social fabric involves some of the same kinds of steps we take to nurture strained marriages and family relationships: spending time together, collaborating on shared projects, working through conflicts and finding ways to renew our shared commitments to each other.
The “very simple idea” the whole project is based on, as founder David Blankenhorn summarizes, is that “we can and must find each other as citizens, notwithstanding our tremendous differences in politics and notwithstanding tremendous incentives around us to think the worst of each other, mistrust our motives and think the political other is a demon.”
Blankenhorn knows something about this himself, from his own experiences stepping away from culture warfare into messier, harder, but more rewarding conversations across the divide. One example of this is his “On Being” conversation with Jonathan Rauch about the future of marriage, where they spoke of the hard work necessary to “achieve” healthy disagreement.
Much of the work of Braver Angels and other like-minded efforts (like Living Room Conversations and David Brooks’ Weave Project) has taken place through smaller gatherings. Other initiatives like the Bridge Alliance and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation have worked for the same kinds of cross-partisan improvements broadly across the U.S., with Heterodox Academy (for faculty) and Bridge USA (for students) leading the way in the tricky atmosphere on college campuses.
In normal times, the bulk of this takes place through in-person gatherings in local communities, with workshops still taking place amidst the evolving pandemic. But the unique conditions of the past two years have prompted other innovations.
Finding each other online
The most powerful Braver Angels programming I have witnessed is its debate series. Admittedly, the word “debate” leaves a sour taste in most people’s mouths, but that’s precisely what stands out about their approach. Compared with normal debates, where the two sides are often incentivized to think only of what talking points they will use next, participants in these debates speak to each other through a third-party “madam chair,” which removes some of the reactivity and is different enough to break people out of the usual trance of partisan animosities.
What is most refreshing and interesting is watching people at these events really listening to each other as they make their “best arguments” on the different sides of some really difficult topics — police reform, for example, as well as voter fraud and abortion.
During the pandemic, these online events attracted more than 22,000 unique registrants, with the debate program alone serving more than 15,000 individuals. The speakers have included podcaster and writer Andrew Sullivan, former Ohio Govs. Ted Strickland and Richard Celeste, Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager Nina Turner and former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt.
This is all nice, but do these kinds of events actually make a difference? Research has found that participants in Braver Angels workshops leave the experience less polarized and angry than before.
A Brown University study on the core workshops found improved empathy and ability to find common ground, and persisting support for depolarization efforts lasting more than six months.
Equally encouraging, it doesn’t seem to take complex programming to make a real impact on hardening political attitudes. In surveys of college students who gathered at a Respect and Rebellion event to hear a single story of friends who disagree about politics, 83% said that after the event, “I’m more optimistic about conversing with people whose political views are different than mine.” And 78% indicated that to some degree “Compared to before the event, I feel like it is more possible that I could learn something from people on the other side of the aisle.”
As Blankenhorn says, “the reason this thing has worked” isn’t because of money, a slick PR program or “genius” leaders; it’s because of normal folks who “put in the time to do the work of citizenship.”
He then added, “We want to change the country; we’re not messing around here.”
They’re really not. Watch out, politicians. In April, the organization plans to launch a new initiative called Braver Politics to encourage and incentivize our political leaders to communicate, build relationships and work constructively across the divide amidst this bitter political season.
At the end of that first December experiment, a little more than five years ago, one participant said, “It’s gonna feel like a letdown to go back out into the real world.”
Blankenhorn recollects thinking: What if this is the real world? What if the seeds of understanding and mutual affection we experienced here is what we’re meant to experience?
There was a time when that wasn’t such a crazy idea. But like other precious truths we are distancing ourselves from, America’s “civic” religion seems increasingly forgotten. And like a band of civic missionaries, Braver Angels is at the forefront of an effort to remind the country about why their founding principles are too important to abandon now.
And they’re right. Just imagine if we could actually find each other again across this divide, enough to love each other — and maybe even laugh together again?
Sounds like a piece of heaven to me.
Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of his book with Phil Neisser, “You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”