Kenosha, Wisconsin, this week may be the only place in the U.S. where you can find crowds of people who both willingly display their political leanings — wearing them in fact on lanyards around their necks — and mingle happily, conservatives and liberals, independents and the unaffiliated, walking in small groups and discussing politics, but smiling broadly and listening politely even if they disagree.

Just yards from Lake Michigan Thursday afternoon in a chapel on historic Carthage College campus — where Abraham Lincoln once served on the board of trustees — members of all and no political persuasions stood side by side, more than 500 strong, and sang four verses of “America the Beautiful.” It began life as a poem and was on this day an acknowledgement that Americans can disagree heartily and still consider each other to be both patriots and friends.

Welcome to Braver Angels, a nonprofit organization dedicated to depolarizing America’s politics. For the fourth time, the group has welcomed hundreds to a multiday conference dedicated to the idea that discussion is good, that disagreement — done nicely — is essential to building a strong nation, and that compromise and respect are how a country moves forward in turbulent times.

Roughly 700 people, ranging from teens to those in at least their 80s, registered for the immersive gathering, which includes panel discussions, songwriting sessions, art exhibits and film displays. But the focus is on genuine back-and-forth that highlights the power of talking things out and really listening to people who hold all kinds of opinions, not just those one holds dear.

The proper attitude, as speakers noted, is curiosity: Why do you think this way?

Jessie Mannisto addresses hundreds of people, ranging from teens to those in at least their 80s, gathered for the Braver Angels 2024 conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Friday, June 28, 2024. | Jeffrey Sevier, Braver Angels

Red and blue talk it out

The principles are not unlike those that George Washington credited with making the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia a success after its very bumpy start: a spirit of amity, of mutual deference and of concession, according to Thomas Griffith, a former federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and one of the keynote speakers. The successful creation of the Constitution has been called the “Miracle of Philadelphia,” but Griffith balks at that. Miracles defy explanation, he said, but we know those three traits allowed the delegates back then to complete their task. And they are still needed to sustain the country.

The nonprofit Braver Angels and organizations in its network or those that are simply like-minded have held hundreds of mostly online conversations around the country involving strangers who disagree with each other, but who want America to thrive. People who don’t always agree on how to get things done or which policies would be best, but who believe the country will be stronger if we work together, talk and listen, instead of tearing each other apart, as the group’s Monica Guzman put it. “What is really intolerable,” she said, “is what we have allowed to go on out there.”

Conversations like the one between Gabriella Timmis, who lives in New York, and her dad Jerry Timmis, who’s from Michigan. They sat side by side, she in a blue baseball cap and he sporting red, and revealed how much they love each other and how often they disagree. “Our song is ‘No Hard Feelings,’” she said. “We get into it.”

They weren’t always so easygoing about the chasm they sometimes face when it comes to politics. In 2020, she told him she couldn’t hang out with him; it was just too hard. He told her their relationship should always be more important. You do what you need to do to reconcile with your family.

Gabriella Timmis, who lives in New York, left, and her dad Jerry Timmis, who’s from Michigan, middle, talk with Mónica Guzmán, host of "A Braver Way" podcast during the 2024 Braver Angels conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Saturday, June 29, 2024. | Sarah Jane Weaver


Jerry, father of four and part of a good-sized extended family, said the women are all blue, the men “various shades of red.” But they don’t intend to let politics break them up.

The event and Braver Angels itself are proudly partisan in a nonpartisan way. Cameron Swallow, a gathering co-chair, is a left leaner from Kenosha. Her counterpart is right-leaning Matt Hausman of Pesotum, Illinois. Among the group’s principles is valuing both red and blue patriotism, and being sure they’re equally well represented, said David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values and co-founder of Braver Angels.

The group was born after the 2016 election, when Blankenhorn and David Lapp were talking about how people were feeling in New York and in southwest Ohio, where the two, respectively, lived. They thought it would be interesting to get 10 Hillary Clinton and 10 Donald Trump supporters together to talk about that for a couple of days. They asked their friend, Bill Doherty, a licensed family and marriage therapist in the St. Paul area, to facilitate. They didn’t have a big strategic plan, said Doherty, who told Deseret News the story. But the three went on to co-found Braver Angels afterward.

While they try hard to balance red and blue, not favoring one above the other, Braver Angel Gary Holland, a self-described “rabble rouser” from Ridgefield, Connecticut, hopes to add what he’s calling a Purple Caucus, though he wants a better name. He loves Braver Angels, but wants to see more intentional effort to attract those describing themselves as independent or unaffiliated, too.

It’s no coincidence that David Blankenhorn’s Braver Angels met at Gettysburg in 2023. His peacemaking work is infused with the spirit of Lincoln

Hope vs. optimism

COO Barbara Thomas said that many Americans are concerned about the “toxicity pervading our discourse.” She warned that it’s weakening us in the world’s eyes. Yet many feel that toxicity is something happening to them, not something they feed and can help fix.

The trick, said Doherty, is preparing constructively. You prepare emotionally — the relationship is the most important thing — and then prepare rationally.

“If you think everybody is either ignorant, unethical or was duped by leaders and you can’t image a rational person voting for the other candidate, you need to expand your horizons,” he said. “Form relationships with people who think differently,” and don’t dismiss them.

During the conference, Braver Angels launched its “American Hope Campaign.” As Blankenhorn explained, hope’s a very important idea that’s not to be confused with optimism. He quoted Czech writer and political leader Václav Havel, who said optimism is believing what you are doing is likely to turn out well. Hope, on the other hand, is doing what needs to be done regardless of how it’s likely to turn out. “Havel did not work in optimism,” said Blankenhorn, but rather in hope. Blankenhorn said he is proud to face the present “with clear eyes and full hearts and say together, we will do this work.”

They also announced a petition on the Braver Angels website that calls on both Republican and Democratic leaders to take responsibility to address polarization, “to turn the page on endless fighting and dysfunction.”

Participants at the Braver Angels 2024 conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin, wear blue and red lanyards to display their political leanings on Friday, June 28, 2024. | Jeffrey Sevier, Braver Angels

Groups, individuals set goals

Many of the delegates reflect broad efforts to bring people together. Cathy Bien is part of the Campaign for Kindness that started at her church, Resurrection United Methodist in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. Vicky Ott, one of the volunteers checking people in, is from Precious Blood Spirituality Institute near there. She says, only half joking, that if Braver Angels had a baby, it would be their institute.

The crowd included academics, retirees, students in high school and beyond, public officials, podcasters, and would-be politicians, among others. There were people of various faiths and some who claim no faith. Some brought friends or relatives with whom they disagree.

More than 200 different groups affiliate or align with Braver Angels. Many at the conference have names like Reduce the Rancor, Minnesota; Compassionate Listening Project; and the Universal Peace Federation. Some had harrowing tales of moments where they had to choose between hatred and reconciliation.

Choosing the latter, Blankenhorn said, is often a hard choice, but it’s brave. Those who do are Braver Angels.

‘I hope …'

When Deseret News asked what Ott hopes for America, her answer was simple: that people stop being afraid of each other and let down their shields so they can be vulnerable and embrace and reclaim their united identities as Americans.

Co-founder Doherty hopes the short-term impact of such gatherings will be lowering the temperature, reducing the hostility many Americans feel over politics and culture. Longer term, he hopes the U.S. will be able to fulfill the founding vision e pluribus unim. “Out of many, one.” We’re lacking the unim part, he said.

Mimi Yang, professor emerita who taught languages for 24 years at Carthage and co-chairs the Braver Angels Greater Boston Alliance, wears a blue lanyard, but notes she’s maybe more purple, since she’s red on some issues. “My hope for society has always been to process our political differences with civility, a sense of history and a larger-than-life horizon,” she said, noting she’d like to see Braver Angel skills penetrate different layers of society.

She believes there are people “equipped to deliver clear messages, dislodge compelling arguments to the opponent’s provocations and present an energetic new beginning for the nation. However, we are left with no other alternatives but the choice between two different sets of risks,” she said by email, referring to Joe Biden and Donald Trump. She hopes for a switch, a “healthy and vibrant presidential election that genuinely represents what America is.”

Participants at the Braver Angels 2024 conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin, speak about their political leanings on Saturday, June 29, 2024. | Jeffrey Sevier

Swallow, the conference’s blue-leaning co-chair, hopes people will take initiatives back to their communities so collaboration and connection will grow.

Aidan Shank, 23, one of the many young adult delegates, said he’s red-leaning but came to be exposed to different perspectives. He wants to “make time to really hear the nuances of what people believe,” which can be hard to pull out of conversations, especially polarizing ones.

Shank, of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, laughed when asked about the presidential debate that many at the Thursday conference watch party considered a disaster, though not always for the same reasons. “It’s all political theater, spurred on by hyperbole in the news and anger on both sides,” he said.

Alan Jessen of the Center for Economic and Social Justice, comes from Cedar Falls, Iowa, and considers himself a right-leaner. He wants people to prosper and have both freedom and opportunity, but not socialism. He hopes for a “more just and free economy that promises interdependence and prosperity,” but said it has to be based on shared universal principles.

Chuck Tyler, a Braver Angel from Orlando, Florida, works with people who’ve served in the military. He spent a decade in the Army. He believes the “bitter division is a national security issue” that must stop. “I would like us to stop the pettiness,” he said. “I’m not sure where we became invested in politics over people … that’s not our higher selves.”

The discussion of hope vs. optimism was important, Tyler said. He’s choosing hope.

“I’m going to do this regardless of the outcome. Because listening to people is the most important thing.”

Can America’s polarization be healed? Braver Angels is trying

Should we blame the media?

In a group discussion of media, the audience was asked what media sources they trust. Answers were all over the place. Some said they look for a broad range of news sources; others clearly trust only sources that reflect their views. It’s a chicken-and-egg question. Do you form opinions based on information you consume or do you consume information that tells you you’re right?

Joy Mayer, of Trusting News, said media outlets are not all alike and complaints should be specific, not general. She said that 22% of the nation’s journalists live in New York, the District of Columbia or Los Angeles. The other 78% can’t be lumped together with each other or with those coastal outlets.

Deseret News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver talked about the ethical canons that guide traditional journalists and are embraced by the Society of Professional Journalists. Things like fairness or admitting mistakes. Trust is a constant quest. “We believe what we do matters. We help people understand the issues that surround their lives and give them context. Good journalists try hard to be trustworthy, because they need people to keep coming back for news,” she said.

Another panelist, John Diedrich, an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said people believe in conspiracies among media that are unlikely. Instead, there are “blind spots,” complicated by shrinking newsrooms and less revenue and the need to do more with less — all on an always-on news cycle.

Participants the Braver Angels 2024 conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin, wear blue and red lanyards to display their political leanings on Friday, June 27, 2024. | Jeffrey Sevier, Braver Angels

The fourth panelist, Sue Lani Madsen, is a freelance columnist from Edwall, Washington, who writes for the Spokesman-Review and Center Square. She and the others agreed that news media have to balance what gets them read or seen or heard. Metrics matter in a world where journalism resources are tight.

But they agreed, too, that journalists don’t necessarily cover their communities equally or with equal understanding. Mayer noted that journalists may be a bit different than their audience. Newsrooms tend to be whiter than their communities, have on average less experience with the criminal justice system and are less likely to have served in the military.

The result is some people feel seen and others feel misunderstood, Mayer said.

The audience had plenty of criticism, but a few noted that they were not, perhaps, the best news consumers, either.

One consistent criticism was overemphasis on the unusual or dramatic in ways that could skew one’s idea of an area or problem. Weaver agreed. Media does find itself drawn to things that are unique or difficult and are apt to attract attention, she said.

Since anyone can say he or she’s a journalist, it’s also true that the lines get blurred between those who gather information and those who benefit from riling people up.

If someone feels a journalist got it wrong, letting them know matters. But, in keeping with the conference theme, constructively.


As for whether the country will have more constructive dialogs and forward progress, Blankenhorn’s a believer. He bases it on hope.

“Polarizers are still winning, but we’re gaining on them,” he told the delegates.

One braver, kinder conversation at a time.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sue Lani Madsen’s last name and identified Trusting News as Trusting Media.

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