‘Better Angels’ — Pushing Back on Political Polarization

As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on March 24, 2019

Bill Doherty gets emotional when he recites a favorite quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

These aren’t just words for Doherty; they are the inspiration for Better Angels, a citizens’ movement with which he became involved shortly after the 2016 election.

A professor in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota, Doherty is an expert on working with people who do not see eye-to-eye.

As a co-founder of a national movement to reduce political polarization, Doherty discovered the same skills he applies as a marriage counselor are useful to facilitate discussion among friends, family, and strangers on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Better Angels began with an unexpected request by Doherty’s New York colleague, David Blankenhorn. If David Lapp of Ohio could convene an equal number of Clinton and Trump supporters, would Doherty develop a format for discussion and facilitate it?

He would. And they did.

Over the course of a weekend they discovered a hunger for comity that belies the partisan bitterness rampant on social and traditional media and that has fractured families like my own.

They also discovered that, despite conflicting positions, individuals who identify as reds (Republicans) share the same fundamental goals and aspirations for our country as those who identify as blues (Democrats). They just disagree strenuously on solutions and leaders to effectuate them.

Perhaps most surprisingly, they discovered that the participants liked one another, wanted to learn more about each other, and wanted to remain in touch.

While it may feel like the polarization that permeates our society is a relatively recent phenomenon, that’s actually not the case.

In 1960, Doherty says, 35 to 40 percent of Americans reported they would be uncomfortable with their child marrying someone from another race, whereas 5 percent would be uncomfortable if the potential spouse associated with the opposing political party. Recent data demonstrates the numbers are reversed.

When I heard about Better Angels I was intrigued, for I’d posed a question on these pages last November about how our society would move forward after the midterm election. Would we be bitter about the outcome or would we find a way to be better?

Better Angels offers hope that we can find a way to better by listening to one another and refraining from personalizing disagreements with harsh and hurtful adjectives and assumptions.

Employing a structured group process in workshops, debates and skills trainings that requires participants to bite their tongues while others are speaking, the non-profit invites an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to hear each other’s point of view and the rationale behind it.

In just over two years, Better Angels has grown exponentially. Everything about the organization is balanced equally among red and blue – from leadership to funding to participation.

We tend to hold a complex view of positions with which we agree and a simplistic view of those we oppose, Doherty says. So, using a carefully crafted structure, facilitators pose reflective questions designed to illuminate beliefs underscoring positions: where do you stand on abortion and why? Why do you favor gun control?

Handbooks on how to speak to conservatives and to liberals  offer language Doherty uses in couples therapy: I hear you saying … as well as caveats about when and where to engage in political discussions.

The goal is to achieve accurate disagreement. Though it’s hard work, it’s more fruitful than trying to change minds.

With Better Angels volunteers operating in more than 30 states, a second convention in the works, and national media reporting on the initiative, Doherty is enthusiastic about the potential to change the narrative both locally and nationally.

The organization has captured the attention of Minnesota politicians, who are getting the message that voters are increasingly frustrated by the polarization.

Two dozen Minnesota legislators have participated in a Better Angels skills workshop, and discussions are ongoing for similar events with congressional staff members.

Though Doherty always aspired to be bi-lingual, he jokes, it’s taken his efforts to depolarize America to get him to that point. In the past two years, he’s learned to speak both red and blue, for as a Better Angels facilitator he must present a comprehensive and convincing presentation of opposing positions of an issue.

Will Better Angels help provide a lasting solution to our national anger and acrimony? I hope so. But one need not join the movement to change the personal narrative and tone. We need not remain entrenched in the bitterness and polarity.

As our 16th president reminded us, we have a choice. We can be enemies or we can be friends. It really is that simple.


Readers: Do you think we will find our way back to more respectful dialogues about issues on which we disagree?