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David Blankenhorn’s Mission To Restore Public Discourse


David Blankenhorn is a Mississippi native who has spent most of his adult life in New York City. Many readers of The Federalist know him as the head of the Institute for American Values. The last two times he was really obviously in the public eye were when he testified as an expert on the traditional marriage side in Perry v. Schwarzenegger and then when he changed his position a few years later.

Blankenhorn and his institute peaked in influence as part of the fatherhood and marriage movements. If September 11 had not occurred, Blakenhorn and his ideas would likely have exerted a strong influence on the Bush domestic presidency that ended up being swallowed by the war on terror. Compassionate conservatism has a bad name largely because it ended up looking more like the prescription drug Medicare benefit and less like initiatives to bolster marriage, wedded parenthood, and school choice.

A Man Without a Party

There is a sense in which Blankenhorn is a man without a party in American politics because his personal history is complex. He is a Democrat who studied labor movements at an English university after graduating magna cum laude at Harvard. After his graduate studies, he became a community organizer.

We think of community organizers as people who try to generate a group force that can win concessions from the government or corporations, but David noticed something. He began to realize that the failure of family formation was one of the root causes of the challenges many poor people face. As a result, he became one of the leading lights among those hoping to help rebuild families as a way of improving lives and increasing opportunity.

Blankenhorn’s emphasis on family endeared him to many on the Right, who tend to locate the sources of poverty in personal choice rather than structural causes. But when he altered his view on gay marriage, he alienated many of his closest allies. Today, Blankenhorn has a new mission. Instead of taking sides, he intends to do some work in the neutral zone. He intends to reform our political manners.

Let’s Take a Time Out Together

This year, he’s been shopping around a proposal he put together with Jonathan Rauch that aims to establish a movement for depolarization or “accurate disagreement,” as he sometimes puts it. The two men recognize that heated rhetoric and one-sided, uncharitable social media memes damage our civic interactions and fail to develop needed virtues for citizens in a free republic.

Heated rhetoric and one-sided, uncharitable social media memes damage our civic interactions.

When Blankenhorn shared the vision with me a couple of months ago, I immediately became excited, because I will do anything to stem the flow of the lazy, emotive, aggressive substitutes for thinking that seem to flourish while a better discourse seems to be fading for lack of “fans,” “followers,” or “likes.”

The plan is to bring people of goodwill together across ideological boundaries and to have them talk about improving our political conversation. Blankenhorn’s goal is not to have people reach an agreement on divisive issues, but rather to have them attain something like “accurate disagreement.” In other words, we will still disagree, but we will better understand one another both regarding the issues and who we are as people. David calls the project Better Angels. He is referring to the words President Lincoln used in his first inaugural, where he appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”

Drain the Fever Swamp

My interest formed because of my concern for religious liberty. I think religious freedoms might be better preserved within a more virtuous public square. But the nature of my desire to participate has expanded. A colleague left for another school, which meant that I had to fill in for him reading Plato with undergraduates. As I read and thought about the plight of the philosopher in light of Plato’s metaphors of the ship of fools and monster of public opinion, I could not avoid thinking about the increasingly poisonous nature of our political exchanges.

The United States is increasingly becoming a target-rich environment for demagogues.

I see college students dehumanizing professors, administrators, and their peers in an ill-guided effort to protect others from dehumanization. There are protesters eager to strip others of their rights to free speech and expression in a paradoxical quest to make progress for other rights while undermining their foundation. We have columnists for major publications who write pieces of the type that celebrates a World Series error from a second baseman because of his belief in traditional marriage.

The United States is increasingly becoming a target-rich environment for demagogues. The only answer to all this is the concern and commitment of people who are interested in developing the kind of philosophic virtues that can help us discover truth while simultaneously respecting one another.

That’s the focus of Blankenhorn’s second act. We should all hope he experiences a great deal of success.