When you think about people who disagree with your politics, do you consider them misguided, evil, or likely to teach you something? How you answer that question says a lot about you, as well as the real state of our politically polarized union.
Sociologists say that in recent decades Americans have increasingly self-segregated, retreating to communities where our neighbors share our values and politics. Personally, I can’t quite fathom what that’s like, having lived my life as a red fish in various deep-blue seas, including New York, Boston, and Washington D.C.
Being the odd one out is never easy, but it certainly is educational. Since 2016, there are times it’s become downright unpleasant. While I’m used to disregarding personal politics in friendships—I’ve always been more interested in what we share in common—I’ve learned over time that not everyone thinks like that. Some people pigeonhole me and make assumptions based on one particular data point, like my conservative politics or my love of folk music.
The State of the Union for our Partisan Divide
So when I heard about Better Angels, a group started in the wake of the 2016 election to promote understanding across political divides (Full disclosure: my friend Tom Sylvester is the board chair), I was curious. This past Thursday, I watched the group’s inaugural State of the Union address, where the emphasis was on promoting harmony in our purple union through mutual understanding.
Better Angels President David Blankenhorn delivered the address to a live audience of approximately 60 “reds” and “blues” in a suburban Washington living room, while thousands of others watched via livestream. For those who aren’t familiar, Better Angels is the organizational equivalent of marriage therapists for our polity, hoping to realize the Constitution’s more perfect union. Now up to 6,400 members across all 50 states, Chief Marketing Officer Ciaran O’Connor describes the group as part of “the broader depolarization movement.”
Better Angels takes its name from the memorable words of President Lincoln’s 1861 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.”
That nod to Lincoln feels quite purposeful on several levels. As O’Connor emailed, “At a certain point, America will have to choose between conversation and violence. Regardless of who is to blame, our government is riven with partisan animosity––and it’s filtering down to ordinary Americans.”
In an attempt to cool current passions, Better Angels convenes “reds” and “blues” for discussions and debates. However, the goal isn’t to convince anyone that their views are wrong. Rather, it’s to humanize one’s political adversaries (notice I didn’t say enemies).The group’s purpose is to rebuild trust and the civic fabric, as Blankenhorn explained, so we can be one country again.
That’s no small task if you observe the vitriol with which elected officials in Washington describe members of the other party or you consume much media, social or otherwise. Better Angels’ website cites “the Pew Research Center, which has been measuring political polarization in the United States since 1994, [and] recently found that the average partisan gap has increased from 15 percentage points to 36 points.” While love used to conquer all, including politics, six in ten strongly identified Democrats and Republicans now tell pollsters they don’t want their children in inter-party marriages.
Blankenhorn acknowledged this sharp partisan division, telling his listeners: “The state of the union is weak. Our divisions are strong and getting stronger. We’ve reached that point where we view people on the other side of the political divide not only as misguided, but as threats.”
Our Shared Values Are Still Here
However, most of the speech focused on our shared American identity, including patriotic writings and songs, such as the Federalist Papers and “This Land is Your Land.” Blankenhorn recalled James Madison’s words in the Federalist Papers, that self-government requires a higher level of virtue among citizens than any other form of government. It requires us to recognize one another’s essential dignity.
It’s not just a matter of manners, but also the inward desire to do good to your opponent, because barring that, our project in ordered liberty is at risk. He further described our inheritance from the Founders as a “flickering flame” passed down through the generations to an ever-expanding circle of beneficiaries.
With regard to his goals in the year ahead, Blankenhorn presented three ideas: “changing ourselves, changing our complexion, and changing the rules.” “Changing ourselves” is central to Better Angels’ mission. Blankenhorn explained, “We know from our evaluation data, people always walk out of [our events] less polarized than when they walked in.” As Sylvester emailed, “Better Angels has taught me how to have better conversations with people on the other side, so we’re not just shouting past each other.”
As for complexion, Blankenhorn wants his group to look more like America. Members currently skew white, male, older, and more educated. He urged those without college degrees and especially Trump supporters to join and take leadership roles within the organization.
Finally, Blankenhorn wants to change the rules of the conversation, not just for individuals, but also for institutions. He wants members of Congress to spend less time fundraising and more time interacting with one another. He also suggests that rules be changed in places like universities “so in pursuit of knowledge, everyone can speak freely.” He warned, “we won’t depolarize America if we only depolarize ourselves. It has to be our institutions as well.”
Blankenhorn closed by noting that “there’s room for all of us in that circle of warmth and civic virtue. That’s our calling, and I believe we are called to do this. We’re doing this seriously, together, with love in our hearts, in the spirit of patriotic empathy.”
It felt fitting to close on that vocational note, since Better Angels is working to reignite our shared, civic religion. The question is: how soon might that revival happen? Because, based on how poisonous our politics has become, it can’t come soon enough.