“Even if you continue to disagree on 90% of the issues, if you have a little bit of trust, understanding, and empathy, you might find common ground on that 10% or wherever you do have some agreement.”
Better Angels is a nonprofit organization fighting the current climate of political polarization in the United States. Founded in 2016 by David Blankenhorn following the presidential election, this grassroots movement hosts workshops in communities across the country that bring people with opposing political viewpoints together to discuss their differences and find common ground. On August 15th, Merion West spoke with Better Angels’ Director of Communications, Ciaran O’ Connor about the organization’s founding, its efforts to build relationships across partisan lines, and factors contributing to polarization.
Where did the idea for Better Angels come from?
Our founder, David Blankenhorn, had been concerned about polarization for a couple of years. The 2016 election, which was preceded by a very divisive and rancorous campaign season, really brought that issue to light.
We wanted to see whether we could bring together the two sides in a constructive manner. We worked with Bill Doherty, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the country’s foremost family therapists, to design a workshop that would enable people to reach across the divide to understand each other’s perspectives, clarify agreements, and reduce the reflexive demonization that we see so much today.
He designed a workshop that’s rooted in family therapy. He specializes with couples on the brink of divorce. This workshop is structured very well to enable people to understand each other in their own words. It’s not about debating the issues, or getting anyone to change their mind, but giving people the opportunity to build a little trust and illuminate common ground where it exists.
We did an initial workshop in Ohio with 10 Trump voters and 10 Clinton voters. It was really successful. The results were encouraging, and the folks, who participated, wanted to keep meeting.
Then, we did a bus tour to take the workshops around the country and see if they could work in different kinds of communities—and they did. We’ve been building out this national, grassroots movement to bring the two sides together and spread the message of depolarization across the country to try and influence its direction in a positive way.
You spoke before how you try to build some trust among people from opposing sides. Does getting to know someone on a personal level help start the conversation?
At a base level, I think it comes down to common humanity. I think one of the issues with tribalism is people are suspicious of the opposing person off the bat and quick to assume someone else is acting in bad faith.
Within one’s own group, there’s the sense that when engaging an opposing perspective, you’re somehow akin to surrendering your own.
Giving people an opportunity to hear the other side and talk about their positions without arguing, gives people an opportunity to see them as real people and understand that they’re positions don’t necessarily match up with the stereotype.
It gives people an opportunity to clarify their disagreements. You start to build up more of a trust because you have an understanding of where the other person is coming from. And, even if you don’t agree with their position, you can see why they believe what they believe and that it’s genuine.
Even if you continue to disagree on 90% of the issues, if you have a little bit of trust, understanding, and empathy, you might find common ground on that 10% or wherever you do have some agreement.
In a sense, it’s agreeing to disagree?
Totally. We call it achieving disagreements.
What is the most difficult part of getting people to come together?
I think what’s really difficult is the organizing challenge—getting people to take that initial step to come to a workshop. But, we’ve developed a model where we’re enlisting local organizers to do it. It’s very community-driven. A lot of times people are reaching out to their own communities—people who have credibility in those communities. That’s helped us overcome that initial barrier.
How do you build trust with those community leaders?
We do some outreach, but it’s really bottom-up driven. At this point, our profile has increased. A lot of times, it’s people reaching out to us: “I want to do this in my community.”
I watched an interview with you that discussed the future of Better Angels involving more people of influence—whether that be politicians or academics. How receptive is that crowd to your message?
I think it depends. There’s always going to be those people that are super-partisan and mostly interested in winning the battle of the grey. But across various categories of people—whether it’s public intellectuals, writers, or as you mentioned in some cases, politicians—there is a hunger out there for a more constructive form of cross-partisan engagement.
As you mentioned, as a compliment to organizing stuff on the ground, we’re also trying to make a public argument for depolarization. That requires bringing together leaders and folks who have larger influences.
What is the effect of the media on polarization in the people you’ve interacted with?
That’s one of the things we hear very often in the workshops is the media fueling division. I think one of the problems is that people have their own sources of media that are confirming their existing biases and sort of fueling the partisan anchor.
People live in these bubbles where their only consuming media that is. Like I said, they are reinforcing what they already think and painting the other side as demons and people who are bent on destroying the country.
What is the future of Better Angels?
For right now, we’re really focused on the grassroots as I mentioned. This is very much a decentralized, bottom-up organization. We’re really trying to build this citizens movement.
We became a membership organization, so if folks want to get involved, they become members of Better Angels. They then can organize and get training in moderate workshops.
We’re starting to do more stuff in the media and I think eventually, we’d like to challenge the political world to move towards depolarization. But I think first we really want to build our grassroots muscle. That’s really what we’re focused on right now.
What sort of obstacles do you still see in your way of achieving your goal?
There are a lot of obstacles. A lot of times, the stuff that gets the most views online is the most partisan stuff that taps into people’s fear, which is a powerful motivator. But, we’ve found that when you can tap into more positive characteristics—uplifting stuff that gives people hope—that has a lot of resonance too. That’s the idea of Better Angels. We all have this capacity within us for compassion and empathy, and it’s just about the structure and paths that enable people to get to that place.
I really appreciate your time today. Thank you.