The political polarization in the United States has increasingly strained or broken bonds between family and friends in recent years says clinical psychologist Laura Gilliom. She’s seen it in her own family and in those she counsels.
“I see a real hunger for regaining the ability to talk with and to trust each other despite political differences,” she told The Epoch Times via email.
She joined a national organization called Braver Angels dedicated to reducing political polarization, restoring civic trust, and generally bringing Americans together.
Its first meeting was in South Lebanon, Ohio, in 2016. The group’s founders—Bill Doherty, David Blankenhorn, and David Lapp—brought together 10 Donald Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters. They succeeded in moderating a civil and respectful discussion.
They initially called their group Better Angels, inspired by a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “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.”
They changed it to Braver Angels in 2020 to emphasize the courage it takes to reach out to the other side in friendship.
The group has gained increased momentum in the past several months. It had more than 16,000 members as of early March, with an increase of 4,000 since November 2020.
Its volunteers and members are located all over the country, and they have hosted about 1,200 “Red and Blue” conversation workshops. Gilliom is co-chair of the central North Carolina branch. On March 6, more than 10 online sessions took place for people in various locations, including California, Oregon, and Oklahoma.
At a workshop based in San Diego, California, seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and eight observers took part. It involved two sessions of three hours each.
Harriet Baber, one of the Democrats at the San Diego workshop, said she had not really talked to any Republicans about their views since the 1990s. It was a common sentiment, with many at the session saying they have mostly only heard the other side through the media and they have hesitated to talk directly with people on that side because of negative impressions of them.
A “stereotypes exercise” was one of the first components of the Braver Angels workshop, following brief self-introductions. They discussed stereotypes of Republicans and Democrats and to what extent they are inaccurate or true.
The seven Blue Team members listed 13 items they believed were stereotypes of Democrats in the eyes of conservatives: they’re socialists, tree huggers, elitists, perpetuators of political correctness and toxic femininity, against the military and police, unpatriotic, overly sensitive about race, bleeding hearts, short-sighted, excessive spenders, against family values, and anti-religion.
The Blue Team’s candidness took some Red Team members by surprise. The same happened when Greg Nelson from the Red Team presented their summary of the progressive stereotypes of conservatives: they’re narrow-minded bigots, racists, all Trump-supporters, indifferent to the poor, and negative toward immigration.
Members of each team individually, and without interruption, elaborated on where they were misunderstood.
From the Blue Team, Helena Lea-Bastille said, “nobody wants the Soviet socialism.” She doesn’t like big government in general but wants a union that can provide universal health care.
Liz Perez, also of the Blue Team, is a Navy veteran and was the deputy secretary of California’s Department of Veterans Affairs (2018–2019). She said she’s an example of a Democrat that’s pro-military and pro-police.
On the other side, the Red Team’s Nelson said, “We are staunch supporters of free speech and thought, and many of us are engaged in anti-racist volunteer or workgroups.”
People love “better jobs, liberty, constitutional rule, choosing their ways independently to contribute, but cannot be forced by the government to do the same thing,” he said, referring to the different definitions of “equality” discussed by the Red Team.
Many on the Red Team stressed individual liberty with fairness before the law for all, rather than an absolute equality of outcomes for every person.
Both teams were given opportunities to present their side’s values and policies that they think are good for the country, and they were also required to share their reservations or concerns about the party they are affiliated with.
Suzanne Mercial of the Red Team said people should not make jokes about race or gender, that they’re “not funny anymore.” A Red Team member named Norm (he didn’t give his last name) said, “We need to care about other people’s feelings.” He was once a Democratic but became a Republican many years ago.
During the session, he stressed that fiscal responsibility in government was a key value for him. He felt that Republicans had also become less responsible with money in recent years.
Perez said she became a Democrat because her grandmother told her as a child that she should be one, that Democrats take care of people. “It’s not 100 percent true,” Perez said. For example, “they might collect money, but don’t resolve the issues.”
In less than three hours, the two teams had reached consensus on several points. For example, they agreed that America needs real unity, not division; and that both parties need strong, practical, principle-driven leaders.
Session moderators Randy Lioz and Mary Thomas-Vallens said they saw each group showing honesty with themselves, working hard to understand the other side, and being grateful to each other. Lioz and Thomas-Vallens didn’t express any party affiliation, and swapped teams half-way through the session to work with both teams.
A ‘Calm’ Talk
“It was refreshing to see how calm people were talking about complex topics from different perspectives and that there are more commonalities than there are differences,” observer Denise Trevino said. “I think the extremes on both sides are what people hear the most, unfortunately, out there in the world.”
One factor that may contribute to the workshops’ success is that participants are people who voluntarily signed up, indicating a willingness and readiness to listen to different voices. Also, like the election debates, the workshop established a set of rules.
Unlike election debates, where the main focus is distinguishing oneself and undermining one’s opponent, Braver Angels requires participants to do their best to suppress the urge to argue with the other side and instead force themselves to look for their own problems and shortcomings, to listen to the other side and look for their praiseworthy points.
Ciaran O’Connor, chief marketing officer for Braver Angels, told The Epoch Times: “No matter how different people’s views are, people need to see each other as human beings just like themselves and can sit down and discuss [with] them peacefully without resorting to hatred and violence.”
According to Braver Angels survey data gathered from about 1,800 participants, about 79 percent reported that as a result of the experience, they’re better able to “understand the experiences, feelings, and beliefs of those on the other side of the political spectrum.” More than 70 percent say they feel more “understood by those on the other side of the political divide.”
There has also been some dissatisfaction and criticism against Braver Angels, especially concerning the discussions on elections integrity.
“We have lost some members and volunteers” because of the national debate session held March 4 about voter fraud, voter suppression, and the 2020 election, according to John Wood Jr., the organization’s national ambassador.
However, he sees the setback as also being a triumph because the group’s integrity held when tested: it was a difficult subject and people came out to discuss it honestly as they see it.
“Our mission,” he told The Epoch Times in an email, “is to restore the bonds of community and to refresh the fabric of democracy through bold empathy and the good faith embrace of our conflicts. … Our doors must be open for Americans right, left and center to join us as they are. We ask people to show up in the full authenticity of their beliefs, whether in workshops or debates.”
Braver Angels has struggled to maintain neutrality between the various positions of its participants. This includes the staff, which is roughly half red and half blue.
As a senior member, Gilliom prefers to see the challenge as motivation. “The biggest challenge is also the reason for Braver Angels’ existence,” Gilliom said. It’s hard but rewarding “overcoming distrust of those on the other side.”
Even on the more contentious topic of election fraud, Gilliom found that her local North Carolina session on March 6 about it was fruitful. Participants proposed solutions, including creating a bipartisan independent commission to investigate fraud allegations, and better educating citizens about existing election safeguards.
O’Connor said many session participants are middle-aged and older adults. He said Braver Angels is trying to engage more young people. Aside from the workshops, Braver Angels has a Family and Politics program and Campus Debates program.
O’Connor and Wood call on all Americans to have what they both called “the courage to connect.”