For the past several years, I have struggled to talk freely with some friends with opposing views about politics and the president. The divide is wider, the feelings stronger and the silence louder. I finally did something about it a couple of months ago — by attending a session of the local chapter of the Better Angels, a national alliance holding workshops to “depolarize” the country.
The problem is obvious to me, but also supported by the Pew Research Center, which finds the partisan gap in American politics has more than doubled since 1994.
The effort by the Better Angels began a few days after the election in 2016. Ten Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters met over the weekend in South Lebanon, Ohio. They discovered they could respectfully disagree, find some common ground — and even like each other.
The workshop I attended — at 9 a.m. on a Saturday at the Ramsey County Library in Maplewood — was called Families and Politics: How to Talk with Loved Ones on the Other Side. To my surprise, I found 35 others joining me.
There were parents feeling estranged from their grown children, siblings fearing dinner-table arguments over the holidays and several wives avoiding conversations with their husbands.
A local connection
The ringmaster for our three-hour workshop was none other than one of the founders of Better Angels, University of Minnesota professor Bill Doherty. He’s the author of more than a dozen books, both scholarly and popular, and a family therapist, so he’s no stranger to conflict and chaos.
At the workshop, I found him charming, disarming and enlightening.
“Keep in mind there may be people here,” he told us, “who agree with your family members’ views. So, let’s try to avoid lumping everyone into stereotyped categories like ‘a typical arrogant liberal’ or ‘one of those crazy Trump supporters.’”
Doherty explained the name Better Angels came from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, just before the start of the Civil War.
“Though passion may have strained,” Lincoln wrote, “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.”
How it worked
With Lincoln’s words and professor Doherty’s admonitions, we managed to stay away from stereotypes and practice skills that could help us engage, rather than argue with, an opponent. We tried them with a partner, on the issue of gun control; I favored more regulations and she wanted none.
We began by listening and then trying to Clarify what we heard the person saying: “Did I hear you right that you think any more gun regulations tamper with the intent of the Second Amendment?”
Then we find something we can Agree with in the opponent’s argument: “I, too, believe the Constitution is not a document to be ignored, and I also believe people should have the right to own guns.”
Next comes the Pivot: “It probably won’t surprise you that I think this country has too many guns in circulation.”
Then we offer our Perspective: “I believe assault rifles ought to be banned, that they are weapons of war.”
Finally we Exit the conversation: “I’m glad we agreed that assault rifles should at least be regulated,” or, “Maybe for the time being, we can agree to disagree.”
This may seem a little too pat or simple, but I found it amazingly subtle and substantive in my practice session. We kept our voices down and we smiled at each other occasionally. The session left me feeling more hopeful — and peaceful — and ready to be more engaging. I can’t spend the rest of my life being either tight-lipped or loud-mouthed.
And I’m not alone; many Minnesotans feel this way.
Our state has the second-highest Better Angels membership rate in the country (behind California). Of Minnesota’s members, 84% are within the seven-county metro area and 16% are dispersed throughout the state, said Pat DeVries, a Better Angels Minnesota coordinator.
Citizens have needed groups like this for more than just the past four years, according to organizers.
“Political polarization did not start with the 2016 election — it’s been gaining momentum for over 20 years,” says the Better Angels website. “But with the rancor and divisiveness that has been on display in recent years, polarization may have reached its worst level in the United States since the Civil War.”
The U.S. is “disuniting,” says the site. “We’re becoming two Americas — angry with the other and distrusting our opposites’ basic humanity and good intentions. This degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy — and it’s a trend we must reverse.”
Find an event near you and local leaders’ contact information at better-angels.org.
Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Write him at [email protected].