Better Angels wants to depolarize the dinner table

Plymouth Congregational Church hosts a Better Angels workshop Oct. 26.

Ian Stade thinks he just might be ready to talk about politics with family over the holidays. The Tangletown resident recently walked to Washburn Library for a Better Angels workshop that covered strategies for non-polarizing conversation.

“They get it. They get that there’s got to be a way for us to get along with folks we disagree with in a constructive way,” Stade said. “It’s not about being right, it’s trying to be understanding. You’re not trying to win.”

Thanksgiving dinners ran shorter in 2016 for people who crossed party lines, according to a study published in the journal Science. Bill Doherty, who directs the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, is one of the co-founders of Better Angels, a nonprofit that aims to help liberals and conservatives understand each other. He said he sees political differences split families apart like never before. 

“Families are the last bastion of political diversity,” Doherty said. “A Trump supporter? A socialist? Whatever your worst fears are, they are represented in that person. And they’re in your family.” 

His biggest piece of advice? Don’t try to change anyone’s mind — you probably won’t.

“If you want to rant about a particular politician, make it clear you’re not putting all supporters into the same box,” he said. “You can make strong, passionate points for your viewpoint without attacking the motives of everybody on the other side.”

“Better Angels is not about everybody being centrist, or purple. It’s certainly not about people giving up their core values,” Doherty says. “But it’s how we think about and talk about and talk to people who disagree with us.”

Better Angels is hosting workshops at local libraries and launching a new class adapted for families.

The New York-based nonprofit started in 2016 with a call between David Blankenhorn, who evolved from a fighter to a supporter of gay marriage, and David Lapp in Ohio, a scholar focused on marriage and relationships. Immediately following Donald Trump’s election, they talked about the public reaction where they lived. Manhattan: funereal. Southwest Ohio: ecstatic.

Blankenhorn and Lapp decided to bring together 10 Trump supporters and 10 Hillary Clinton supporters in the rural town of South Lebanon, Ohio, and they asked Doherty to build the workshop. 

“We asked people why they came,” Doherty said. “They said, ‘We can’t go on with this rancor. We have schools to run, we have hospitals, we have to raise our children. We cannot continue this way.’”

Building on the first group’s enthusiasm and early media exposure, Better Angels took a bus tour to hold workshops in eight states, riding on former Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s campaign bus and staying in people’s homes.

“Doing these workshops every day, I really began to see the importance of distinguishing the person from the position. You can believe that a viewpoint is completely wrong without believing everyone that holds it is stupid or ill-motivated,” Doherty said. “There are lots of reasons why people vote for who they vote for.”

The name Better Angels is a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in 1861: “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.”


The state of polarization

Republicans and Democrats are increasingly critical of each other, and increasingly likely to say the other side is more “immoral” than other Americans, according to a survey conducted in September by The Pew Research Center. Divisions between the two parties are increasing, said 85% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats in the survey of more than 9,000 adults. 

Yet 81% said they were concerned about the partisan divide. 

A recent workshop at Plymouth Congregational Church emphasized that polarization often happens when like-minded people talk to each other, especially if they’re demonizing the other side. 

“We get too insulated, and then we pile on,” Armatage resident Stephanie Bender said.

Chris Lance, a resident of Lowry Hill East, says he’s noticed that people often paint the other political side in broad strokes.

Within a like-minded group, people tend to move to the loudest, most extreme position, said Better Angels moderator and Lynnhurst resident Bruce MacKenzie. Groups with equal numbers of opposing viewpoints, however, tend to find common ground.

Minneapolitans see polarization happening locally as well.

“Just look at the 2040 plan,” Stade said. “Density versus property rights, I guess, is what people might say. The roots of some of those things goes way, way back.”

“I’m just tired of walking on eggshells,” said Carol Marchel, who taught a recent workshop at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis. She practiced Better Angels’ strategies last Thanksgiving. She asked her nephew if he had a personal story that informed his views on universal health care, and he talked about his experience in the military with substandard government health care. 

“I think it takes one person to break the ice and to know how to do it in a way that feels safe to the other person,” she said. “Ultimately, if we don’t have the skill to talk to other people about politics, we’re taking away a plank of democracy.”


How to depolarize

Better Angels has lots of advice.

Challenge stereotypes of the other side. A conservative is not interchangeable with President Donald Trump, for example. 

Be self-critical. Think how an eavesdropper would feel about your conversation. 

Avoid labels that shut down conversation, like “racist” or “hypocrite.”

“We get into this exaggerated rhetoric that feeds itself,” Doherty said. 

Other advice relates to basic communication skills: Use “I” statements. Talk about personal experience and recognize that people’s views are informed by different life experiences. Find areas of agreement to disarm the other person, even if it’s simply agreeing that an issue is a “mess.” Acknowledge complexity with statements like: “I don’t think anybody’s figured this one out yet.” It is not necessary to agree on facts to have a conversation.

Regarding family disagreement, this isn’t your first rodeo. Prepare and respond differently. One-on-one conversations are best. 

“If I could somehow convey the cathartic effect of sitting down with people who disagree … people wouldn’t have such hostility toward the other side,” said Rob Weidenfeld, a Better Angels member. 


Depolarization in action

Where Weidenfeld lives in rural Ohio, red and blue Better Angels members decided to tackle gerrymandering. While he said their influence was likely limited, they appeared at shopping centers and doorknocked to support a referendum on the issue. Ohio residents overwhelmingly voted in 2018 to create a bipartisan, public process for drawing congressional districts. 

Casting for a second issue to take on, one of Better Angels’ Tea Party members suggested the corrupting influence of money in politics. 

“My jaw dropped. I was really shocked to hear that,” Weidenfeld said. 

The bipartisan group embraced the idea “No Ballot, No Buck,” and is studying ideas to limit outside campaign contributions. Reds and blues are often not as separated as they think, Weidenfeld said.

On the first day of the public impeachment hearings, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Eden Prairie) and Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Duluth), announced that their staff attended a Better Angels workshop together. Both are freshmen in “flipped” districts, and both are members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Philips’ press secretary, Sam Anderson, said it was an encouraging day.

“It reaffirmed that most of us got into this business to help people,” Anderson said. “A great thing about the way the exercises are structured is that it’s as much about learning things about yourself as it is about people on the opposite side of the aisle.”

When former Minnesota legislator JoAnn Ward (DFL-53A) started her freshman term in 2013, she was stunned. Late at night on the House floor, she watched legislators give speeches to rooms that were largely empty, save for the camera. People across the aisle weren’t communicating. When she suggested a less adversarial atmosphere, she was told things don’t work that way. 

“They will work the way we decide they work,” she said. “If we try to create a culture that’s respectful, engaging and inclusive, then we need to do it differently.”

JoAnn Ward

Ward helped start the Civility Caucus, providing a chance for bipartisan brown bag lunches and visits between metro and rural districts. She tried to convince legislators that bipartisanship would look good on a resume, although some worried it could damage their careers. 

“It really does take courage to approach someone of a different mind than you are,” said Ward, who is now training to become a Better Angels moderator. 

As chair of the Conservative Caucus in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Bruce Morlan is advocating for action that he thinks conservatives can get behind. The group is lobbying for a carbon fee and dividend, which would use market forces to price energy so that environmental effects are taken into account. Morlan is state-level coordinator at Better Angels, and he appreciates the effort to depolarize debate.

“We have a sense that there may be a lot of people in the Republican party that would be OK with doing something, or actually would like to see something done, but the current environment is not very conducive to going against the tribes in either party,” he said. “There is possibly more support than we see at the ballot box.”

Locally, Doherty is involved in a 2017 initiative that came in response to high profile police shootings of black men. FATHER Project Director Guy Bowling was reaching “outrage fatigue” as a black man, and he wondered whether Doherty, who is white, could help build relationships between black men and Minneapolis police. Following a year of intense discussion involving six officers and six black community members, the group has gone on to hold community conversations, advocate for safe housing and become involved in police training. 


Skeptics of depolarization

Better Angels has its critics. In a June 2019 op-ed in the Washington Post, Julie Kohler writes that so-called “love politics” falls short, especially if it flattens anger in the face of injustice, or holds no one to account, or wants women in particular to calm down, or overlooks problems that divide us, such as deliberate disinformation. “Love politics’ proponents frame our nation’s ills as interpersonal and, in so doing, gloss over structural inequities, fundamental clashes in values, and discrepancies in access to power,” she wrote.

Better Angels’ supporters have responded to this sort of critique by saying that shouting at each other isn’t sustainable. “We do not have to tilt into the ‘bothsidesism’ that suggests that both sides of an argument are always equally right or equally wrong,” John Wood Jr., Better Angels’ director of media development, has written. “That is not always the case. Yet, however right one might be in an argument, progress in a civil relationship depends upon us listening to and understanding one another.”

Marchel, the aforementioned Better Angels moderator, said her husband thinks she’s wasting her energy.

“I know that Better Angels gets sort of teased as being a feel-good approach to political strife,” she said. 

But she’s still trying.

“It’s not an approach that hurts anything. And it can certainly, I think, help,” she said.

Eli Mulvihill, a Northeast Minneapolis resident, was energized by a recent workshop.

“I’m OK no matter what their politics are,” Mulvihill said. “I feel like I have the skills to get back into the conversation again.”