Finding common ground

May 1, 2021 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

Finding common ground
The Braver Angels are bringing back political discourse

By Susanne Janssen

People do things differently and try to cope with death in many ways.

Around 40 people show up on Zoom, and every square not only has a name, but also a letter that marks their political affiliation: B for Blue (Democrat), R for Red (Republican). 

One square has two names, one with a B, the other with an R. “Help us save our marriage,” the couple jokes.

What brought us, strangers who had never met, together on a Monday night? One hope: to learn how to dialogue, have meaningful conversations with those holding different opinions and be enabled to work together amidst polarization. The organization offering these workshops is called “Braver Angels,” and its workshops usually fill within minutes.

Moderator Jeff, “barely red,” and his wife, “barely blue,” are seasoned experts in maneuvering through tricky conversations within their own family. Jeff explains the goals of our Zoom meeting: “to learn about the perspectives, feelings and experiences of people from a different political viewpoint.” 

At the same time, participants learn how to convey their own perspectives, feelings, and experiences, without offending each other. And, in a best-case scenario, participants discover common ground.

“Tonight,” Jeff explains, “we are not going to talk to those who have the opposite letter in front of their name. We are beginners, so we role play with those who hold similar values.” 

My discussion partner is Sarah, from Seattle. We introduce ourselves and share what has shaped our political views.

We learn that “respect, curiosity and openness” are key elements. We practice our listening skills and use paraphrasing questions to make sure that we understand each other. During the second round, we practice explaining our viewpoint in a non-offensive way — avoiding emotional, categorical statements. 

While role-playing as a member of the opposite party, we enjoyed throwing into the discussion all the phrases that make us upset — while our partner bravely steers the conversation back to the distant shore of common ground.

It was only an exercise, two hours on Zoom, but the number of participants showed me how many people are unhappy with the current political division. Wasn’t there a time when we could learn from one another? Where we picked our friends because they completed our view, and not just because they agreed with us?

The birth of the organization

Braver Angels came to life during the 2016 presidential election, but the idea was already born even before the divisive campaigns. David Lapp, one of the cofounders, explains their motivation: 

“Within Braver Angels, we make a distinction between a strong disagreement on issues — a normal and good part of any thriving democracy — and hating each other as fellow citizens, distrusting the other person so strongly that we don’t even want to be in relationship with each other.” 

The Braver Angels want to combat those trends, which could be traced back to the 1980s. “Basically in the 1960s, people were much more likely to say that they wouldn’t want their children to marry someone of the opposite race,” Lapp notes. “But they were fine with marrying someone of the opposite political party. Today, it is just the opposite. Polls show that people are generally fine with marrying someone of the opposite race, but they don’t feel good about their children marrying someone of the opposite political party.”

David Lapp and his friends, David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, got together and asked themselves: “How can we to respond to this trend? Can we clarify differences? Can we build relationships between people of different parties?” Their first workshop in December 2016, only three weeks after the election, was just an experiment. 

In South Lebanon, Ohio, the cofounders brought together 10 people who had voted for Donald Trump and 10 others who had voted for Hillary Clinton. “It was quite a diversity of people,” Lapp remembers. “We had the factory worker sitting next to the doctor, sitting next to the teacher, sitting next to the gunsmith.” It was a powerful weekend. “People started with trepidation, distress and fear, and came out of it feeling a great deal of solidarity.” 

Pope Francis’ words on fraternity come to Lapp’s mind. “We felt fraternity with each other, and it was a wonderful feeling.” They decided to facilitate more workshops, and Braver Angels grew quickly: they now have about 17,000 members in all 50 states, and more than 75 local alliances (chapters), each one led by a red co-chair and a blue co-chair. 

Humanizing exercises

Besides the listening workshops, Lapp and his colleagues do not shy away from discussing tough questions. Just recently they hosted an online debate on the topic, “Is voter fraud a major problem in the U.S?” Four people who believed that it is a major issue spoke, then four more spoke against it, and the participating audience could then ask them questions. “It was a great, courageous debate.”

Most of the workshops are run by volunteers, which attests to the many people who want to help the country find ways to talk with and to trust each other. 

One key point is mandatory: “Don’t think you can change the other.” Political opinions are linked to our core values, and are filled with emotions, so refusing to demonize the other side and seeking common ground is all that is needed. 

Moreover, it is crucial to remember that there is always a human person on the other side of the conversation. “It’s harder to hate people that you know.” Lapp says that a question in one of the workshops asks people who see themselves as truly conservative or progressive: “Why you believe that the side that you’re on, and that you lean toward, is good for the country? And second, what are some concerns and reservations you have about your own side and its leaders?” In that way, participants discover that “there’s a reasonable person who is not completely partisan.”

With these gatherings and online workshops, Braver Angels wants to counteract polarized media outlets, which might not be the cause of polarization but are a major player in fueling the heat. 

“We often hear that conservatives feel completely misunderstood by mainstream media or outlets that they would consider progressive. And of course, progressives are deeply concerned about conservative media outlets like Fox News and Newsmax. However, we can choose channels that promote polarization, and which are not engaging the other side with empathy and complexity, or we can choose to listen to those that engage both sides in a complex way.” 

Lapp gives a personal example: “I tend to lean conservative politically, so I subscribe to the National Review, which is mainly a conservative journal, and to Mother Jones, a progressive magazine, because I want to understand their points.” 

Toward a more perfect union

Program participants are called Braver Angels, in reference to Abraham Lincoln, who not only called on Americans to summon the “better angels” of our nature, but also to seek the courage to pursue a more perfect union, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” 

Many of the Braver Angels are supporting a change in the political system that would introduce a ranking system, instead of the current winner-takes-all system. This could give independent candidates with moderate views better chances of winning seats. 

Lapp especially opposes what he calls “negative polarization,” or the thinking that “if the Democratic Party/Republican Party wins, it’s the death of the nation.” 

Instead: “There should be room for me to say, ‘There is a political party that really resonates with me, and I may not agree with everything in it, but it represents my values, and I speak positively in favor of those values that it represents.’ So, I think it’d be great if there was more room for third parties to flourish in this country.” 

Meanwhile, he hopes that Democrats and Republicans start to work together again for the good of the country.

The organization has encouraging results even on the most difficult topics. In Oregon, a group asked for a workshop on the issue of abortion. Seven pro-life leaders and seven pro-choice leaders came together. “By the end, they found 14 points of common ground around the issue of abortion on which there was total agreement. “Even on a highly contentious issue like abortion, people could work together for good — and most people are not as extreme in their views as the ‘official’ platform of their party.”

A third way?

While people tend to think that workshop participants are mostly moderates, or that the organization avoids polemics, the Braver Angels instead work against that conception, even opposing any form of “cancel culture” (modern-day ostracism). 

“Our position is, if there is an issue that is riveting, we should be able to engage that in a good-faith way, if nothing else, so that we can build the social trust which allows us to get to know each other, to see each other as human beings with dignity, to have less contempt for each other as fellow citizens. And this builds social trust,” Lapp explains. “When people feel silenced, they tend to take an even more extreme position and demonize the other side even more.”

Taking viewpoints from the other side seriously is not easy when the topics “push our buttons.” In our training discussion, Sarah already did a good job at provoking me with personal statements about gun control. How did I react? Calmly making my point, drawing from my own experience, sharing what brought me to my opinion and asking about hers. Our conversation went well. Did I learn enough for my next difficult, real-life conversation? I am hopeful.

Talking to someone in person is a lot easier than speaking virtually. Yet, with the start of the pandemic, the Braver Angels, as did everyone, went online. “Before the pandemic, everything that we were doing was in person,” Lapp says. “And there’s so much magic that happens when we meet each other in person. But, at the beginning of 2020, we made taking our programs online one of our institutional priorities, and then the pandemic hit and that really put things into acceleration, obviously. And we are now able to reach a lot more people.” 

While online gatherings can never be a replacement for in-person meetings, Lapp saw how it was possible to expand people’s vision. “A conservative in Iowa, for example, is able to make a connection with a progressive in Berkeley, California, who may have been asking, ‘Where can I find a conservative to talk to?’ And the conservative Iowan just shows up on Zoom and says, ‘Here I am, I’d love to talk.’ It has enabled that connection across states.”

His work with Braver Angels brings Lapp to the perspective that we can overcome polarization. “I think it is by no means guaranteed that we will. It is very possible that our country could just continue to accelerate towards the extreme stereotyping of each other that results in violence. If we don’t do anything, that is what will happen. 

“The hopeful part is that there are a lot of people in our country, conservatives, centrists, progressives who have strong views, and who say that there’s got to be a better way of articulating strong views than just escalating towards polarization. What gives me hope is that when you get people together, there is a lot of interest in each other, and a lot of interest in going beyond the polarization.”

It is Lapp’s personal calling too. “I want to spend my life helping to build what Pope Francis calls ‘a culture of encounter’ in the United States of America, to facilitate gatherings in which the valid points of each side, as Pope Francis says, are recognized as useful and are able to produce a synthesis, a third place that we didn’t imagine before, in politics and even in the Church. 

“And the Holy Spirit helps to create this kind of third place that surprises us and helps us to move forward while holding on to the integrity of our convictions.”

With God’s help, it can happen.

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