In an increasingly red and blue world, voters are often drastically loyal to a political party. While democracy is supposed to promote healthy disagreement and debate on how to handle public matters, our founding principles don’t support personal modern-day political discourse. Today politicians and constituents focus on attack campaigns that belittle moral character rather than sticking to issues. 2020’s quickly approaching election has the potential to be one of the most polarizing yet, as voters have been social distancing and communicating very little with people who hold different political stances.
“I’m fairly certain this will continue for some period of time, but I also believe we live in cycles, and this cycle will dissipate and be replaced by a positive upswing in attitudes,” says Allen Quigley, area coordinator for the nonprofit Braver Angels. The national citizens’ movement works to bring liberals and conservations together in an effort to help them understand each other beyond stereotypes. It also educates on institutional beliefs and enhances communication skills to promote respect and civility to possibly form alliances. “We need to be optimistic, or else we’ll fall into a permanently polarized society,” Quigley expresses.
Known as “Better Angels” before a national campaign sought the name change on April 15, 2020, Braver Angels continues to grow at a steady rate. Quigley started the local chapter after learning of the group from Rotary International. Last October the chapter screened the documentary “Braver Angels: Reuniting America” and saw a successful 75-citizen turnout. Currently, they have 35 people who participate in regular communication to instill within the community political depolarization.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, 2016 polling found that 47% of Republicans said Democrats were more “immoral” than other Americans. 35% of Democrats held that same view about Republicans. Political leaders often practice polarization, as campaigning has become more antagonistic. During the 1960 presidential campaign, only 10% of political advertisements aired were negative. By 2012 only 14% of campaign ads were positive.
“There are many reasons why this has happened,” Quigley claims, “but I would place much of the responsibility on the leaders in our community, news outlets, national and global organizations. They have the power to create and the ability to shift this focus. Citizens will follow those leaders, either by choice or through coercion, and allow that attitude to permeate everyday life. It could happen at work, home, church, social media, through the news—they all can have an impact on us, negatively and positively.”
Currently, some of the most polarizing public issues are climate change, environmental protections, gun control, immigration, government involvement in healthcare, increase/decrease of military forces, tax rates for those with higher incomes, and abortion rights. Better Angels approach depolarization by working to get people to listen to another’s perspective on these issues and core principles.
“We aren’t asking anyone to change their minds (although, that does happen), but to listen respectfully and try to understand why someone might feel the way they do,” Quigley says. “We’re all influenced by our culture, family and upbringing, and because they’re all different, we’re bound to see through a different lens. We find, when we take this approach, individuals find more common ground than they thought possible. The end result is a civil discussion where we can find compromise.”
To accomplish their goal of educating the community, Braver Angels has constructed different workshops that break depolarization into a step-by-step process. Anybody interested can attend their Depolarizing Within Workshops, Skills Workshops, Better Angels Debates and Red/Blue Workshops. Depolarizing Within Workshops consist of changing the internal communication of each party.
“Much of today’s polarization is driven by how we talk with like-minded people about those on the other side—creating our own ‘echo chamber,’” Quigley tells. “Participants will learn how to think critically without demonizing, dismissing or stereotyping large swaths of the population, and offer strategies for intervening constructively in social conversations with like-minded peers.”
Skills Workshops are designed to teach improved communication skills. The objective is to educate folks about how to effectively and respectfully communicate with those whose viewpoints differ from their own. These workshops offer insights into common communication barriers, information on core values and principles of the opposing party, and practice on how to talk about issues with someone with a different system of beliefs.
“The Better Angels Debate is a new way to discuss public issues, in a structured but lively debate format, where the goal is searching together for knowledge and solutions rather than scoring points or winning,” Quigley discloses. “After a well-done debate, everyone walks away with a broader awareness of the validity in opposing views and tighter community relationships.”
Braver Angels’ debates use a modified parliamentary-style format, with a debate chairperson. Everyone in the room can participate and people speak for themselves rather than for a specific party.
Red/Blue Workshops are the foundation of Braver Angels, as they gather an equal number of Republican- and Democrat-leaning individuals for a weekend of discussion and exploration. The weekend involves frank dialogue around each side’s view and analysis of how those views were established. Individuals explore their views and often end up discovering a level of commonality they share with their opposing party.
“Political opinions are only a portion of how we conduct our lives and shouldn’t influence how we treat our neighbors, friends and family members,” Quigley divulges. “Most attendees indicate a real concern about the fact they can’t even talk with their family over a Thanksgiving dinner without getting into heated arguments. The skills they learn will hopefully teach them how to deflect some of that polarity, and teach others how to converse with civility and respect.”
Due to social-distancing mandates, Braver Angels has had to postpone their three previously scheduled spring workshops. The dates have not yet been rescheduled, as the organization is waiting to see what will unfold with COVID-19. Folks who want to stay informed on upcoming workshops should email Allen Quigley to join the organization’s regular Zoom meetings.
“I believe those interested in improving this situation will participate with an open mind and heart,” Quigley says. “Those with no desire for compromise will not respond to us or attend our workshops. Maybe over time they’ll start to come around, particularly as the pendulum starts to shift back, and our leaders support this approach and demonstrate it in their personal and professional lives.”