How to bring divided Americans together and save our democracy
by Pam Spritzer
On a roadside billboard in North Carolina promoting the Cherokee Guns store, beneath the words “The 4 Horsemen Cometh are Idiots” appear American citizens and congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, collectively known as “the squad,” whom Trump told to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” A biblical metaphor, the horsemen symbolize catastrophic events forecast to accompany the apocalypse. The image went viral.
Tlaib responded on Twitter, “How the hell is this not inciting violence?”
Interviewed by the local paper, the gun store’s owner, Doc Wacholz, defended his right to free speech. “I’m not inciting any violence or being racist. It’s a statement. It’s an opinion,” he said. “They’re socialists, from my point of view. I also feel a couple of them, being Muslim, have ties to actual terrorist groups.”
A Cherokee might be tempted to tell Doc Wacholz to go back where he came from, but that would mean succumbing to what Bill Doherty, co-founder of Better Angels, a group dedicated to diminishing civic rancor, calls the four horsemen of polarization: stereotyping, dismissing, ridiculing, and contempt. “We become agents of polarization when we use any of the four horsemen,” Doherty says. “They offer us artificial unity, an outrage machine, and the illusion that vanquishing the other side will lead to a political promised land. As we retreat into our political silos, the people on the other side become not just strangers, but enemies. How we talk among ourselves about them fuels fires that threaten our democracy.”
Born in the divisive aftermath of Trump’s victory, Better Angels is building a citizens’ movement to reduce polarization, exemplifying its mission in the half-“red,” half-“blue” composition of its leadership, funders, and members. (Those who consider themselves purple or independent choose the color toward which they lean more often.) More specifically, Better Angels aims to decrease “affective” polarization, the growing personal hostility between those on opposing sides of the political spectrum, positing that until we renounce this pernicious vilification, we will be unable to resolve pressing national issues. They seek to replace the prevailing “us versus them” mindset with a “we” mentality that values those with whom we disagree “as fellow citizens pursuing a common good.”
“Civilis,” the Latin word meaning “of or relating to citizens,” gave us “civility,” long touted as the antithesis of barbarism. Tellingly, from the Greeks to the Romans to medieval Europe and beyond, we are the ones who exhibit civility; the barbarians are by definition not us. According to Better Angels co-founder and president David Blankenhorn, an important driver of polarization “is the belief that society is divided into two mutually incompatible groups—the group of me and those like me who stand for truth, justice, and virtue, and those not like me who stand for the opposite.” He thinks that the most powerful antidote to this Manichean worldview is empathy, which Better Angels strives to cultivate and spread throughout the country. Membership has grown from 3,100 to 7,250 in the last year.
So, while some Trump supporters shout “send her back” in zealous chants, other Republicans are having civil conversation with Democrats in hopes of bringing the country back from our uncivil war of rhetoric and destruction of democratic norms. Ray Warrick, a Tea Party enthusiast, recently sat down with Black Lives Matter activist Hawk Newsome for a respectful exchange. The unlikely pair came together at Better Angels’ second convention. For all their differences, Warrick and Newsome share angry disappointment in our national leaders. This sentiment also seemed prevalent among the audience, who applauded loudly after Newsome asserted, “The Republicans have their bosses, the Democrats have their bosses, and none of their bosses are the people. I don’t care how much you think you relate to them, they do not represent you.”
“That’s for sure,” Warrick echoed emphatically.
When one man spoke, the other listened and then responded politely, sometimes with a joke. Upon hearing Newsome’s declaration that “America has its foot in my rectum, but I still love her anyway,” Warrick rejoined, “That’s like a country music song,” as laughter rippled through the crowd.
“At Better Angels we say, ‘You don’t have to change your mind about politics, but over time you will change your mind about each other,’” Blankenhorn told me. And while the discussion altered neither Warrick nor Newsome’s attitudes, feedback from delegates indicated some receptivity to comments that challenged preconceptions. Addressing Newsome, who had mentioned his annoyance with people saying “all lives matter,” a white woman identifying herself as Lisa from Arkansas confessed that she had used this phrase, adding, “and for that I apologize. I would like for you to repeat what you said about that because it was beautiful and it helped me understand, and I would like to take that and share it beyond this meeting.”
Newsome obliged: “All lives may matter in the eyes of God, and hopefully to some of you. … But black lives have less value in America than white lives. This is a cold, hard truth. All lives will not matter until black lives matter.”
There are other signs that such dialogue may prove fruitful. Renita Fisher, originally from Guyana, is active in Democratic politics and Better Angels in Burnsville, Minnesota, her home for the past 18 years, which happens to be adjacent to the district represented by Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and the target of the “send her back” chants.
At Fisher’s first Better Angels workshop, she participated in the “fishbowl” exercise, in which “blues” and “reds” take turns sitting in concentric circles, the “fish” on the inside answering questions from the moderator, while those on the outside listen as non-reactively as a bowl. Asked how she felt about Trump’s election, Fisher explained that her neighbors’ support of a Republican congressman signified to her that they shared Trump’s views, which made her feel unwelcome in her own community. “How we were stereotyped as immigrants was terrifying for me,” she said. Unbeknownst to her, one of the listening “reds” was her state senator, Dan Hall. Afterward, he handed her his card and invited her to call him.
She did. “I’ve moved from being on the protest line demanding a town hall to being able to talk with my Republican senator about how we can move forward despite our differences.” She still goes to protests, while finding “the Better Angels way” a valuable parallel track. “A lot of my Democratic Party friends think I’m wasting my time. But I’m sharing the experiences and policies that matter to women of color with an extremely conservative white man—and he’s listening.”
Joyce Giuffra, who has extensive experience in Republican politics, from working with Bob Dole to volunteering for the Trump campaign, declared Better Angels “very effective at bringing people together.” Echoing Fisher’s discomfort as an immigrant Democrat living in Republican territory, Giuffra remarked that “Raising children in New York City as Republicans in a heavily blue city and blue state is very difficult. My older daughter, a senior in high school, is frequently under fire.” Though she believes Trump “is doing a lot of good, bringing a lot of pride back to this country,” she is troubled by the acerbic rhetoric that dominates political discourse, recalling the era when she was active in Washington and “Bob Dole and George Mitchell could work together to get things done and there were many personal relationships across the aisle.”
To rekindle such bipartisan congeniality and cooperation, we must first learn to see people in the other party as more than adversarial caricatures. The Better Angels stereotypes exercise was designed for precisely this purpose by Bill Doherty, a family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota: to help people understand each other beyond stereotypes, identify common ground, and perhaps find a constructive path for their community and country. “We invite humility and self-reflection,” Doherty said. Drawing on social scientists’ theories of change and his therapeutic expertise, the workshops consist of a systematic sequence of carefully structured interactions, led by a facilitator who redirects exchanges from polarizing to depolarizing as necessary.
In separate rooms, “reds” and “blues” generate a list of the top four false stereotypes people have of their sides. For each, they answer these questions: 1) What’s wrong with that view and what’s true instead? 2) Are there any kernels of truth in it? Then the groups come together and talk about what they learned about how the other side sees themselves and whether they discovered any commonalities. Doherty often witnesses participants’ surprise that their counterparts know the stereotypes they use to pigeonhole them.
From hundreds of sessions, the most common stereotypes to emerge are these: reds say blues think reds “are mostly racist, anti-immigrant, uncaring about those in need, homophobic, anti-woman, anti-science, bible thumpers,” while blues say reds think blues are “arrogant, elitist, in favor of big government for its own sake, fiscally irresponsible, unpatriotic, anti-religious, against free speech if it’s not correct, hypersensitive, snowflakes.”
Doherty points out that the blue stereotypes of reds are more viscerally negative and insulting than the red stereotypes of blues. “The stereotypes of reds are mostly about being a hater (racist, homophobic, xenophobic) or heartless (uncaring about the poor). They sting in a society that values human equality (most conservatives will say that they loathe racism, for example), and care for the needy. The blue stereotypes do not sting in the same way.” This disparity antedates the hyperpolarized Trump era. In 2002, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”
The reality may be more complicated. Better Angels members are disproportionately white, college-educated, and upper-middle class. It seems unlikely to occur to blues fitting this profile that reds would think of them in the terms Trump reserves for people of color in Baltimore and Africa. But a group of Democratic, poor blacks and immigrants from Elijah Cummings’ district or Chicago’s South Side would likely say that reds think they are disgusting, criminal, and subhuman, and should go back where they came from—views much more analogous in their visceral negativity to the blues’ stereotypes of reds. Red vitriol spews unreservedly toward the squad, not just on gun-shop billboards, but on social media, where memes call the four women “everything from terrorists to harpies to cancer.” So perhaps reds ascribe the most repugnant qualities to specific subsets of blues, such as people of color and immigrants, rather than to blues overall, at least in part because blues are a more diverse group, making it harder to capture the whole in one epithet. By contrast, white “rednecks” and the white Republican elite are both subject to the racist stereotype.
There remains also the possibility that the stereotypes are, like many, distorted inflations of an underlying kernel of truth. For example, Blankenhorn, who doesn’t identify with any political label, said, “I don’t think most conservatives are racists, but I do believe that most racists are conservatives.”
In the workshops, “the big breakthrough happens if people acknowledge the kernels of truth in the stereotypes of their own side,” Doherty explained. “This softens the other side.” Fisher said that at Better Angels events she has witnessed “many ‘aha’ moments on both sides,” and acquired a deeper understanding of Republican views as well as an appreciation for the kernels of truth in stereotypes of Democrats. About a recent workshop, Republican Giuffra observed, “What struck me was the broad spectrum of viewpoints on hot-button issues like abortion, more nuanced than the cut-and-dried stereotypes. Many on both sides were surprised by this.”
These testimonials are consistent with a growing body of research. “A lot of our division comes from misperceptions about the other side’s viewpoint,” affirmed Andrew Hanauer, director of One America, which, like Better Angels, was founded following the 2016 presidential election and aims to heal societal divisions using approaches informed by current science. “We bring people together across lines of difference—Muslims and Christians and Jews, black and white, rural and urban—to take action together on pressing issues in their communities, and to share meals and conversation in the process,” said Hanauer.
A study by More in Common, “The Perception Gap: How False Impressions Are Pulling Americans Apart,” reveals that both Democrats and Republicans believe nearly twice as many people on the other side hold extreme views than actually do. If we learn to understand the misperceptions exacerbating our divisions, the researchers suggest, we can correct our false impressions, reduce hostility, and enable productive engagement.
The first step is to create greater awareness of this “perception gap,” also known as false polarization. Both Better Angels and One America are doing this to some degree, as participants discover unexpected overlap in views and values, while face-to-face interaction humanizes the other side.
In Better Angels surveys, three of four participants reported that they would be very likely to continue the relationships they formed there, felt strongly that there were as many areas of commonality as differences between reds and blues, and believed the programs are “extremely helpful” to their communities and the nation. While granting that Better Angels may not reach the most polarized among us due to the voluntary nature of participation, Blankenhorn emphatically rejects the notion that they attract only “milquetoast moderates.” “We have strong supporters of Black Lives Matter, county Tea Party chairs, and people that bled for Bernie Sanders,” he said.
Some on the left might object to sitting down with people arguably complicit in the caging of young children forcibly separated from their parents, and claim we should be standing in the streets until the cruel dehumanization ceases. The question is: what will actually stop it?
One America works with Beyond Conflict, which applies lessons from brain and behavioral sciences to conflict resolution and reconciliation. Their methodology is grounded in two principles: “that people can learn from each other and that people can change.” With experience in more than 75 countries, Beyond Conflict has found that in every case of group dehumanization, its intensity is strongly associated with identity-based hostility. Research in the United States shows similar results. “Identity does not require values and policy attitudes; it simply requires… a sense of inclusion and a sense of exclusion.” For some Americans, as Lilliana Mason writes that Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe explain in their book Neither Liberal nor Conservative, “the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ designate who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them,’” irrespective of opinions on policy. Crucially, this identity-based designation “drives liberal-versus-conservative rancor” “more than issue-based disagreement.”
“When you work together on a project, you create a cross-cutting identity,” Hanauer said. “I’m a Democrat and you’re a Republican, but we both care about the opioid crisis or homelessness in our city. What’s important isn’t that this is nice, but that it’s what keeps society from fragmenting into warring tribes.” In every country that has descended into horrific forms of dysfunction, there has been a loss of this kind of superordinate identity that binds people together despite their differences. “If you look at Rwanda,” Hanauer elaborated, “there was a concerted effort made to tell the Hutu population that their identity was singular, you’re a Hutu and that’s what matters, not that you’re also Rwandan or a father or a Christian or French-speaker. In this country, we are increasingly seeing a move toward a single identity, you’re either pro-Trump or anti-Trump—and it’s dangerous. So keeping these cross-cutting identities alive is essential.”
Joel Rainey, an evangelical pastor from conservative West Virginia, and Aaron Alexander and Lauren Holtzblatt, rabbis from liberal Washington, are working with One America, local leaders, health officials, and other faith communities to combat the opioid crisis in West Virginia. Illustrating Hanauer’s point, they write in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “the teamwork instills a sense of ‘we’ where before there was only ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Can We Bridge the Racial Divide?
Civilization was supposed to counter our evolutionary tribalism, but often has served instead to rationalize it, conveniently excusing the exploitation and extermination of “lesser” humans. To justify violence against those deemed uncivilized, Enlightenment thinkers postulated several species of human defined by racial differences, among which nonwhites were “naturally inferior.”
Such thinking facilitated our nation’s founding polarization and bequeathed us our starkest divide—between black and white. For all the comity at Newsome and Warrick’s meeting, in subsequent interviews, their differences were laid bare. At the Better Angels convention, Warrick had identified fiscal responsibility as a priority; Newsome later said, “When people talk about fiscal responsibility, I hear them saying they want to cut programs that hurt my people. Conservatives hide their racism in their politics.” And Warrick, who had acknowledged to Newsome that “it hasn’t been a level playing field” for black people in the United States, when asked the following week if he agreed with Newsome’s claim that black lives matter less in America, Warrick replied, “No, that’s insane.”
Renita Fisher, though enthusiastic about Better Angels, conveyed concern that “we don’t have a lot of participation from people of color,” and allowed that she doesn’t feel free to speak openly about race in meetings where she is often the only woman of color. Blankenhorn conceded that in addition to die-hard ideologues dismissive of the other side, there are millions struggling just to survive and/or politically disaffected who see no reason to expect civic engagement to help them, especially people of color—all unlikely to join his organization. At the same time, calling racism “our great national sin,” he said Better Angels plans extensive outreach to make its membership more reflective of society in color and class.
During the civil rights movement, at lunch counter sit-ins, Reverend Leslie Copeland-Tune’s mother braved jolting shoves from scornful whites, while her grandparents taught people how to fill out voter registration forms in South Carolina’s “backcountry.” The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the front lawn of the family home. Now the chief operating officer of the National Council of Churches and a One America board member, Reverend Copeland-Tune said, “I had to force myself not to get sucked into the abyss of racial hatred in our country. My way of doing that is to engage in the One America Movement and see that there are possibilities for another way.”
She attended a One America event at an evangelical church assembling care packages for people caught up in the opioid crisis, glad to lend a hand while also mindful of the difference between the compassionate response to this drug problem of mostly white people and the harsh criminalization of the crack epidemic that afflicted more African Americans. “I saw in real time what crack did to Mount Vernon and to friends of mine,” she said. “There was no mercy at all, no compassion, and some of those people are still in jail.”
Others in One America are cognizant of this discrepancy and trying to make amends. “[W]e’re connecting our work in West Virginia with the work being done to fight opioids in African American communities in Washington. Instead of fighting over resources, we can share best practices, share stories and work together.”
Newsome of Black Lives Matter and Better Angels is also involved with One America.
“I want to reach as many people as possible because this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he said. His acceptance of an invitation to take the stage at a rally of Trump supporters led some fellow black activists to shun him. “A lot of people felt I was pandering. I wasn’t pandering, I was being persuasive. That video got 60 million views—60 million people who said, ‘Hey, let me find out what Black Lives Matter is talking about.’ It opened up many people’s eyes.”
After the speech, Trump fan Kenny Johnson asked Newsome for a picture with him and his five-year-old son. “I feel what he said came from his heart,” Johnson said. “I probably agree with 90 percent of what he said. I listened to him with much love, respect, and honor, and I got that back, so as far as I’m concerned he’s my brother now.” However, Johnson later told Newsome that when he got home, his wife asked, “Why’d you let that nigger hold my son?’”
On Reverend Copeland-Tune’s blog, she writes: “[T]he vestiges of slavery are as much a part of our present as the air we breathe. … intricately woven into the fabric of our nation, our neighborhoods, our systems, our psyche. … I wonder in frustration how it is that my white colleagues can’t see that.”
If you’re white, you don’t have to see it—and you have a stake in not seeing it. As writer Sandra Newman put it, “A lot of white Americans want to think of history as being like fiction: you close the book and it goes away. It doesn’t have an impact on your life. In reality, history is more like physics. Your world is made of it.” What’s more, almost no one thinks of him or herself as racist, and if you’re convinced that you and the people around you harbor no animosity toward people of color, it can seem plausible to conclude that there isn’t much of a problem. During his conversation with Newsome at the Better Angels convention, Warrick said, “The Tea Party gets called racist all the time. I have been to countless Tea Party meetings, rallies, gatherings, seminars, conventions. I don’t remember race ever being discussed. And that’s the truth. It wasn’t even a thing.” In an interview afterward, when asked whether the president is a racist, he replied, “Absolutely not.” Regarding Trump’s tweet telling the four congresswomen of color to go back where they came from, “They happen to be black or colored,” Dennis Kovach, a white resident of Port Huron, Michigan, who plans to vote for Trump in 2020, told the New York Times. “But I don’t think that viewpoint is a racist viewpoint.”
Vincent Hutchings, political science and African American studies professor at the University of Michigan, observed, “To Republicans, Trump is simply saying: ‘Hey, if you don’t like America, you can leave.’ …If you already support Trump, then it’s very easy to interpret his comments that way.”
Drawing Republicans’ attention to Trump’s history of racially inflammatory remarks that most Democrats and virtually all people of color would call racist is unlikely to shift their perspective, as facts that we might expect to change minds often have the opposite effect, prompting people to become more entrenched in their stance, increasing polarization in response to a perceived threat to their beliefs. The president’s supporters can point to his friendliness toward select black celebrities as evidence of his lack of prejudice, a permutation of the “some of my best friends are black” trope. Trump critics will argue that fondness for individual people of color does not preclude racism toward nonwhites as a group or toward lower-status nonwhites, perhaps invoking Thomas Jefferson, slave owner and father of six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.
This kind of impasse leads Doherty to conclude that “an emphasis on facts and so-called truth is not helpful. It’s a conversation and partnership stopper.” Similarly, Hanauer commented, “Polarization turns our legacy of racism into another set of facts to be debated, which turns what should be universal agreement that racism is bad and we should have as anti-racist a society as possible, into just another thing to fight about.”
The more time lost to such arguments, the less progress we make toward solutions to urgent problems. Trump opponents will contend that they have to call out racism when they see it. Yet “we know from research that when you call someone a racist, their brain shuts down,” Reverend Copeland-Tune said. “But for people on the receiving end of racism, it’s hard to continually have to extend grace. You’re trying to be forgiving, but you’re also experiencing painful injury, with people who are almost unrepentant. This puts the onus on the person who is traumatized to engage with the people who are inflicting that trauma.”
Though Nelson Mandela somehow managed it, it is an admittedly tall order to ask oppressed people to embrace the humanity of their oppressors, but Reverend Copeland-Tune sees no other way forward. The challenge is to take a principled stand against divisive behavior without exacerbating polarization, to resist the powerful temptation to respond to outrage with outrage, which in the current dynamic benefits defenders of the status quo, and instead channel righteous anger toward constructive action.
Local organizing to unite communities for a shared purpose, as One America does, offers a potential route to racial healing and reconciliation. Doherty of Better Angels also spearheaded the Police and Black Men Project in Minneapolis. “It appeals to both reds and blues because it’s based on reciprocity, on the idea that there are no villains here.” Every other week for more than two years, the project has brought together a small group of police officers, three white, two black, and five black men from the local community. “We started with three aims and are on the threshold of accomplishing them all: community conversations, participation in officer training, and meeting with public officials,” he explained. “This is collaborative work for systemic change. We know that lack of safe, secure housing leads to domestic violence and all kinds of stresses, including homelessness associated with law-breaking. The police struggle with this problem because they’re called to evict people when the shelters are full and it’s 20 below zero.” Arguing that housing is not just a social service, but a determinant of community safety, the project has persuaded the police chief to put the department on record supporting policies to create more affordable housing in north Minneapolis.
“It is not working to bring people together for the purpose of interracial, interethnic understanding; that is a failed approach,” Doherty stated. “You have to bring them together for some common purpose, for something that neither group can do alone, like community safety or job opportunities. Then you deal with your differences as necessary to accomplish a common goal.”
Hawaii’s labor history bears out the efficacy of this approach, as recounted by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in the New York Times. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hawaiian plantation owners imported workers from many far-flung cultures, on the theory that they would keep to themselves rather than cause trouble. As in fact they did, while working under “wretched conditions” and engaging in ethnic and racial stereotyping. When the San Francisco-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union organizers arrived there, they realized that “[s]uccess would require interracial unity. … The workers needed to overcome the ethnic divisions of plantation society.” To achieve this end, organizers assigned leadership positions to every ethnic group so that all had equal representation. “Working-class Hawaiians realized that race was being used to divide them—keeping them from improving their lot. … [Psychologist Marilynn] Brewer… described this transformation as labor successfully creating a new ‘super ordinate’ identity that cut across racial lines.”
A striking instance of this recurring phenomenon transpired in Durham, North Carolina, during Jim Crow, when a friendship arose between previously fierce foes: Ann Atwater, a poor black, single mother and militant advocate for racial equality, and C.P. Ellis, white but also poor, and the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. Both sent their children to the local public school, which wealthier whites had fled to avoid desegregation; both joined a committee to improve school conditions; and both were shocked to discover how much they had in common. When a black mother asserted that teachers treated her children “as if they were stupid troublemakers—just because they were poor and black. The woman’s complaint caught C.P.’s attention because he had been about to say the same thing about his children; they were treated badly because they were ‘poor white trash.’… For the first time in his life, C.P. really listened to black people and he was stunned to hear, over and over, his own concerns coming from their mouths,” writes Osha Gray Davidson in The Best of Enemies. “He now realized that blacks simply were not the problem. How could they be? … Except for a few executives … blacks in Durham had no money or power. They could barely feed their own families.” Those responsible for his impoverishment, he concluded, were wealthy white businessmen. “He saw clearly now how those men had used him to keep poor blacks and poor whites fighting each other—while they kept control of the reins of power.”
Some see this strategy still in effect today. Responding to Trump’s derogatory tweet about her and her fellow congresswomen of color, Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted, “This president would love nothing more than to divide our country based on race, religion, gender, orientation, ability, or immigration status. This is the only way he thinks he can prevent the solidarity of working people. We’re not falling for it.”
A president routinely fomenting racial animosity presents a daunting challenge for the opposition: how to avoid responding with polarizing rhetoric that deepens our division, and instead to present an anti-racist platform with compassion for people of all colors and backgrounds.
Hanauer of One America writes that “racism and bigotry are the most extreme manifestations of our isolation from each other.” According to psychologists, racism arises from “essentialist” thinking that attributes immutable qualities to certain people, such as their inherent inferiority. In Hawaii, which has by far the highest percentage of mixed-race people in the country, there is much less “essentialist” thinking about race. Psychology professor Kristin Pauker, who runs the Intergroup Social Perception Lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, theorizes that mixed-race people “serve as a kind of jamming mechanism for people’s race radar.” From a longitudinal study of white students who went to Hawaii for college, Pauker discovered that living there changed the way they thought about race. Using the “Race Conception Scale,” she monitored their shift from essentialist thinking upon arrival to more relaxed notions of race, resembling those of native Hawaiians, years later:
“White mainland students often find themselves in the minority for the first time in their lives. And it’s not always easy. Just as students of color often drop out at a higher rate than whites from universities on the mainland, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, it’s white students who drop out at higher rates. … They are escaping, probably for the first time, what sociologists call ‘white transparency.’ Whiteness stops being invisible to them; they suddenly perceive themselves as having a color—a race. And if they’re going to have friends, they’re forced to socialize with nonwhites, which means pushing past their preconceptions.”
Velasquez-Manoff reflects that young white people from the mainland who choose to study in Hawaii are already open-minded. “The real trick,” he writes, “would be to get a white supremacist to enroll here and see if there was the same transformation.”
The successes of Life After Hate, which helps white supremacists renounce their racist creed and re-enter the mainstream, imply that there would be a similar evolution. Just as the students in Hawaii changed as a result of shared experience with the “other,” neo-Nazis reformed after receiving compassion from people they hated; in both cases, overcoming isolation led to greater empathy and understanding of our common humanity.
This also describes the mission of Better Angels and One America. People who “deprogram” white supremacists don’t challenge the ideology at first, as that will merely trigger the impulse to defend it. One America doesn’t start with political dialogue for the same reason. “Studies show that that activates the parts of our brains that are wired for polarization. Instead, we build relationships, and once trust has been established, then people can talk about harder issues,” explained Hanauer. “This is really about building long-term societal resilience; it takes time, really deep intentional work, and a shift in mindset for a lot of people.”
As C.P. Ellis grew close to Ann Atwater, a black woman he had wanted to kill, he struggled to come to terms with the volte-face in his worldview—and his loss of security and status in the KKK. He mused, “What an awful thing the truth is, and how comforting is a lie” (The Best of Enemies). He “marveled” at the respect he’d received from black people at the school meetings “despite the fact that he preached the most vile racist hatred for them,” and realized that their humane treatment had dissolved his hatred.
About former white supremacists, Emile Bruneau, director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “it’s never somebody using snark or sarcasm or putting them down or shaming them that changes their mind. Always it is a kind gesture from someone who they don’t deserve it from.”
The person displaying that kindness must bear the burden Reverend Copeland-Tune described of having to extend grace to people who’ve shown you none. Whether or not you’re inclined to do so places you on one side or the other of a longstanding disagreement among black people about how best to challenge white supremacy—from Du Bois and Washington to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to contemporary activists and scholars.
Ibram Kendi, professor of African American history and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, recently wrote, “Antiracists must practice love. Antiracists must nurture themselves and America no matter the pain that is essential to healing. They must construct antiracist ideas that say there’s nothing wrong with our race or any other. They must nurture their communities and institutions by constructing antiracist policies that yield racial equity.”
But Newsome of Black Lives Matter proclaimed, “Love is weaponized against black people. When black people want their rights, they say march in peace, march with love. However, when governments controlled by white people are blowing up villages and locking people in concentration camps, where’s your love? Where’s your love for these little babies dying in ICE custody?”
Yet this contrast, while instantiating a profound dilemma facing people of color in this country, also oversimplifies, as the perspectives of Malcolm X and MLK Jr. drew closer near the end of their foreshortened lives, and Newsome also believes in the potential of love, Kendi in the power of protest. Reverend Copeland-Tune offered this integrative verdict: “Love is like prayer. They’re action words. You have to pray, but you also have to act, and it’s the same with love. It’s not just sentimental. Love is justice.”
Will We Rise to the Challenges?
KKK leader C.P. Ellis and civil rights organizer Ann Atwater became two parents concerned about their children’s education, a cross-cutting identity that superseded their previously unbridgeable racial divide. As Better Angels grows in membership, it is forming local alliances (37 and counting) that plan to engage in issue advocacy, collaborative action that will strengthen their connection as they coalesce around a superordinate goal. “The idea is to model at the local level what our political leaders currently don’t do, to show that citizens can do this,” Blankenhorn said.
The issues that have garnered the most support for redress are gerrymandering and money in politics. Warrick, the Tea Party leader from Ohio, said, “There seems to be almost absolute agreement that our politicians are not genuine and that we’ve got to get the money out of politics because it corrupts them.” Giuffra, Republican of New York, said she “would be thrilled if Better Angels advocated on certain issues,” and expressed hope that they could be a credible force to effect policy change. “They have the vision and the capacity to take this to another level,” she concluded. Fisher, Democrat of Minnesota, is likewise in favor of moving in this direction.
Doherty said that Better Angels will maintain neutrality at the national level for now, determined to proceed with care in order not to be trapped in the hornet’s nest of polarization. However, if most of the alliances coordinated on an issue, it could result in the national level taking a stand.
Additional expansion plans include a partnership with the College Board to do a pilot rollout of Better Angels debates in school districts around the country, starting in the fall. Like the workshops, the parliamentary-style debates are structured to generate productive exchanges. There are no winners or losers; rather, students practice expressing and defending their views with understanding of and respect for the opposing view.
One America is also developing new chapters, cultivating long-term relationships and local activism. Leaders of both organizations recognize that they need to grow by orders of magnitude to reach a scale sufficient to induce a discernible salutary effect on the political climate. For the people already involved, though, the benefits are immediate; the new relationships and the discovery of shared concerns provide a heartening counterweight to the often-dispiriting daily news. “What we’ve learned in our projects is that when you build trust across lines of division, you see change. And from that change on the interpersonal level, I think people can then interact differently in society and impact the structures that drive problems and gaps in our country,” Hanauer said.
Better Angels leaders are well-aware of the critiques from both sides of the aisle. Doherty summarized them this way: “The left would say, ‘Democracy is crumbling, we’re heading toward fascism, you’re not going to bring about fundamental change by people getting to know each other.’ The right would say that the social justice left is squelching liberty and unless we’re taking that on, we’re just changing the seating on the Titanic.”
Blankenhorn offered a ready response: “We don’t want Better Angels to be just talk. That’s why we’re starting these policy projects. Our longer-term aspiration is to be a significant organization, half-red and half-blue, committed to depolarization not only at the individual level but at the level of state and federal policy.” Doherty elaborated, “First, we’re on the verge of entering the public policy/political change area, at least at the local level. We’re not naïve about the importance of structural change. Second, we’re increasingly engaging with politicians, doing workshops for legislators and mayors, joining conversations with people who have political power. Third, damaged civic relationships—among friends, in families and communities—need repair. Even if your side is swept into office and you get all the public policy changes you want, unless we deal with this fundamental, on-the-ground, emotional polarization between people, the gains of your side are apt to be short-lived.”
At the far ends of the political spectrum, some people have what he called “a warfare mindset” that would be unpersuaded by all of the above. “If that’s your view, then what we’re doing is accommodation,” he said. “To understand where they’re coming from, I put myself in 1936 in Nazi Germany. If I were there, I would hope that I would say we can’t be doing workshops with the Nazis.”
“When we think about the concentration camps and gas chambers, how did people justify doing that?” Reverend Copeland-Tune asked. “You don’t wake up and suddenly decide to be a Nazi. You have a slow drip that leads to demonizing and dehumanizing people that makes it okay to treat them that way. I’m hoping that with One America, people are learning to see people on the other side as human, to ask why they think the way they do, and how can I be forgiving of someone who might want to cause me harm.”
Other groups have been trying to cultivate more civil discourse across party lines since before Trump’s ascension. The Bridge Alliance website lists 28 organizations devoted to bridging ideological divides, such as Common Ground Solutions and Living Room Conversations. All the while, polarization has intensified, along with harshness, acrimony, and hate crimes. One has to ask why these new groups would stand a chance of reversing this trend.
A pessimist might argue that we need to build a broad consensus for systemic change, but we need systemic change in order to build that consensus because too many people are struggling just to survive, with no time or energy for political engagement. And most of those already prospering will wield their wealth and power to maintain the status quo.
Or we might observe that while there’s no guarantee that bringing people together will yield the change we need, sequestering ourselves in media silos while spouting hatred at each other will guarantee failure. We might also recall that history is full of popular uprisings and profound change, often bloody, but sometimes peaceful. The many Americans leading lives of quiet desperation may need merely a nudge to decide it’s time at last to build a small-d democratic society rich in community and awareness of our common interests, Democrats and Republicans unified in their commitment to our republic. Periods of political turbulence entail a certain fluidity and potential for change. Though a polarizing figure, Trump is also a galvanizing one who could inadvertently inspire a groundswell of support for a more compassionate union. Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who served in the Obama administration and now teaches at Harvard Law School, author most recently of How Change Happens, notes that social change is unpredictable and often sparked by serendipitous or seemingly random factors. Groups such as Better Angels and One America are bringing new scientifically informed methods to bear on our polarization, as is Be More America, which is working to eradicate implicit bias that leads people to act prejudicially while remaining unconscious of their predisposition to do so. (Readers interested in assessing their own implicit bias should visit implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.)
Climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted, “I know we need a system change rather than individual change. But you cannot have one without the other.” If we remain isolated from one another, we will have neither. Coming together is necessary both for individual well-being and for generating the collective will to enact systemic reform.
Addressing the need for individual change, Better Angels has developed a workshop called Depolarizing Within. “It teaches how to depolarize yourself and how to be an agent of depolarization,” explained Doherty, who was inspired by the recognition that most of the polarizing conversations happen among like-minded people when they bash the other side. “At the beginning, people do a self-assessment of their own inner polarizer, and it’s like a confessional,” he said. Participants identify their current emotional posture toward the majority of people who support the other side on an “attitude continuum” ranging from hate to pity to respect and appreciation. As they progress through the workshop, they receive guidelines for greater awareness of their “inner polarizer” and strategies to counteract it, with modeling and practice exchanges. They also learn how to be critical without falling prey to the four horsemen of polarization (stereotyping, dismissing, ridicule, and contempt), as well as skills for redirecting polarizing conversations.
“Our first Better Angels workshop was three weeks after the election in 2016, with 10 Hillary voters and 10 Trump voters for 13 hours over a weekend in Ohio,” Doherty said. “When we asked people why they came, they answered, ‘We have a community to run here, we have schools, roads, hospitals, and we can’t do it with all this rancor. We have to get past this.’”
Reverend Copeland-Tune, a progressive African American woman and One America member, said, “When you get to know people, it’s harder to hate them.” White Tea Party enthusiast Ray Warrick of Better Angels recalled learning as a child that “Democrats were for more government and Republicans were more pro-business. It made sense to me that I’d be pro-business because I didn’t know anybody that worked for the government.” Commenting on his interaction with people on the other side today, he mirrored his political, racial, and gender opposite’s assertion: “It’s pretty hard to hate people you know.”
The “perception gap” study demonstrates that most Americans’ views are more similar to their political opponents’ than they realize. Perhaps the main problem isn’t other Americans, the More in Common report suggests, but rather the systems perpetuating policies that cut against the will of the majority.
“Polarization is a multibillion-dollar industry. People are selling books, getting elected, making careers for themselves on cable news and talk radio,” Hanauer said. “We as a country need to see through that, not to come to some false unity, but to recognize that a lot of our divide stems from real, significant challenges—poverty, racism, health care—that we need to address. We have to find solutions to these problems.”
The sought-after swing voters who switched from Obama to Trump clearly don’t have fixed issue-based ideology. It’s reasonable to conclude that when they didn’t see improvement in their lives under Obama, they opted to try the other side. In other words, they wanted change with Obama, and they wanted change with Trump. They’re still struggling to get by; their problems persist, unaddressed. Counties “that flipped from Mr. Obama to Mr. Trump have lost ground to the rest of the nation, even more so than the counties that have been solidly Republican.”
Warrick, reflecting on his loss of faith in Republicans for whom he’d voted all his life, recounted an anecdote from the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. When the Texas Democrat is asked why Congress is “saying one thing and doing nothing,” Wilson responds, “Well, tradition, mostly.” For Warrick, this answer rings painfully true. The movie, however, is a story of successful bipartisanship between liberal Democrat Wilson and Republican President Reagan to pressure the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. “We won because there was no partisanship or damaging leaks,” Wilson later said, allowing in 2011 that such an operation would no longer be possible.
This foreign policy episode offers other lessons, notably, that not all bipartisanship is created equal (and beware of unintended consequences). The Afghan mujahideen, armed by the United States, morphed into the Taliban and other anti-American groups that our military battles to this day. And as former Vice President Joe Biden recently reminded us, he collaborated with segregationist senators to oppose busing. Bipartisanship alone is evidently insufficient. As we depolarize, we must craft a detailed blueprint of a democracy that will be of, by, and for all its people for the very first time.
This promises to be challenging. For even if we minimize affective depolarization, some issue polarization, i.e., substantive disagreement on policy solutions, will remain. First, consider social mobility. Liberals are more pessimistic than conservatives about the prospects for poorer Americans to improve their economic status, and they are more supportive of government programs for the poor. When they learn that social mobility from one generation to the next occurs less often than they thought, their support for public assistance increases. In contrast, when conservatives learn that social mobility is lower than they supposed, they have the opposite response: their support for government intervention drops even further. Second, the More in Common study, while concluding that most Americans’ views are more similar than we realize, reports also that a substantial minority hold views widely considered outside the mainstream. For example, 29 percent of Democrats believe in “completely open borders” and “15 percent believe most police are bad people,” while 21 percent of Republicans don’t accept that racism still exists in America, and 30 percent reject “the statement that many Muslims are good Americans.” Some of these numbers seem likely to come down with affective depolarization, but we ignore them at our peril.
Of the Trump rally where the crowd clamored “send her back,” Representative Omar, a Somali-born Muslim, wrote, “It reminds us of the grave stakes of the coming presidential election: that this fight is not merely about policy ideas; it is a fight for the soul of our nation.”
“Ilhan is me,” said Renita Fisher of Better Angels. “I look to Ilhan, and I see me in her journey as an immigrant and what is possible in America.” Plutocratic levels of inequality, rampant gun violence, and billboards suggesting congresswomen of color as targets are also possible. If we want a more perfect union, we must summon the better angels of our nature to employ empathy in our public policy and discourse. And if Reverend Copeland-Tune is correct that “there’s more commonality in our lives—in how we love and how we hope and how we dream—than there are differences,” then if we can stop villainizing our fellow citizens and instead see in one another an “equivalent center of self,” to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, then and only then will it be possible to make out of many one America—e pluribus unum—at last. Whether or not the arc of our future will bend toward justice depends on our ability to find common ground now.
Pam Spritzer has written and edited for many publications and organizations, including the Huffington Post, the New York Observer, and the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.