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Op-ed: Addressing the political divide

It is no secret that our country is suffering from a serious ailment of political division. A few facts provide vivid testimony to this diagnosis. There is a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans–from 1994 to 2014 Democrats have become more consistently liberal and Republicans more consistently conservative. There is growing animosity between Republicans and Democrats — from 2004 to 2016 Democrats’ view of Republicans has become more unfavorable (20 percent to 91 percent), and Republicans’ view of Democrats has also become more unfavorable (40 percent to 86 percent). This divide even extends to parents’ willingness for their child to marry someone from the other political party– from zero to nearly 50 percent in the past 56 years.

We have seen this ailment manifested in our own community in the past election cycle. Supporters of candidates for president from both parties reported yard signs stolen. In Washington County where Trump and most Republicans won nearly 70 percent of the vote, blue voters (Democrats) sense that they are in a despised minority and that their legislators do not represent any of their views and are not listening to them. Republicans, many of whom still think that the election was stolen, sense that their views were not heard nationally and feel alienated from the federal government. The same pattern seems to emerge on the other side of the Ohio River in West Virginia.

As I was watching excerpts of the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, I heard a battle of messages, where, in a kind of zero-sum game, one side holds fast to its version of the truth and the other side stubbornly maintains its interpretation. For too much of the time our legislators engage in win-or-lose struggles characterized by emotion-laden debates, ad-hominem arguments, and battles of messages, resulting in a temporary victory by one party, leaving the other angry and aggrieved. Common ground in rarely sought.

In the face of this sickness of rancor and division, many Americans have wrung their hands in exasperation and frustration and called for healing without explaining how this healing might take place. But there is one group that is actively seeking cures to this illness. It is called Braver Angels. Braver Angels (braverangels.org) was inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln, who not only called on Americans to summon the “better angels” of our nature — but called on us to find the courage needed to pursue a more perfect union, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.” Their objectives are to depolarize our politics and to re-imagine what it means to be an American. The pledge of Braver Angels is to: understand the political other, engage with others with whom we disagree, and support principles that bring us together (i.e., seek common ground).

The group was founded after the 2016 election in South Lebanon Ohio, where they brought together people who had voted from Donald Trump and those who had voted for Hillary Clinton. Their workshop then, as they are conducted now, set strict guidelines for civil discourse, guided discussion, and the search for personal connections between pairs of red and blue voters. Like other groups that try to depolarize our society, Braver Angels teaches people not to blame the political other, to control one’s emotions, to adjust assumptions so that one is not drawn into a win-lose battle, to give adequate time for discussion, to give up trying to change a person’s mind, to listen in the effort to seek common ground, and to begin with personal experience.

Specific projects that Braver Angels sponsors include depolarizing workshops, where people are led to understand their own untested assumptions about the political other (I have participated in two of these sessions in the past year and confess that I still have work to do in this regard), skills for bridging the divide including listening and communicating to understand the other, red-blue workshops, debate programs, and alliance groups (i.e., chapters). A Braver Angels official alliance needs to have a red-voter coordinator and a blue-voter coordinator At this time there are four alliances in Ohio.

There are two initiatives that Braver Angels is sponsoring in this post-2020 election period. One is called Hold America Together, which involves signing a pledge that promises to reject violence and to engage in discussion about depolarizing our country and local community. The second is With Malice Toward None, where communities are encouraged to organize gatherings to address the question of how to regard fellow citizens who voted differently.

The most significant challenge in Braver Angels’ programs is to engage with the political other. But addressing this challenge contains its own personal reward. In the words of a Black man from North Carolina, who took the initiative to visit his local law-enforcement agency and express his concerns about police brutality, “Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is how we grow.” In his case the visit led to a rich discussion with a local policeman who listened, sought understanding, and established a personal relationship with his visitor.

I have the names and contact information of some people in Washington County who are interested in what Braver Angels is trying to do. I am hoping to expand that list (in number and geographically) in the near future with people who are interested in seeking a cure for the sickness of political polarization.

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George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. Before his academic career he served as a middle school teacher in East Africa in the Peace Corps. Now retired, he is a volunteer for the Devola MultiUse Trail Committee, Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, and Harvest of Hope.

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