Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Being Respectful & Talking Across the Political Divide

By Curtis Schaeffer

I am a member of a citizens movement called Better Angels. Established after the last presidential election by a group of conservatives and liberals who were concerned about the increasing polarization in the country, Better Angels is committed to bringing people with different political views together to better understand each other, to look for areas of commonality and to build alliances to strengthen our communities.

The name of the organization comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address when he closed his speech with the following:

“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, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The United States is disuniting. The last presidential election made clear what we have feared, that we’re becoming two Americas each angry with the other and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity and good intentions. Today, Americans increasingly view their political opponents not only as misguided, but also as bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible. This division and our inability to talk to each other threaten our democracy by putting us on a path of “civic divorce.”

Better Angels offers a Red/Blue workshop where equal numbers of conservatives (reds) and liberals (blues) come together for a full day of civil discourse by listening and learning from each other. Experience to date demonstrates that these workshops help people on both sides of the divide decrease stereotyped thinking, develop more trust in other people and find common ground of agreement.

The workshop and a newly developed debate format are not designed to change minds or to win arguments, but they serve to provide people on both sides the opportunity to listen and speak to each other, to better understand one another and begin to develop mutual respect. Workshop participants are then encouraged to join local alliances where they continue to meet with a red/blue balance and work together on local issues of mutual concern.

Better Angels also offers a two-and-a-half hour skills workshop that is focused on building communication skills through tone setting, listening and speaking skills for difficult conversations. The desired outcomes for participants are:

• Knowledge of what it takes to have constructive, non-polarizing conversations between people who disagree politically

• Skills in having these conversations

• Motivation to have these conversations in one’s social network.

Better Angels had its first annual convention in Harrisonburg, Virginia in June with 150 delegates from 30 states – 75 conservatives and 75 liberals. It was a working convention and among other things, the delegates drafted, argued over, revised and then voted on an American Declaration – the document that is guiding us all. You can access this online. The final paragraph of this historic agreement that all delegates signed is the the following:

“Finally, to the millions of our fellow citizens eager to overthrow the rancor and contempt and find one another again as citizens and friends, we say to you: Now is our time. The yearning for change among Americans is strong. The stakes could hardly be higher. Our goal is clear and urgent ‘We the People’ not only must heal our nation, we can. Please join this cause. Let’s depolarize America.”

Since its inception, BA has held close to 100 Red/Blue workshops and 75 skills workshops in 35 states. There are 4,200 members (dues are $10 annually) and 17 active alliances. Better Angels has been particularly active in the Maryland-Virginia-D.C. region. This area boasts a strong group of trained moderators and an active calendar of workshops through December and into 2019. Workshops are organized by demand and BA is strict about ensuring the red- blue balance in each.

Positive media coverage has included reports on National Public Radio, USA Today and CBS News along with numerous newspaper and magazine articles. You can go to the Better Angels website and find videos, articles and podcasts as well as watch a red/blue workshop in action: www.better-angels.org.

I am a Falls Church City resident, and I became involved with Better Angels because I think it is important to be able to talk openly and respectfully with your neighbor and to be an active member of a community regardless of the political leanings or beliefs of anyone. Better Angels is committed to working to depolarize communities and ultimately the country. If you are interested in participating in a red/blue or skills workshop please contact me: Curtis Schaeffer at 571-730-8949 or via email at schaeffersuerte@gmail.com.