Amid Polarization, One Organization Works to Keep U.S. Together

One of Philanthropy Roundtable’s core pillars is an effort to build strong communities. That requires open and honest debate, a willingness to listen and engage and mutual respect between people of differing opinions. Unfortunately, in today’s climate of political polarization, this type of goodwill often seems to be in short supply. The nonprofit organization Braver Angels is working to bridge divides among Americans by “building civic trust” and “healing the wounds between left and right.” 

Americans are “near unanimous” in their belief the country is divided by politics. According to a PRRI survey prior to the 2020 presidential election, 91% of Americans described the country as “divided,” with 75% choosing the term “very divided.”  

In the year following the survey, the nation has experienced the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a fierce debate over vaccine mandates, among other points of contention, and there is little evidence the situation has improved. In fact, research suggests quite the contrary. 

study by researchers at Cornell University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Dec. 14, 2021, indicates the nation may be nearing a “tipping point” where extreme polarization will become irreversible and Republicans and Democrats will no longer be able to coexist. If we reach that point, the survey’s authors warn, not even an attack by a foreign adversary would bring the nation together. 

“The process resembles a meltdown in a nuclear reactor,” explained the study’s lead author, Michael Macy, in an interview with StudyFinds. “Up to a point, technicians can bring the core temperature back down by increasing the flow of water used to cool the reactor. But if the temperature goes critical, there is a runaway reaction that cannot be stopped. … It’s up to us to bring the political temperature back down before it is too late.”  

No doubt the study’s conclusion is dire and the dangers of virulent polarization are real. However, for those who are still basking in the optimism of the birth of a new year, there is reason for hope, thanks in part to the work of a nonprofit organization called Braver Angels. 

Building a house united 

Braver Angels is the brainchild of co-founders David Blankenhorn, David Lapp and Bill Doherty. The organization seeks to “help Americans understand each other beyond stereotypes, form community alliances and reduce the vitriol that poisons our civic culture” by bringing people with diverse viewpoints together at the grassroots level. 

The organization’s roots go back to the bitterly divisive 2016 election. Blankenhorn, Lapp and Doherty wanted to see if it was still possible for people on opposite sides of the political spectrum to respectfully disagree. Dr. Doherty, a therapist, professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota, was also eager to test techniques he deployed in couples therapy to see if they could be helpful in healing divisions within a community. 

They gathered 11 Clinton supporters and 10 Trump supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio for an intense weekend workshop experience. 

No one knew what to expect. However, at the conclusion of the workshop, both the participants and the organizers felt the experience was inspiring, educational and should be expanded. This would be the first of the organization’s signature Red/Blue workshops now taking place across the country. 

On the face of it, the Braver Angels approach is strikingly simple: bring people together from diverse backgrounds and opinions and encourage them to share their stories in a safe environment. However, the impact has been profound, as shown in the organization’s documentary film, “Braver Angels: Uniting America.” 

In the film, participants of a Red/Blue workshop in Waynesville, Ohio, who began the program with a great deal of mistrust, developed a life-changing bond. They did not necessarily leave with a new political view. After all, that was never the goal of the workshop. But they each left with a better understanding of the people on the other side of the aisle, and with a new respect for their shared humanity. 

Braver Angels has grown significantly in the last five years. In addition to its Red/Blue workshops, the organization’s programs now include debates (including a recent discussion about vaccine mandates), social groups and one-on-one conversations. The organization has also incorporated books, films and music into its programming to stimulate discussion, and launched the Braver Angels Podcast. To maintain its balanced perspective, Braver Angels is committed to viewpoint diversity among its leadership team. 

“Our country could come back together” 

John Wood, Jr., a national ambassador for Braver Angels, says that as political polarization has grown within the country, the organization’s programs and initiatives are more important than ever in easing tensions and rebuilding trust among Americans.  

“The decline in political and institutional trust that has accelerated across the last several years will soon be tested in an electoral climate within which racial tensions are reaching new highs and a significant plurality of Americans no longer have confidence in the electoral system itself,” said Wood in an interview with the Roundtable. “As social and institutional incentives reinforce these trends, it may be that our willingness to invest in the work of depolarization between Americans and within institutions is our only bulwark against the possibility of a collapsing American democracy.” 

Will Braver Angels be able to change political discourse, bridge the partisan divide and stop the country from crossing the polarization tipping point before it is too late? That is most definitely a tall order.  

However, those who have participated in Braver Angels programs believe they are precisely what this country needs to heal and become whole again. According to one Red/Blue workshop participant, “If more people will have this experience, I think maybe our country could come back together and pull together as one and learn to share and understand. It’s okay to have opposing ideas. It’s okay to be different. We are still human. We still love one another. And the country needs that again.” 

For those interested in getting involved, Braver Angels offers five different volunteering opportunities, including the chance to serve as a Red/Blue workshop moderator following the completion of an application and training program. 

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