What is more common these days at a meeting, on social media, or on TV than someone loudly proclaiming the validity of their political views? And someone else responding in kind. Things often escalate to shouting (out loud or in type), neither side truly listens to the other, and rarely is anything accomplished. We see this on the news, on the internet, and, unfortunately, at our political institutions. What can we do about it? Is there any way to mend the partisan divide in our country right now?
At the Colorado Ag Forum in February, I had the opportunity to hear Steve House of Braver Angels address this issue, and especially how it affects agriculture and the rural-urban divide. (As an aside, we need more nursery and greenhouse folks to attend events like this, to raise the visibility of our industry, help recruit young people to work in our industry, and let the rest of ag know that YES, nursery and greenhouse are a part of agriculture in Colorado.) I thought that his message made a lot of sense.
Steve worked for more 35 years in a variety of executive leadership roles in the healthcare industry, served as Adams County Republican Party chairman and State GOP chairman from 2013-2017, and was the Republican candidate for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District in the November 2020 election. He has seen his share of partisan politics.
Steve is now Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for Braver Angels, a grassroots organization seeking to depolarize American politics. Their website states that the root of their organizing, “begins in the transformation of our attitudes towards each other. The foundation of all our activities is what we refer to as ‘patriotic-empathy:’ the idea that our love for our country is shown by our concern for our fellow citizens. If feelings about our political adversaries can be represented on a spectrum, our objective is to move Americans from hatred or disdain to respect and appreciation. “
Steve says that the worst threat to our national security is the current division of the American people. He states that polarization in the US has been rising for at least 30 years, and it is at levels not seen since the 1850s, around the Civil War. He shares that for most people, how we regard fellow Americans whose political views differ from ours is that they are ‘other,’ ‘unlikeable’ and ‘morally compromised.’ Our political identities have become our social identities.
How do we solve this? Steve encourages you to ask someone who has a political opinion that is opposite of yours, “Why do you believe what you believe?” He says that “. . . if I understand why you believe what you believe, then it helps me humanize you and have a conversation. If you don’t, if I don’t know why you believe something that I am opposed to, then I don’t have any basis of having a real conversation.”
I came across a question from one of his colleagues, Monica Guzman, at Braver Angels, that I think might even be better: “How did you come to believe that?” This question is a question of experience, and asks the person what path they took to come to their beliefs. She also suggests ‘questions of concern.’ “It’s when you ask people, ‘What concerns you about gun rights or gun regulation? What concerns you about this presidential election?’ Then you just collect that information together without judging it. Those concerns always reveal people’s values. They reveal what they most care about.”
Braver Angels started in 2017 with what they called the “Red/Blue Workshop.” Following the divisive 2016 election, they convened 10 Trump voters and 11 Hillary voters to see if “Americans could still disagree respectfully – and just maybe, find common ground.” They found that it was, indeed, still possible. There is a documentary about this workshop on their website.
I encourage you to give these kinds of questions a try, and to check out braverangels.org. There is a great deal of useful and interesting information on their website. To receive updates, participate in the community, and take online e-courses, you can become a member for as little as $12/year, a small cost to learn more about how we can affect the political polarization that is dividing so much of our country.