One group tries to lower the volume on the high-decibel noise th - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

One group tries to lower the volume on the high-decibel noise dividing a polarized nation

Posted: Updated: Jun 25, 2018 2:40 PM
Harrisonburg, VA,   -- David Blankenhorn is the founder and president of Better Angels, a nonpartisan network of scholars and leaders whose vision is to reunite America. Members of the Better Angels meet during their national convention on June 7, 2018 at Harrisonburg, VA, -- David Blankenhorn is the founder and president of Better Angels, a nonpartisan network of scholars and leaders whose vision is to reunite America. Members of the Better Angels meet during their national convention on June 7, 2018 at
Sarah Silver (left) a progressive from White Plains, N.Y. New York, and Cindy Kyser (right), a conservative from Little Rock, Ark., participated in the Better Angels national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. Sarah Silver (left) a progressive from White Plains, N.Y. New York, and Cindy Kyser (right), a conservative from Little Rock, Ark., participated in the Better Angels national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Harrisonburg, VA,   -- A member of the Better Angels leans on a wall with messages from paricipant during the group's national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. Harrisonburg, VA, -- A member of the Better Angels leans on a wall with messages from paricipant during the group's national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Harrisonburg, VA,   -- Members of the Better Angels line up to speak during the group's national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. The organization was formed two years ago to bring liberals (wearing blue lany Harrisonburg, VA, -- Members of the Better Angels line up to speak during the group's national convention on June 7, 2018 at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. The organization was formed two years ago to bring liberals (wearing blue lany
Video

HARRISONBURG, Va. - Sheila Kloefkorn is a liberal, gay marketing executive in crimson-red Arizona who had a falling out with her family over the 2016 election. Greg Steinbrecher is a conservative aspiring actor from navy-blue California who has been labeled a "Nazi" by his friends for his right-of-center views.

For both, finding a way to lower the heat in a nation reaching a boil on political discourse is more than just a worthy ideal, it's something worth fixing.

That's why they and more than 150 other optimists from across the USA gathered at a small college in rural Virginia this month to chart a course for civil dialogue in a country of people constantly shouting at one another online and in person.

Kloefkorn and Steinbrecher joined the founding convention of an organization called Better Angels, formed by blue and red voters after Donald Trump's election a year and a half ago.

Ten Hillary Clinton voters and 10 Trump voters came together in Ohio a few weeks after the election to share their feelings and to try to comprehend how anyone could have voted for that candidate.

David Lapp, lead organizer for Better Angels who set up that meeting, recalled the raw emotions of that weekend: anger, frustration, resentment and, yes, camaraderie.

"We realized after that we had something powerful," he said.

Listening, not converting

The mission of Better Angels is not to convert anyone to their side but simply to understand how the political opposition views hot-button issues such as immigration, gun control and gay rights, and to talk openly about them at a time when such open conversations are often avoided in living rooms, offices and college campuses.

The name comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address in 1861 when he hoped the fracturing nation that soon would plunge into civil war could be healed "by the better angels of our nature.'

For much of the country, the 2016 presidential election between two widely disliked candidates ripped open a wound that already was festering between blue and red America.

"We had a huge family falling-out afterwards," said Kloefkorn, 49, of Tempe, who campaigned and voted for Clinton. "I could barely be in the same room with my father. His wife texted me the day after (the election) and said: 'I'm sorry that your life's work is over. We're really happy that Trump won'.'

Steinbrecher, 31, of North Hollywood voted for Clinton, too. But the visceral reaction from his progressive buddies not only to Trump but also to conservative causes pushed him away from liberalism.

His friends said "people who voted for Trump were hicks, backwards and racists. So once he got elected I thought, well, there can't be that many millions of people who are racist and backwards. They believe something. There's something there that I'm missing. So I started on a process of discovery," he said. "Friendships have been strained, but we just learn not to talk politics. We move on.'

Polarization worsening

Experts who study political discourse confirm what many Americans already believe: The country is as polarized as it has been since the Civil War.

A study last month by political science researchers from four different universities found that many Americans are "dehumanizing" the political opposition.

"Seventy-seven percent of our respondents rated their political opponents as less evolved than members of their own party," lead researchers Alexander Theodoridis of the University of California-Merced and James Martherus of Vanderbilt University wrote in The Washington Post.

Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said Americans of opposing political stripes have struggled for decades to find common ground, but the 2016 election "made it very clear to people that something was wrong."

Most Americans are moderate on many issues, but the nation's deepening divide - politically and culturally - has made victory over perceived opponents more valued than the pursuit of common goals, she said.

So while surveys indicate close to 90 percent of Americans support background checks for gun purchases, many Republican lawmakers are unwilling to support them, said Mason, author of "Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity."

"It's considered a win for Democrats if we enact any kind of gun control legislation, and a win for Democrats means Republicans are losing," Mason said. "And that's just psychologically unacceptable.'

Getting to know one another

It was no coincidence organizers chose Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., for the convention. A small Christian college that instructs students to "serve with compassion," EMU sits just a short drive from the Appalachian Trail in a place that seems ideal for self-reflection.

Here, it's easy to forget the partisan cacophony emanating from Washington - unless you checked the flurry of tweets Trump sent during the convention slamming Hillary Clinton, congressional Democrats and even members of his own party who have challenged him. Or unless you watched Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., denounce the president on CNN for waging "war against working people." Or unless you opened the emails from Democratic and Republican campaigns incessantly disparaging each other.

Instead, participants sat down with one another in small group settings and shared their feelings.

They bemoaned damaged friendships back home and family friction and even church groups that had been torn apart over politics.

They spoke of the harm social media and news outlets had caused by "fanning the flames" of national discord.

They talked of isolation and condescension and resentment.

And they discussed that a healing must take place by treating opposing views with respect and looking for points of common ground

"Democracy is messy, but it's not a blood sport," said Sara Silver, a social scientist from White Plains, N.Y., who voted for Clinton.

Drawing more blues than reds

Organizers worked hard to make sure there were an equal number (72) of reds and blues at the convention, but Better Angels suffers from a demographic problem: members skew white, upper-middle-class - and blue.

"The last thing we want to become is just another form of social capital for the upscale," Better Angels President David Blankenhorn told the assembly, adding it was more important to recruit members from VFW halls than country clubs.

Asked why far more progressives than conservatives are joining the group, Blankenhorn partly attributed the tilt to Clinton supporters who still have trouble comprehending how a candidate they viewed as supremely qualified for the White House could lose to someone they view as so unfit.

"A lot of (liberal) people said to us: 'I felt kind of gut shot after the election. Who are these people that voted this guy in? I'd like to meet one,'" he said.

Feelings remain raw a year and a half after the election.

Several Trump voters at the Better Angels convention did not want to be named, fearing such disclosure would lead to problems back home. One Trump voter from California said revealing her political leaning could expose family members to abuse.

Others promote civility, too

Better Angels isn't the only group preaching improved dialogue.

Organizations such as the Bridge Alliance, Listen First Project and Living Room Conversations have spent years encouraging civil political discourse. And No Labels has been promoting compromise through its "problem solver" caucus in Congress.

But with 3,100 dues-paying members and the support of philanthropic organizations including left-leaning (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) and right (Koch Foundation), Better Angels has momentum as one of the newer kids on the block.

Blankenhorn's goals leading Better Angels include a greater presence on college campuses and, eventually, bringing the lesson to Congress.

"I'm not sure how to do it without being entangled in ways that we don't want to get entangled (in)," he told convention attendees. "But if we're serious about depolarization in the country, we have to be serious about how our political institutions and leaders operate."

Mason, the University of Maryland researcher, said she hopes the group succeeds. But she considers wide-scale improvement in the national dialogue any time soon an elusive goal.

"We have such negative concepts of our opponents that meeting (several at a time) doesn't necessarily change our view of the 100 million of them that exist," she said.

Workshop on guns spotlight divisions

Back at the convention, progressives and conservatives came together during an afternoon workshop on guns. It was one of several group sessions meant to force participants to share their views and confront their own biases.

A group of five blues, including an executive coach, an Episcopal bishop and a teacher, laid out their views: Impose stiffer controls to prevent people with a history of mental health problems from owning guns; don't arm teachers; allow federal research into causes of gun violence.

Then a group of five reds, including a National Rifle Association activist, the daughter of a police officer and a motivational speaker, shared theirs: Preserve Second Amendment rights; press the media to stop vilifying gun owners after mass shootings; and stress the importance of firearms as a means of protection.

Minds were opened, but no one suddenly renounced a position he or she had taken before the workshop. And that seemed OK with organizers and participants who were eager just to get a dialogue going.

"To calmly listen to the reds and really see you as individual human beings that are not crazy is just a really wonderful exercise for me," said Linda Bidlack, the executive coach from Silver Spring, Md., told the group at the end of the exercise.

Anthony DiPalma, the motivational speaker from Herndon, Va., was more hopeful.

"What I learned about the other side is everybody wants a safe, happy life," DiPalma, who voted for Trump, said as the session wound up. "Reds and blues have disagreements on how we get there, (but) there's no reason to shoot at each other until we come up with an answer. And I know we can because we all care about it. Talking is the answer."

Powered by Frankly
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2018 Midwest Television, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.