“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 will yet sell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.” — Abraham Lincoln
With our country so divided and polarized it seems hard to imagine that we can ever come back together again as a nation. A political forgiveness process can help us stitch together the torn fabric of our society by offering a process on an individual, community, and national level, focusing on the lowering of anger and intolerance and the fostering of empathy and forgiveness. It is a process whereby parties in conflict make a commitment to one another to limit hostility, move on from the past, and rebuild communities and, hopefully, nations. An aspect of a political forgiveness process is building trust between antagonistic groups. This includes addressing affective political polarization, the phenomenon where individuals’ feelings and emotions towards members of their own political party or group become more positive, while their feelings towards members of the opposing party or group become more negative. Affective political polarization erodes trust in each other and in our institutions, producing policy gridlock, eroding civil society, and lowering the caliber of our citizenship.
Affective political polarization has been on the rise long before the 2016 election where belief has grown that political opponents are not only wrong in what they think and believe — they have become enemies. Braver Angels, an organization whose mission is to bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic, focuses on building civic trust and healing the wounds between left and right. Their work 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.” We do need more courage, and more bravery to be willing to come together and work together, even when we disagree, and it is Braver Angels that makes this happen.
Braver Angel’s inception took place in December 2016 when co-founders David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty, and David Lapp came together with a remarkable idea for bringing people together as the country was going through one of the most divisive elections in US history. They brought together 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio to participate in a workshop that was to become the first Red/Blue Workshop. Their goal was simple. They wanted to see if Americans could still disagree respectfully — and just maybe, find common ground. There were skeptics who believed this could not happen, and the skeptics were proven wrong. The workshop succeeded and those who began the process recognized this was only the beginning. This was the beginning of the organization originally known as Better Angels. Word spread and by 2019 Better Angels, now called Braver Angels, became the leader of a movement not only to de-polarize politics but to “re-imagine” what it meant to be an American.
In the Red/Blue Workshop, 5–8 Republican-leaning citizens (“Reds”) and 5–8 Democratic-leaning citizens (“Blues”) gather together for a half day or full day of structured conversations. Independents are also welcome to attend but are asked that, for the purposes of the workshop, they identify as leaning either Red or Blue or participate as observers. The purpose of the workshop is to better understand the experiences and beliefs of those on the other side of the political divide, to see if there are areas of commonality in addition to differences, and to learn something that might be helpful to others in our community and the nation.
After a brief introduction and discussion of the ground rules, participants then get involved in several different exercises such as a stereotype exercise where they divide into Red and Blue groups to discuss and report back on the most common false stereotypes or misconceptions of their side, why these stereotypes are wrong, what is true instead, and whether there is a kernel of truth in the stereotype. Other workshops include The Depolarizing Within Workshop designed to foster skills to lessen the effects of polarization when you encounter them in your political conversations. The Families and Politics Workshop gives strategies and skills for handling family political differences in a constructive way, and Race Conversations enable participants to talk about race in an inquisitive, non-judgmental way. Their Braver Politics Initiatives takes the philosophy and mission of Braver Angels and applies it in a political setting, involving politicians and their staff by engaging them in Red/Blue Workshops tailored to their needs.
There are several key findings worth mentioning as the result of the workshop. Eighty-two percent of Braver Angels participants feel more comfortable with people on the opposite political side. Eighty-six percent feel they understand the other, and 71 percent feel understood by the other side. Eighty-eight percent have a better handle on their inner polarizer and 81 percent feel prepared to apply their new skills.
Braver Angels describes a political forgiveness model in action. They work with individuals, communities, and on a national level doing transformative work, which is the focus of political forgiveness. What if we applied the principles of forgiveness to this work? Will it deepen the healing process and help build a culture of political forgiveness? This is the intention of the “Healing Hate in America” project which is in the development stages working with Braver Angels, and which combines the teaching of forgiveness in a dialogue and an experiential process with the focus of bringing people together to heal hate in our country. There is great work being done in this country, work focusing on what can unite us. All of us can get involved with this work, and find hope.