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Taking concrete steps to de-polarize politics

Taking concrete steps to de-polarize politics

An organization in the United States is making a small impact on the corrosive culture of political polarization. Maybe a similar approach could be applied here in Canada—and Hamilton.

Braver Angels, as the organization is named, found its roots in December 2016. America had suffered one of the most divisive elections in its history—the election of Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton. In this climate of polarization, co-founders David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty, and David Lapp came together with an idea for an unlikely gathering,

They assembled 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio. This would become the first Red/Blue Workshop. The goal was simple– to see if Americans could still disagree respectfully – and just maybe, find common ground. Some thought it wasn’t likely.

According to the Braver Angels website the first workshop was a success, “We proved our skeptics wrong. “Republican and Democrat, native born and immigrant: these Americans liked each other. But first they had to hear one another’s stories. Black and white, Christian and Muslim: these Americans could appreciate each others opinions. But first they needed to see where these opinions came from. They could listen to each others points of view once they saw one another, not as stereotypes, but as neighbors in a country they shared. “

Braver Angels released some research that shows just how serious the political polarization problem is in the United States–even affecting choice of a partner.

The Braver Angels philosophy is summarized as follows:

  • As individuals, we try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it.
  • In our communities, we engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.
  • In politics, we support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.

The organization has grown in the ensuing years and now has over 9,000 members. Events staged by Braver Angels include:

  • Skills for Bridging the Divide workshops help through difficult political conversations with people in your life. Learn how to talk across the divide in a constructive, empathetic way.
  • Depolarizing Within workshops teach participants to look within and develop strategies for engaging politics without demonizing, and how to constructively intervene in social conversations with like-minded peers.
  • Families and Politics workshops show participants how to talk about politics with their loved ones in a way that brings us closer together — not farther apart.
  • Skills for Social Media e-Course shows participants how to share and discuss political viewpoints without contributing to polarization.
  • Red-Blue workshops bring together a small, evenly divided group of conservatives and liberals, or “reds” and “blues,” for a series of exercises designed to help participants clarify disagreements, reduce stereotyped thinking, and discover common values.
  • Common Ground workshops allow participants from Red-Blue workshops to dig deeper into specific issues, recognizing that there is often more that unites us than divides us.
  • Race Conversations enable participants to talk about race in an inquisitive, non-judgmental way.

The techniques used by moderators in these workshops are similar to the techniques used in marriage counselling. Co Founder Bill Doherty​ created the Braver Angels workshop approach. Bill is a Professor and Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.  Bill combines a background in family therapy and community engagement. The techniques appear to be working according to the survey of workshop participants represented by this chart.

The organization’s primary source of funds comes from membership fees from individual Americans. The basic membership is $12 a year –a fee kept deliberately low to encourage participation from all income levels. With membership, donations and foundation support the organization raised over $1 Million in its last reporting year. Just as its senior leadership is evenly split between red/blue, Braver Angels strives for roughly equal funding from foundations that are considered to be more liberal or progressive, and those foundations that are more closely associated with conservative causes. They recently released a report, Depolarizing During a Pandemic which details the work of the organization over the past year.

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