How a group aims to heal fractures of a politically polarized US

Politics

Liberals and conservatives work to find common ground during a Braver Angels workshop over Zoom. (Courtesy of Braver Angels)

(NewsNation) — At a time when Americans are deeply divided on core issues facing the nation, from how to teach kids about race to the discourse around the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, one nonprofit is trying to build trust between people across the political spectrum, one conversation at a time. 

The fractures in American life were highlighted in the results of a recent NewsNation poll in which almost 45% of respondents said they had few to no friends who differed from their own political beliefs and almost 29% said their political parties were at least a little justified to use violence to achieve their political goals. 

The work of Braver Angles sprung out of a turbulent and divided country following the 2016 presidential election when congressional voting patterns showed lawmakers were as polarized as “they were around the time of the Civil War.”

The group’s idea is to get people talking to each other. Braver Angels believes that when people on opposite sides of the political spectrum see each other as people first — and not as composites of their policy stances or who they voted for — they’ll find more solutions on which they can agree. 

“Ultimately, we face a choice between conversation and violence,” said Ciaran O’Connor, chief marketing officer at Braver Angels. “We’re already starting to see the violent consequences of extreme political polarization. And peaceful, prosperous societies depend, in a democracy, on our ability to work with people who are very different from us.”

How it works

Braver Angels teaches the same conflict resolution techniques you’d find in couples counseling — paraphrase back what your counterpart has said to you, focus on the areas where you both agree, and seek to understand the life experience that led someone to their beliefs.

During a virtual or in-person workshop, people from different places, backgrounds and political views commit to three hours of civilized discussion. An equal number of self-identifying liberals and conservatives work through a series of exercises in small groups designed to help people get at the heart of why they hold their beliefs. The group also hosts topic debates and social events.

The goal is not to change anyone’s mind, but to see the people on the other side as human. At the center of the approach is assuming the good intentions of others — and being OK with feeling uncomfortable. 

“You’re actually exposing yourself directly to people’s complicated, sometimes contradictory, but legitimately-felt positions based on their own life experiences,” O’Connor said. “If you trust somebody, you can find ways to work with them, even if you disagree on the majority of topics.” 

A man talks during a Braver Angels workshop, where liberals and conservatives try to understand each other’s perspectives. (Courtesy of Braver Angels)

Does it work? 

Braver Angles says they have more than 11,000 members who have committed to bringing these conversations out of the workshops and into their larger social spheres.

Decentralized leadership means that people can focus on the issues that matter most in their neighborhood. Between 2020 and 2021, Braver Angels hosted 443 events with almost 6,000 participants around the most polarizing topics at the time.

After participating in an event, 82% said they felt more comfortable with people on the opposite political side, and 86% said they understand the other side, according to a survey done by Braver Angels. 

“People find it reassuring to realize that people that disagree with them are not necessarily the monolithic stereotype they might have envisioned … and kind of let go of the hatred that can begin to seep in when you’re so angry and helpless about politics,” O’Connor said.

One study surveying university students after attending four Braver Angels workshops found “significantly reduced” polarization, compared to those who did not attend the workshops. 

The effects did fade away over time, according to the 2021 study at Brown University. Still, many people held less polarized views after six months — despite the fact that those six months included the beginning of a pandemic, widespread protests over racial violence and an extremely contentious presidential election. 

Researchers concluded that people need to continue talking to others who are different from them to see the biggest benefit. More specifically, programs that seek to reduce stereotypes by combining emotion and information make the most impact.

How do I get involved? 

Want to attend a workshop or watch a debate? Here’s a full list of events, with both in-person and online options.

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