Angels or Demons

Published in Inside Sacramento Magazine, September 2019

A Separate Peace

By Tab Berg
September 2019

America is binging on outrage because liberals are arrogant elitists recklessly opening our borders and bankrupting the country, while conservatives are hateful bigots bent on destroying the environment and oppressing poor people.

Neither statement is true, but both stereotypes feed the outrage addiction that has become the default narrative of public dialogue.

For far too many Americans, political discussions have devolved into attacking the “other side” with troll-inspired slams and belittling tweets—where scoring a “burn” on a political opponent is valued more than finding solutions or even being truthful.

There is a better way. Instead of forcing Americans to choose between warring ideological tribes, we can engage the “better angels of our nature” by acknowledging our differences and embracing our similarities. Rather than escalating the fight, we can depolarize America.

Depolarization sounds like a Madison Avenue word, but it simply means we can learn to listen respectfully to people with different political views and engage honestly and civilly with those with whom we disagree.

Better Angels is not another summit of academics or a photo-op for politicians. It is citizen-to-citizen advocacy focused on breaking the cycle of political retribution and partisanship at the grassroots level.

Unlike efforts to assign blame or browbeat people, Better Angels embraces ideological differences and focuses on returning civility to political disagreement. The program is based on the premise that there is value in honest, civil debate. We may even find that when partisan anger and recrimination are washed away, there is more that unites than divides us.

And it’s working. More than 1,000 “Red-Blue” workshops across the country have helped thousands of citizens listen without fear and speak without rebuke.

Sacramento’s Better Angels Alliance has become a leading force in this national movement, cohosting the National Convention and spearheading new efforts and programing. But we have a long way to go and need a lot more people to join the effort.

Better Angels Sacramento provides something that has become rare: a place where both conservatives and liberals can come together and realize it’s OK to disagree.

On May 17, in living rooms, community halls and churches across America, Better Angels premiered a documentary film of the first “Red-Blue” workshop held weeks after the 2016 election.

Seven Republicans who supported Donald Trump and seven Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton got together to talk. At the start, none of the participants believed it was possible to have a rational discussion with the other side. After the Better Angels workshop, they told a different story.

The documentary proves people can find humanity in others. Even those who see the world differently are still patriotic Americans. That success has been repeated hundreds of times, and we’re now showing the documentary in churches, community centers and theaters across the Sacramento region.

These “Red-Blue” workshops are the cornerstone of the Better Angels movement. More than 400 Sacramento citizens have participated. We’re taking the lessons learned in the workshops to further bridge the divide. Skills workshops teach progressives how to talk with conservatives and vice versa.

Better Angels is hosting debates to demonstrate that issues the media label “divisive” can be discussed without rancor. The first debate was held in Carmichael in May, where more than 50 residents met for a parliamentary debate on Sanctuary Cities.

After the event many participants said they gained a better understanding of how “the other side” felt. Few changed their position, but the goal was not to change minds or beat the other side into submission. The goal was to strengthen civic bonds and prove we can discuss difficult issues.

Better Angels is not a political panacea. It’s not designed to solve all of our problems. Instead, we’re focused on the premise that division and polarization make it difficult to have a discussion about the challenges facing America.

Public engagement is vital for democracy, but we are displacing engagement with gladiatorial politics. We’ve allowed politicians and the media to stick us into bunkers and goad us into waging war against each other—or disengage from politics (and each other) altogether.

Yet, studies show most Americans believe the bonds that bind us together are stronger than the divisions that tear us apart. We can strengthen those bonds and solve real problems by engaging the better angels of our nature—or we can continue to feed the worst impulses of our demons and tear the country apart.