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Op-Ed Articles

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.

Eat a snickers: The real America is not that divided

Published in the Sacramento Business Journal 

Eat a snickers: The real America is not that divided

I recently watched a commercial where hunger made a person so angry they were unrecognizable, but all they had to do was a eat a candy bar to assuage their hunger and return to their true self.  Maybe America needs to eat a Snickers.

But despite social media debates and breathless announcements from celebrities, politicians, pundits and the media – America is actually not that divided, nor is it hateful.  In fact, according to a recent study, over 56% of Americans are either disengaged or passive about political issues. 

That study by research group More In Common, reports that only a fraction of American’s are either committed Progressive or Conservative activists – eight and six percent respectively.  That 14% is what comprises the protesters and counter-protesters who promulgate, the pundits who proclaim, and the academics who propound.  They spend a lot of time trying to get the rest of us to buy into their narrative of division, envy, and even hate. 

But in truth, they really don’t represent the real America.

The real America is made up of church volunteers, many of them middle-school students, who meet every week to feed the homeless or deliver meals and companionship to the elderly who are abandoned by their own families; and the business men & women in Rotary who give their time and money to improve literacy with children. 

The real America is made up of parents struggling to keep up with bills, but still find a way to donate to their local school; and the workers whose commute keeps getting longer and longer, but still find time to volunteer in the community.  The real America is made up of soldiers and deputies who sacrifice time with their families – and sometimes their lives.

The real America is a High School student who notices that some kids are isolated so he spends his time organizing classmates to make sure No One Eats Alone; and a football team who disregards the score to give an autistic classmate a moment in the sun.

The real America is the thousands of families who open up their homes to foster kids and volunteers who stand up for abused children; the local Chamber of Commerce raising money for the widow of a fallen police officer; the community that organizes search parties to help a family find a lost child, or a caravan of people driving all night to deliver supplies or rescue pets displaced by fire.

The media doesn’t cover these American stories enough, in part because it doesn’t drive as many clicks as the titillating bombast from the “14 percenters” that populate the “outrage industry.”

Americans do see issues from different perspectives and cast ballots for different candidates, but most of them are too busy living, surviving, or helping to be truly divided by it. 

So the next time you hear proclamations about a “divided America” from politicians, pundits and media talking-heads, think about the real Americans – the 85 percent who are not activists.  Then eat a snickers and join the volunteers who are doing something real.

Tab Berg is an American public affairs and political consultant based in Sacramento, California.  He has worked on public education and political campaigns across the nation and has helped teach democratic principles and campaign strategy around the world in programs for the National Endowment for Democracy.  He is frequent commentator and lecturer on political and policy issues, and has been published in more than a dozen newspapers, TV News commentary, and was contributing author to the E-Voter Institute book about the interactions of social media and politics.

SacBee Editorial on Financial Deal for Arena

Published in the Sacramento Bee Newspaper

Now that the kickoff pep rallies for a new arena are over, it’s time to put away the pompoms and take a more sober look at the proposed arena financing deal, which is starting to show a few cracks.

First, let’s dispense with the scarcely believable claim that the arena isn’t all about the Sacramento Kings. Every time proponents try to spin that yarn, the deal becomes less credible. This is a basketball arena for the Kings; and like the former Arco Arena, other promotions will get a chance to use it.

I recently met with a representative from Think Big Sacramento, the mayor’s regional arena group, who invoked the Sprint Center in Kansas City more than a dozen times. That arena was built with a menu of funding sources – including a rental car tax that required voter approval. So, if Think Big is trying to allay concerns over the end-run around voters, perhaps they shouldn’t invoke a deal that was actually approved by voters.

Redirect random energy to reinvigorate economy

Published in the San Francisco Business Times and the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal

Physical science tells us that energy is never created or destroyed, it just changes form.  Unharnessed, energy can be random, even meaningless. Uncontrolled, it can do a lot of damage. But if applied correctly, energy can accomplish great things — like creating electricity that runs a hospital, for instance.

The past few weeks offer a political example of this physical law.

Recently, I was at a luncheon and found myself chatting with a Democratic local-elected official in Sacramento. She was encouraged — even inspired — that the governor was actually using the power of his office to tackle real issues and get things done. Then she talked about plans to organize “Democrat Women for Arnold” to raise money and to support Gov. Schwarzenegger, who happens to be a Republican.

But it was different under the dome: Later that same week, Democratic state Sen. Jackie Speier of Hillsborough complained that “The governor is trying to make the Legislature meaningless,” when Schwarzenegger announced deals with key players willing to accept cuts to help balance the state budget.

Click here to read more…

The first law of political motion

Published in the Sacramento Bee Newspaper & the Grapevine Independent

Many people see politics as an unfathomable mess, a sort of alchemy in the 21st century. But a comparison of physical laws to politics will yield surprising results. It turns out that politics follows the same rules we learned about in high school physics. Take Newton’s First Law of Motion, which says an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Politically, it can be read as “government keeps doing the same thing unless forced to change by an outside force.”

The Legislature has been “at rest” for over a decade, with only occasional bursts of movement — and most of those have been cautious half-measures. Most of the energy in the Capitol is focused inward — a whirlpool of self-promotion, special interests and positioning
for the next rung up the political ladder. A body at rest isn’t necessarily inert, particularly when talking about government; instead it’s
a state of frenetic paralysis that is focused inward, rather than moving the state in any particular direction.

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