Bill Doherty Commencement Address on Better Angels

How the Better Angel Project Works to Reduce Political Polarization

University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) professor Bill Doherty recently gave a powerful commencement address to the CEHD class of 2018 on how to bridge the political divides in our country. He specifically spoke about a project he launched after the 2016 presidential election called Better Angels an effort designed to foster help people understand each other beyond stereotypes and find common ground in an increasingly polarized nation. Doherty has a long history of working to promote commonsense solutions to a number of our country’s most pressing problems, from healthy marriages to health care.

We caught up with him after his commencement address to talk to him about his view of the political divide in the U.S., the Better Angels project, and the future of American politics.

You recently gave a commencement address for the graduate students at CEHD on the political polarization in our country. Why did you think this was an important topic for these new graduates?

When I agreed to do this, it occurred to me that the minimum amount of time they’ve been in graduate school is two years, and many of them for four years or longer. In that time, the landscape has changed quite a lot. They all entered [graduate school] before the presidential election of 2016. Since then, our country has entered a period of escalating political polarization that has put us into new territory, historically speaking. This has been building for the last 40 or 50 years, but we are so polarized now that it is affecting both personal and public relationships.

In many ways, it seems like this is the issue of the moment in our country.

Do you get the sense that the generation that is graduating now views politics differently than other generations?

I don’t think they are necessarily that different as a generation, but they’re going to face – both personally and professionally – the challenge of how to deal with this. Our educational systems are caught up now in polarization, both red-blue polarization and polarization across racial groups. This is seen on [many] college campuses; we’ve seen it locally. Schools are facing the challenge of dealing with political division. We’re going to have to figure out personally and professionally how to deal with it.

In your last blog, you talked about your Better Angels project. In the aftermath of the election, how have you been moving forward with that?

Following the election, I pivoted towards the challenge of how we heal this divide as a nation at the local level in our communities. Three weeks after the election, my Better Angels colleagues and I conducted a workshop in southwest Ohio with Hillary voters and Trump voters. We wanted to see if they could get past their stereotypes of each other and find common ground. It was successful.

Then, they wanted to have a reunion. They wanted to do more than just workshops to start organizing red-blue alliances. We did some fundraising, conducted a second workshop in Ohio and brought in a documentary film crew. [There is] a PBS documentary coming out on it.

That was when we knew we had more than a one-time phenomenon. Since then, there have been Better Angel’s workshops in 25 states. I was responsible for designing the workshops. We have three-hour and day-long workshop, where seven politically red individuals and seven politically blue individuals come together. We also have a skills workshop where larger numbers of people come together to learn skills for bridging political divides.

Our goal is to get people to understand each other beyond the stereotypes and find common ground. We’re not expecting them to change their political views, but what we do expect – and what we find – is that they change their views of each other. They move away from seeing the other as unreasonable or uncaring about important issues, to seeing them as fellow citizens with whom they share common values. We differ along some political lines and political opinions, but we’re all Americans and all human. People care about this country and solving the country’s problems.

About one in every four workshops leads to the formation of a local Better Angels Alliance. This is a group full of half reds and half blues who come together for two purposes: to spread the depolarization message and to look for common policy grounds. In the policy area two examples that have come out of alliances are gerrymandering and money in politics – issues that cut across the divide.

What type of skills do you teach in your workshops to help bridge these divides between neighbors, family, and friends?

The two overarching things we teach in skills workshops are to listen in a way that makes the other feel heard, and to speak in a way that encourages the other person to hear you. A specific example of these skills is to paraphrase back what you hear somebody saying – before you disagree with it – to make sure that you understand them and that they know you understand them. Then, when you do respond with your own opinion, to note whatever common ground is there first. An example of common ground might be that we both support immigration as good for the country when it’s done properly and legally. Lead with the common ground and then say what you think about how to handle the Dreamers. If nothing else, the common ground can be the fact that we both see this as a problem or an important issue.

Another key skill is asking questions of clarification and deepening the conversation in a way that draws out the other person. Someone might have very strong feelings about gun control; perhaps they’re on the right politically and they really believe in the second amendment. You can ask, “I’m curious about how you came to your strong feelings on this?” When it comes time to tell your side, start with your own story. Talk about how you came to the views you have, instead of just positioning bullet points.

What do you see when you look toward the future of American democracy?

I think that our democracy is threatened right now, and the threat is going to continue past any current presidential administration. It’s about whether we can work together across differences for the common good. I no longer take the success of our democracy for granted.

What I’m committed to is working at the community level, now that Washington D.C. is so paralyzed. People [need] to come together – to not demonize each other but to respect differences and find common ground where we can solve problems together. That’s what democracy is about: people taking collective responsibility to solve problems and better their communities and their nation. That’s what is being threatened. It’s not just one politician, it’s about whether we can come together for the common good. The response to Better Angels project has been very strong, from both liberals and conservatives. I’m hopeful. But we cannot simply sit back and wring our hands about Washington D.C.

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