Four years ago, David Blankenhorn sensed a trend: Americans were retreating to their ideological corners and not listening to one another.
Their contempt for those with different opinions was growing. He found this dangerous, so he formed a group to get people to converse with each other.
If things were bad then, well, look at us now. The Trump presidency is over, but the gulf between Americans — especially inside families and between friends — is wider than ever.
“There are plenty of people who have — chapter and verse — a completely different way of understanding this,” Blankenhorn, 65, said in an interview. “So you just have to decide, ‘Are they crazy? Are they stupid? Have they taken evil pills? Have they been victimized by some magician?’”
“Or,” he said, “are they fellow citizens who pretty much are people of intelligence and goodwill, who for reasons that are of interest and of note are more and more experiencing reality in a different way from you? If that's true, what should you do about it?”
He answers that question simply: We need to be around these “crazy” people, talking to them, not just about them. That’s why he and two others founded Braver Angels, a group shaped by Blankenhorn’s own personal history.
For years he was an author and advocate for two-parent families, starting the Institute for American Values in 1987. He became “a convener of those with a scholarly interest in family dynamics,” as journalist Sasha Issenberg puts it in his forthcoming book, “The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage.” Blankenhorn, a self-described liberal Democrat, was at the forefront of a “marriage movement” that, Issenberg wrote, “inspired unusual coalition-building amid the fractious social politics of the 1990s.”
But by the early 2000s, Blankenhorn “was personally caught up in the gay marriage debate,” he told Yahoo News, and “ended up being a reasonably prominent spokesperson against gay marriage.” He was a witness in the 2010 court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, which ended with the reversal of Proposition 8, a California law that had banned same-sex marriage. Blankenhorn’s testimony in particular, on behalf of the lawyers arguing to uphold Proposition 8, was widely ridiculed.
“I was very, very familiar with what it meant for many, many hundreds of people every day, every hour of every day, to call me the worst possible names,” said Blankenhorn, who did not shy away from discussing this controversy. Then, two years later, he wrote a New York Times op-ed endorsing same-sex marriage, announcing he had changed his mind.
“So I then became very comfortable with what it is like to be furiously denounced by thousands of people I didn’t know for being a sellout, a Judas, the worst possible names,” he said. “It was a hard experience for me.”
His Institute for American Values grew low on funding. It was a “dark night of the soul” period, he recalled.
“Out of that came Braver Angels, because I realized in part from that experience that polarization is so deep, and it wasn't just on this issue,” he said. “My experience with gay marriage and particularly changing my mind on the issue was kind of a catapult” into his current work.
Braver Angels now has 70 chapters around the country, and has hosted more than 1,400 meetings, Blankenhorn said.
“It's built on the premise that we don’t try to change each other's minds about politics,” he said. “But we do try to change our thinking about each other through building relationships and through finding some common ground where it's there.”
The Braver Angels model is to have an equal number of reds and blues, conservatives and liberals, talk to each other. There are two basic formats for meetings: One is more about sharing and listening, the another is a form of highly structured debate that tries to forestall emotional back-and-forth in favor of dispassionate argument.
But how does that work in an age when many Americans refuse to believe anything in the mainstream media, and conspiracy theories have been normalized?
Blankenhorn said that in general “we go easy on this idea of correcting people’s facts,” and he acknowledged that for “a lot of people, it ain’t their cup of tea. You know what I mean? A lot of people just don't have any patience for that.”
"Why would you tolerate people who don't believe in democracy, or who believe in oppression of people of different race? … Why would you want to legitimate those views by engaging with them as though they were something that should be engaged with? Why would you want to do that?” he asked rhetorically. “Many, many, many Americans have that point of view.”
Blankenhorn’s retort is unflinching: “I think it's a destructive and unpatriotic point of view, and so we try to do something else.”
Those who have taken part in Braver Angels groups said that COVID-19 has made this work much more difficult. “The pandemic put a big damper on all of our activities,” said Kouhyar Mostashfi, a 47-year-old software engineer from Springborough, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton.
But Mostashfi, who joined the group in 2017 and is on its board of directors along with well-known authors Jonathan Haidt and Francis Fukuyama, thinks the cause is more vital than ever. “Every day that goes by with all this misinformation and conspiracy theories, I feel we have no choice but to reach out. If both sides won’t talk to each other, we've lost it,” he said.
Mostashfi, a liberal, helps facilitate a group along with a conservative named Greg Smith, an asphalt technician and former small-town sheriff who said he is now semiretired.
Smith, 61, remains a strong supporter of Trump. In an interview, he said he believed the COVID-19 pandemic had been a “plandemic” that was intentionally released by China, and said he watches Fox News less these days, instead turning to the Christian Broadcasting Network for his news.
“Had I not known [Greg] in the context of Braver Angels, I would not talk to him for five minutes in a million years because of all the stereotypes I had for him: a Bible thumper who just follows Trump whatever he says,” Mostashfi said.
Smith expressed a deep respect for Mostashfi. “I love that man. I would protect that man,” Smith said. “We have just grown to accept each other for who we are.”
Smith also said he has recently moderated his speech on social media because of a promise he made to Mostashfi to keep things civil. “I said Biden was an illegitimate president,” Smith said, describing a recent Facebook post. Mostashfi commented simply, “Nice!”
“So I took it off,” Smith said. “Kouhyar is much the better person I am when it comes to what exemplifies Braver Angels. Sometimes I get a little bit carried away.”
Smith said his own experience of multiple divorces has given him insight into where the country is at. “Our country is looking at a divorce,” he said. “I’ve learned that if both people don't want to save the marriage, it will not be saved.”
Mostashfi also used the analogy of a marriage. “It's very easy when two factions are having a political divorce for other forces to come and wreak havoc,” he said.
In other words, these dialogues are a way to inoculate Americans against manipulation by cynical politicians, cable TV hosts and talk radio personalities, who create caricatures of “the other side” to sell themselves to their audience as champions who will fight “the enemy.”
Without face-to-face encounters that include listening and the forging of relationships, those caricatures spread and grow stronger, Blankenhorn said.
“Living in a world of binaries where everything is either one way or the other is … the enemy of complexity,” he said.
Real-life relationships and encounters produce skepticism about engaging in reductionist stereotypes, and this doubt, Blankenhorn said, “produces intellectual humility.”
“It’s just salvation. It’s everything,” he said. “If you don’t have that, you’re just cooked.”
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