David Blankenhorn, the co-founder of Better Angels, a non-profit that promotes Republican and Democratic cooperation, addressed BYU students and faculty on the nation’s need for political depolarization.
Republicans and Democrats are working together less frequently and displaying less tolerance for each other than any other time in American history, according to a Michigan State University study.
Differences in opinions on important issues about government, race, immigration, national security and environmental protection have widened drastically over the past two decades, according to the Pew Research Center.
Blankenhorn said Better Angels aims to decrease this polarization. It gathers reds and blues — terminology for Republicans and Democrats — to help them get to know each other, find common ground and discuss political opinions in a non-threatening environment.
The non-profit hosts in-person red-blue workshops, skills training and Better Angels debates.
While the eventual goal is to impact policy making, Blankenhorn said he believes the process begins with individuals.
“We work on ourselves first before we start thinking about social institutions,” Blankenhorn said. “First we work on ourselves — citizens to citizens. We try to discover one another and feel less resentful and angry.”
Blankenhorn said facilitating this type of interaction effectively requires certain policies and procedures. One of the most important of these is not trying to change anyone’s political views.
“It’s about saying what you believe as honestly and as clearly as you can and listening to other people do the same,” Blankenhorn said. “It’s not a debate.”
Another essential part of the organization is what it has dubbed the fifty-fifty rule, which states every part of the effort should be 50 percent red and 50 percent blue. Everything from funding, the board of directors, staff, program leaders and program participants must have equal Republican and Democratic representation.
“On our board of directors we have people who think that homosexual conduct is a sin and we have people who are married to someone of the same sex,” Blankenhorn said. “We have people who think that Donald Trump is a great American, we have people who think that Donald Trump is an existential threat to everything America stands for.”
According to Blankenhorn, equal representation is the only way to build a foundation of trust on both sides; he said the fifty-fifty rule was the most important decision Better Angels ever made.
Better Angels currently reaches thousands of people each year, but it hopes to change those thousands into millions. Consequently, it’s experimenting with digital workshops and online training which may be available in the future.
Blankenhorn personalized his address by expressing his admiration for the BYU aims. Blankenhorn said the values of intellectual enlargement, strong character, spiritual strength, and lifelong learning and service are all necessary to decrease polarization.
“The challenge of depolarization is ultimately, I think, a moral and spiritual challenge,” Blankenhorn said. “To me, the essence of civility is not just appropriate manners for the occasion, but an inner desire to do good to one’s opponents.”
Blankenhorn advised the audience to acknowledge the enormity of the problem but expressed confidence in the nation’s “strong roots” and desire for change.
“I don’t want to be Pollyannish about this, but I’m actually very hopeful,” Blankenhorn said. “I spend a lot of time now traveling around meeting people and there are an awful lot of good people out there. I believe that we, the people who want to do this, are going to change the country. I really do.”