If you resonate with the conversation below and the aims of Braver Angels, consider signing their new letter: What We Will Do to Hold America Together.
Boise, ID. In a Brass Spittoon first, today we are joined by three angels—Braver Angels to be exact. Our time is marked by political polarization, but Braver Angels seeks to bring “red” and “blue” together in civil conversation. They do this not because purple is necessarily the perfect color but in the hope of fostering mutual understanding and communication even when mutual agreement is not possible.
The name of the organization results from a love of Lincoln and a copyright dispute. Braver Angels should not be confused with the Better Angels Society that helps to bring Ken Burns’ documentaries to your local PBS station. These angels are not funding films but facilitating cross-silo contact at a time when such is increasingly rare.
Guest moderator John Murdock is carrying the spittoon for his friend Matt Stewart this month as Dr. Stewart is busy mastering the complexities of managing a classroom during a pandemic. John is joined by David Lapp, a co-founder of Braver Angels; April Lawson, who heads up their debate program; and Harry Boyte of Augsburg College in Minneapolis who has been active in the With Malice Towards None initiative that focuses on what happens after 2020, no matter who the winner may be.
Murdock: David Lapp, please introduce us to Braver Angels. How did the organization get started and what is its mission? What societal trends pose the greatest barriers to accomplishing that mission?
Lapp: Braver Angels began in South Lebanon, Ohio, as a grassroots citizens’ organization of red and blue Americans three weeks after the 2016 election. Ten neighbors who had just voted for Donald Trump gathered for a weekend with 11 neighbors who had just voted for Hillary Clinton. The gathering included factory workers, a political organizer, a gunsmith, a psychologist, a retired R.N., a retired auto worker—you get the picture.
In that environment of extreme tension, we were participating in an experiment. Could we meaningfully talk with each other, standing firm upon our convictions and at the same time seeking to understand our neighbors who differ politically? Could we clarify differences, find common ground, and build relationships? The tears of joy (and relief!) that some of us cried at the end of that weekend, the solidarity that we experienced—this was our confirmation that we were on the right track.
It took off from there. An NPR host heard about our little Ohio gathering and invited us to her show. Listeners across the country began writing to us wondering how they could do something similar in their community. We eventually rented a bus and embarked on a weeks-long tour. Four years later, we are an organization of over 11,000 dues-paying members in all 50 states. An extraordinary team of volunteer citizens hold workshops and conduct debates that bring together reds, blues, and others. The strong conservative is just as welcome as the strong progressive as the committed centrist.
Our mission is to practice what we experienced that first weekend in Ohio—to depolarize our politics, to clarify differences, to build civic trust between left and right, to inspire the beloved community. The challenges are formidable—a sense that our opponents are not only misguided but evil people, widening class and racial divisions, a media-industrial complex that profits from division and extreme segmentation, and real differences in how we understand justice and the good life.
Murdock: April Lawson, you head up the debate program for Braver Angels. Can you give us an idea of the types of topics that Braver Angels tackles and how these issues are engaged? Also, how is COVID-19 affecting your work?
Lawson: Thanks so much John! It’s a pleasure to be here—I’ve loved Front Porch Republic since I first discovered it years ago. There are so few voices like yours out there! To answer your question, the Braver Angels Debate program believes there is no topic we can’t tackle with the right spirit. We are unique among the dominant debate forms in that we aim not at victory over the opponent but at a collective search for truth. Anyone in the room is invited to stand up (or raise their Zoom hand) and give a speech, and I love to watch those folks who think they’re just going to observe be moved to offer a heartfelt perspective. I constantly hear “I wasn’t planning to speak, but…”
People express their most fervently held beliefs, but they do so with a respect for the people they’re talking to. We have debated everything from immigration to abortion to whether the Trump administration has been good for Black Americans. Most of our October debates will focus on the election, and I have a feeling a Supreme Court debate will be coming soon too.
As for COVID-19, it has presented surprising opportunities. We now do several national debates weekly, and we have more demand than we can meet. Some debates have over 1000 participants. (All your readers would be welcome to join us!) There is clearly a desire to debate these issues passionately yet in a way that builds relationships rather than destroys them, and there is a hunger for a kind of healthy democratic discourse that can seem these days like a distant memory. All we do is provide the container.
Murdock: Harry Boyte, what is the With Malice Toward None initiative and how have you been involved? What would success look like following the 2020 election?
Boyte: The 2020 election could be a dark time. People on the losing side, whenever that becomes clear, will have emotions such as grief, rage, and despair. The temptation will be to attack people on the winning side. People on the winning side will feel vindicated. The temptation will be to act triumphantly. If the election outcome is uncertain for days or weeks, confusion will be exacerbated by efforts of foreign adversaries to inflame our divisions.
With Malice Toward None (WMTN) is Braver Angels’ effort to address this danger. Its goal is to humanize “the other side,” expressed in the pledge we promote: Regardless of how the election turns out, I will not hold hate, disdain, or ridicule for those who voted differently from me. I joined the organizing team of WMTN because I believe in this premise. It is a principle of nonviolence which I learned as a young man in the civil rights movement, hating the sin but loving the sinner.
I also got involved because I see this as not simply a question of human relationships or attitudes. WMTN has immense public implications for a diverse society, where we have to learn again how to work across differences to build a common way of life. In the movement, I learned that democracy is neither a spectator sport nor a consumer experience where we hire politicians to do the work, though it understood this way today in our consumerist, entertainment culture. Democracy is the work of “We the People.” Success means helping to revive this productive view of citizenship.
Murdock: Braver Angels seeks to maintain a red/blue balance in organizational leadership. As a conservative whose favorite hue is blue, I’ll use the moderator’s privilege to note a time when there was no “red” versus “blue” color line. I can remember flipping channels on election nights past and seeing the states changing colors because one network used red for the Democrats and another blue. Tim Russert, David Letterman, and Eric Erickson, however, seem to have cemented the “Red State” tag for the right (despite that color seeming to have a longer history with the left).
Now, to my question. I understand that on this panel we have one “blue,” one “red,” and one who has had a foot in each inkwell. Could you each tell us why you are the “color” you are and perhaps highlight something you have learned from those of the other shade?
Lawson: I am your “it’s complicated” person. I think I am best understood as a convert to conservatism. I identify as a Burkean conservative, but because this doesn’t fit naturally into the American political spectrum, how this shakes out can vary.
I was raised by two atheist, leftist economics professors in Kansas. Until I went to college, I heard very smart leftist arguments at home and, well, high school-level conservative arguments at school. So I was a liberal. I even founded Kansas’ first high school Young Democrats chapter.
The second week of my freshman year at Yale, I was looking for the Liberal Party debate society, but I got the room number wrong. Unaware of my mistake, I listened and was struck to the core by the patriotic ideals of the speech I walked in on. The next speech paraphrased Russell Kirk’s work with an argument about the “permanent things.” I had accidentally wandered into Yale’s Burkean conservative debating society, and found that they spoke the language of my heart.
I believe in local community, in the family, in God and in the permanent things. These days I identify strongly with conservatives like Ross Douthat, David Brooks (both of whom I worked for at the New York Times), Rod Dreher, Marco Rubio, and Wendell Berry. I did not vote for President Trump because I do not believe a man of his character should be entrusted with the dignity of the highest office in the land, but I’m not pleased with any of the other options, either.
Surprisingly, I have learned from “liberaltarians” who I consider my political opposite. They have helped me see the dark side of communal norms in contrast to an individual rights framework they favor. I still love and believe in communal social norms, but everything really is a balance.
Lapp: I was six years old when my parents left the Old Order Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Still, the deep conservatism of the Amish never left our family—devotion to God, a regard for the family united by mother and father, emphasis on hard work, a favoring of the small and local association over the big and far-away, an ethic of cooperation founded on personal responsibility, an instinctive skepticism of new things.
My parents joined a nondenominational church soon after leaving the Amish. My first distinctly political influence was Chuck Colson, whose book How Now Shall We Live, introduced me as a teenager to the idea that stewardship of God’s created order entails stewardship of our life together as citizens. Thus, when I set out to study Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at a conservative Christian college in New York City (The King’s College), I went as an Amish Evangelical. I eventually joined the Catholic Church after college—does that make me an Amish Evangelical Catholic?—a move that both deepened the conservative heritage I received and challenged my understanding of it.
For instance, St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body deepened my understanding about the theology of marriage. On the other hand, the conservative movement I grew up with didn’t say much about the right to a just wage, the right to form unions, or stewardship of creation. All those are teachings that I encountered in the Catholic Church and can now identify as common ground with many of my Democratic friends. And I admire that the Democratic Party advocates for these rights and goods. (Happily, I later learned that conservatism coheres with these realities as well.) In short, I am a conservative because I am one by birth—and I favor conservatism today because I am in favor of the wisdom I see it preserving.
Boyte: I’m red, white, and blue—what I call a “civic patriot”—with a responsibility for helping to “advance the general welfare” and “create a more perfect union.” Civic patriotism is far more important than choosing a partisan side, which for me always is a tactical decision. The point of elections is not to choose a great leader but to help create the context for the work of the people. Who is elected plays an important role in creating the context. I learned this in the citizenship schools sponsored by King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They taught literacy, nonviolence, black history, community organizing and a patriotism urgently needed today. “We love this great land,” reads the Citizenship School Workbook we used, one of my prize possessions. “Day by day,” it continues, “we silently pour the concrete of love into the furious, violent ocean of hate. Someday that concrete will build a bridge to span the channel and open lines of communication to all peoples.”
Murdock: In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman highlighted that at the time of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, the American voter was remarkably well read and attuned to rational and nuanced argument. (That is true even if the franchise was then unjustly limited. And, of course, high-level literacy did not prevent the Civil War.) Today, decades after Postman’s mid-1980s lament that TV-focused voters had greatly regressed from the nineteenth century citizenry, things only seem worse as tweets and sound-bites appeal primarily to emotion over reason. April, do you believe that the average American is currently capable of effectively engaging the duties of democracy? What from your experience gives you hope or causes you to hang your head?
Lawson: Absolutely. Absolutely they are. If you’ll forgive my saying so—and I don’t mean this in any way to comment on you—but only people who mostly spend their time around well-read folks can hold that misconception. Many of the smartest speeches I hear are from people who are not well-read and would never be invited to speak on a stage with “standards.” I grew up with this assumption because my parents are from working-class families, but I believe it even more strongly now. It’s impossible not to see it in my job.
I’m convinced that what people offer is a function of the modalities they’re given. If you give them 140 characters and a system that rewards outrage, you get terse, vitriolic gut-punches. If you give them a format that brings out— forgive me—their better angels, they almost never fail to rise to the occasion.
Here’s an example. Two weeks ago we had a debate on whether President Trump has improved the lives of the working class, and therefore whether he should be re-elected. Among the many speeches we heard, two of the best were from a steelworker in the affirmative (arguing that improvement had come under Trump) and a bricklayer in the negative. The bricklayer, who lives in Texas, explained that he’s been competing with undocumented immigrants for work for thirty years. For three decades they’ve charged half what he would for a job, and it’s seriously affected his ability to earn a living. For years, he said, he resented them, but eventually he came to see that if he were in their shoes, he’d do the same thing. Now he bears no ill will toward them. But he does bear ill will toward the government, because in his experience no administration actually delivers on its promises to help him. This speech was so grounded in lived truth that it changed the entire debate.
Murdock: No offense taken, April. Growing up in a small town as the son of a paper mill mechanic and a public school teacher, I know there is plenty of wisdom in fly-over country. And I believe Postman would agree that the medium matters.
Harry Boyte, since your days in the 1960s civil rights movement, you have long advocated for what you term “civic populism.” At least rhetorically, “populism” seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence under President Trump. How does the populism of today compare to your vision?
Boyte: In journalistic and academic treatment today, “populism” is a rhetorical posture of “the people” against elites, variously defined. Civic populism is different, a politics which builds the civic muscle of the people through public work.
My wife and I recently took a trip through the Dakotas and we were struck by the profound public work heritage. It was embodied in the “Little Country Theater movement.” That was launched in North Dakota by an extension agent, Alfred Arvold in 1914, based on his conviction that cooperative extension should cultivate cultural, political, and civic capacities. It created local theaters across the Midwest, encouraging rural people to write, produce, and perform in their communities to “find themselves.” “There are literally millions of people in country communities today,” Arvold wrote, “whose abilities along various lines have been hidden simply because they have never had an opportunity to give expression to their talents.”
In South Dakota, we saw civic populism in the immense legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. More than 30,000 poor young men, including more than 4,000 native people in camps run by Indian tribes (and a few women in camps women controlled), built a national treasure of parks and national monuments. They planted millions of trees, built dams and roads, and addressed soil erosion.
We also saw a ramshackle monument to civic populism in the abandoned Humphrey drug store in the little town of Doland. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey’s father (HHH the first) created a vibrant civic center through the drug store from 1915 to 1931. He was one of five Democrats in a town of 600 Republicans. They elected him mayor at one point, but he saw his work in building the civic culture through the store as far more important.
Murdock: David Lapp, elsewhere you have described Braver Angels as not wanting to be seen as a “centrist” organization. By that, I take you to mean that the goal is not to paper over deep differences in order to settle for a “mushy middle.” Yet, deep differences can be very deep. For example, a vocal slice of the population sees things such as abortion rights and the ability to determine even one’s own gender as vital to a vision of individual autonomy that is a central principle of their existence. Another slice views respect for unborn life and biology-based sexuality as cultural foundations set by an unchanging God. There is a great chasm between those very different slabs of bedrock. Also, race-related questions are again squarely at the center of the nation’s attention in a way not seen since the height of the civil rights movement. Is any connecting pathway possible between these various clashing camps or—a bit like slavery and states’ rights in Lincoln’s day—must a culture war be fought until a winner emerges?
Lapp: I am one of those Americans who sees the approximately 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade as the mass slaughter of innocent human life. From my vantage point, this is evil on a massive scale; I cannot in good conscience turn a blind eye to it or pretend that it’s a secondary issue.
I acknowledge my pro-life friends who say that they must do everything within their power to correct this injustice, and therefore (in their view) this means no time for conversation or depolarization with pro-choice people. We are in a war for lives, they say, and we have to fight, not fraternize with people who support abortion. I respectfully and strongly disagree. Why? Because war must always be a last resort, not the modus operandi. This is true for real wars—and for culture wars.
I have a moral obligation to use the peaceful means available to me through democratic deliberation, to persuade my fellow citizens who disagree, to seek all the ways in which we can reduce abortion even while abortion is legal—including those areas of common ground with pro-choice people. For instance, I’m reminded about an astonishing Braver Angels workshop on abortion in Oregon, in which a couple dozen pro-choice and pro-life neighbors found points of common ground around abortion.
Moreover, we cannot allow the habits of war to destroy our bonds as neighbors and citizens. As a Christian, I’m reminded that the Scriptures call me to love my enemies, to overcome evil with good, and “[i]f possible, on your part, to live at peace with all.” As an American citizen, I’m reminded of the good of civic friendship and the blessings of pluralism. We are not captives to war; we are free to pursue principled and convictional discourse.
Finally, I approach this tension—the tension between advocating for justice and fraternizing with fellow citizens who advocate for what I regard as injustice—mainly from the perspective of a committed pro-life viewpoint. Or, at least that’s where I feel the tension the strongest. But conservative pro-lifers aren’t the only ones who experience this tension. Many of my blue-leaning friends may feel a strong tension between, for instance, combating racism and depolarization, or between addressing climate change and depolarization, or between stopping President Trump and depolarization. I propose to them what I say to my pro-life friends: we can both work for justice and truth and build the civic bonds that enrich our life together.
Murdock: Finally, let me ask you all about the role of localism. The red/blue paradigm promotes the idea that there are two, and only two, national tribes. Of course, that need not necessarily be so, and proponents of localism and subsidiarity would argue that many things are improved when that dichotomy is discarded or weakened. We even hear voices on the left lauding these principles that have often been associated with the right. However, we should also recall that on at least two major questions—the permanence of the union and (eventually) the personhood of the slave—Lincoln embraced a nationalistic vision. What role, if any, could localism play in addressing our present political situation?
Lawson: Oh wow. Great question. In my view, localism has a profound role to play. I believe that the core problem in America today is the disintegration of the social fabric. This is part of why I co-founded David Brooks’ program at the Aspen Institute, Weave: The Social Fabric Project. If we could solve that, if we could reinvigorate American community and enable it to reach the people it needs to, it would be absolutely transformative. Many of our other problems are rooted in the breakdown of community, and political polarization is no exception. Without local organizations and habits of gathering that bring you into contact with people who are politically different from you, it is dramatically easier to develop a false image of who “those people” are. In a way, the answer to division is knowing each other deeply. And not just through intimate conversation, but through the intimacy that accumulates over lots of small, mundane interactions that help you feel like you are not walking alone through this world.
One of the reasons I believe in Braver Angels is that our work is grassroots in its very heart. We have volunteers in all 50 states, 63 local alliances, and I just have to tell you, you should come volunteer with us because we are blessed with the best people in the world. Down-to-earth, wise, simply good people. Those people are the reason I think we have half a chance at really, truly, changing our society.
Boyte: Like the Catholic activist French philosopher Simone Weil, I believe in “the need for roots.” We the people build strength and develop responsibility through locally rooted settings like family, workplaces, congregations, and voluntary associations. I add to Edmund Burke’s emphasis on the “little platoons” of daily life with the concept of free spaces. This is an idea that I experienced and named, with Sara Evans, in a book by that title. It first grew out of our involvement in the civil rights movement. Free spaces in the movement were locally grounded settings like beauty parlors, barber shops, and churches where people had space for a free intellectual life and development of civic muscle. They learned to work with public impact, building the commonwealth.
Looking at the broader sweep of democratic movements, we found free spaces in conservative, locally-rooted women’s organizations of moral reform in the 19th century like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose slogan was “Do Everything!” Women were inspired to create libraries, clinics, child welfare projects, and a myriad of other public goods. Humphrey’s drug store was also an example in Midwestern civic populism. People lament the disappearance of such spaces in today’s world of technocratic experts and commercial chain stores. But these are trends that can be turned around through intentional organizing. The revival and spread of free spaces is key to shifting consumer democracy to producer democracy. Braver Angels can play an important role in the larger movement which is needed.
Lapp: As a descendant of the Old Order Amish, I’ve experienced the blessings of localism and pluralism rightly understood. My people, beginning very small in number and clustering in specific communities, have had the opportunity to practice their peculiar traditions and to maintain their radical separation from “the world.” Indeed, the Amish and their very local practices are not only tolerated but honored and admired by the wide culture.
In 2020, Americans more or less take this for granted about the Amish. But as recently as 1971, when the Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin v. Yoder that the First Amendment prohibited Wisconsin from requiring Amish children to attend public schools, this was not always apparent. Going even further back, the story is told in a famous genealogy book that most Old Order Amish from my native Lancaster County have in their homes (“the Fisher Book”) that during the Revolutionary War my ancestors were imprisoned and threatened with death on account of their pacifism, but ultimately spared and released to honor their religious freedom. It has been a struggle at times, but ultimately, the story of the Old Order Amish in America is the story of a tiny band of people thriving amidst a country keen to accommodate their distinctive practices.
Of course, this accommodation is helped by the fact that the Amish are emblems of decency and goodness. But I’d like to think that therein is a parable for the possibility of what America is and can be at our very best: a country in which our local differences and traditions do not only divide us, but also complement and enrich us as a people. Yes, it is true, we have stark differences as Americans that we should not romanticize or pretend can simply be harmonized. At the same time, our red/blue conflicts might lessen if we attended to the small and near-at-hand, rather than obsessing about, and ultimately losing ourselves in, what is big and far away.
Murdock: Thank you all for a spirited discussion. If you want to learn more, visit braverangels.org.