If you are an American with any reason to follow local news, chances are you’ve heard of us—Better Angels has been covered by scores of local and regional newspapers, not to mention occasional features in national titans like The Federalist, USAToday, and the New York Times. The stories almost always read the same way: America is divided over politics; the divide is personal and acrimonious; this group is trying to bridge that divide through political family therapy, one workshop at a time. Can they succeed? Pretty much everyone, with very few exceptions, likes what we’re doing in principle, even if they think we’re a longshot cause in practice.
With such universally benign and supportive coverage, one could easily assume Better Angels is a relatively milquetoast, bipartisan, moderate, squishy, don’t-hurt-anybody’s-feelings, just-grassroots-enough-to-look-real civic org perfectly calibrated not to offend anyone, unable to stand on any deeper principle, unwilling to hold a higher vision than the kindergarten version of the golden rule, and incapable of being coherently threatening enough to do anything of significance in the grubby, amoral world of American politics.
But that assumption could not be more wrong.
It’s more accurate to see Better Angels as being like a radical, covenantal, communitarian cult, one demanding moral excellence of its members, envisioning clear social and moral change in accord with its transcendent ideals, and possessing a clear mechanism for political change and influence that, in these tumultuous political times, threatens to spread like wildfire should the circumstances align. For we at Better Angels have a vision for America, a vision we’d like to share with all Americans. This essay is one Better Angels activist’s interpretation of that vision.
The History and Mission of Better Angels
There’s a long tradition in America, of benign, well-off, reform-minded citizens organizing together in what are now called “civil society” organizations. Not political advocacies, neither business-oriented firms, nor merely socializing clubs, and different in focus from religious congregations, these civil society groups and self-improvement societies have been ubiquitous across the American scene since the early 19th Century at least. These have included but are not limited to: temperance societies, manumission associations, women’s education clubs, missionary support funds, volunteer nurse corps; halfway houses and immigrant-education societies, business philanthropy roundtables like Rotary and Kiwanis, clubs like the Lions and Elks, organizations for the promotion of good youth citizenship like Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting; local historical societies and nonpartisan voter-registration drives, promoters of spiritual health like YMCA and Alcoholics Anonymous, and all the postwar analogues to these pragmatic utopian reformers of the American public sphere.
Better Angels is more a part of this Puritan-Whig-Progressive tradition than of any modern tradition of bipartisan political advocacy. Indeed, various leaders and board members of Better Angels were neo-communitarian political writers and advocates during the communitarian mini-revival of the 1990s, including David Blankenhorn, Jonathan Rauch, and Bill Galston.
Go to any Better Angels workshop, and you’ll see a little Tocquevillian scene all the way down to the details: 15 or 20 casually-dressed men and women meeting in a library or church, the kinds of people who don’t participate often in politics but are members of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, American Legion post, or Rotary Club chapter. The organizers probably pitched in at their own expense to provide sodas and cookies. There’s a slightly-excessive formality in the chairing of the meeting. We’ve all seen this scene before, somewhere; it’s vaguely reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Except in Better Angels, it’s made real.
The other side of Better Angels’s social origins is psychotherapy, specifically group therapy and marriage counseling as it’s evolved in late-20th Century American practice. Bill Doherty, one of our co-founders and the chief designer of most of our programs, is an established family therapist whose influence distinguishes Better Angels from other civil-discourse-focused organizations.
Observe, again, this little Better Angels workshop with the 15 or 20 casually-dressed men and women in a neighborhood somewhere in America, and you’ll see the hallmarks of family therapy, applied to politics. The moderator reads from a sheet, and asks probing questions; the participants answer, awkwardly at first, and with growing conviction as the minutes elapse. Facts exist, but they’re not the point (and attempting to get to agreement on facts is usually detrimental to the group’s broader purpose.) Feelings matter, but no one gets a free pass to feel their own feelings unexamined, while disregarding those of others. Relationships are key, and to get to good relationships you need to value a personal connection over any set of principles that might tell you that a politically-heterogeneous relationship is not worth keeping. From this connective pluralism of emotive souls—brought forth not organically or naturally, but deliberately, through the disciplined and organized structures of group therapy—comes that wonderful phenomenon, affective depolarization, which Better Angels strives to bring people towards, no matter their political background.
All this started up in the late fall and early winter of 2016. In the strange post-election haze of November 2016, David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty, and some of Blankenhorn’s colleagues at the Institute for American Values put their heads together, and brainstormed a two-day workshop between Trump voters and Clinton voters. Somehow, the great musical activist Peter Yarrow got involved. They picked Waynesville, Ohio, as the location—in postindustrial Warren County, it was in a reliably Republican-leaning district with a large Democratic-leaning electoral minority, and suitably politically divided. Recruiting a half-dozen or so reds and blues apiece in the area, they hosted the workshop, found that the family-therapy model could work for healing interpersonal political divides, and made some new contacts on the ground (including the red, former-cop, Trump-voting Christian Greg Smith and the blue, Iranian-immigrant, Clinton-voting Muslim Kouhyar Mostashfi, whose friendship, originating in that first workshop in the polarized ashes of 2016, is one of the most moving aspects of the Better Angels Documentary.)
Armed with proof of concept, Blankenhorn, Doherty, and their motley band of activists and organizers took the idea and ran with it. They streamlined the workshop and scheduled such workshops all over the country. They recruited local organizers, and soon state chapters and alliances started cropping up from coast to coast. They rented a charter bus and embarked on a tour of the Midwest and Upper South in 2017, organizing events and holding workshops in counties that went for Trump and counties that went for Clinton. Soon a board was recruited, a volunteer leadership team was established, administrative staffers were hired, policies were decided upon, and strategic plans were adopted. By 2018 Better Angels held its inaugural national convention at Eastern Mennonite University in the Shenandoah Valley, and the cells throughout its vast, decentralized activist network were running dozens of events monthly, in localities around America.
Structurally, Better Angels consists of over 8,000 dues-paying members, some at-large, others scattered around dozens of local alliances around the country. A Better Angels Alliance is a small group, usually numbering in the dozens, of Better Angels members in a particular locality, who organize workshops, debates, and socials, and work to bring our programming to their local community. All the Alliances in a particular state are served by Better Angels State Coordinators, who provide logistical support. Some of the most active volunteers serve in the various committees of the national leadership team, and work alongside a few logistical staff in our headquarters office in New York to coordinate national efforts on a week-by-week and month-by-month basis. Official policy, though, is determined by consensus vote of all delegates to our annual national conventions, who are always dues-paying members evenly divided between red and blue. An American Declaration, the 2018 Principles and Program, and the 2019 Platform are examples of the guidance this grassroots sovereignty produces.
Our broad vision for growth and influence has remained remarkably stable since our inception, as well. It is well-known that there are a few key groups in contemporary American politics, representing minority opinions and interests in the public sphere, but possessing activated mass memberships, and incredibly sophisticated messaging, fundraising, legal, and organizing capabilities, such that they punch well above their weight in shifting the national political conversation on particular issues and influencing national political culture. Some of the most famously influential of these groups include the National Rifle Association, on the right, and the Sierra Club, on the left. In a more grassroots-messaging sense, there’ve been popular and decentralized groups that spread like wildfire in relatively short periods, dramatically influencing the messaging calculations of either political party—think the Tea Party on the right between 2010 and 2015, or BlackLivesMatter on the left from about 2014 to the present.
At some level, Better Angels wants to do what these groups have done—influence the decision-making calculus of important stakeholders and the ideas-environment of millions of Americans, through bottom-up activism—but to do it for the causes of national reconciliation, social solidarity, and affective depolarization.
This is, of course, no easy task, nor a straightforward one. As Andrew Ferguson opines at the end of his supremely generous Atlantic essay on us, “the world—for better or worse—isn’t a workshop.” In the real world, people practice polarization, because polarization works. The NRA, the Sierra Club, the Tea Party, and BlackLivesMatter all have the strategic advantage of being organized around ideas that people, you know, actually feel strongly about. They polarize opinion and feeling in their fellow Americans, sure, but that’s exactly why they’re so successful—they hit people where they live. The rights of Americans, social justice for the disadvantaged, the apocalyptic nature of environmental problems, American national identity itself—these are things that get people fired up. “Depolarization” as a cause is exactly as inspiring, on the face of it, as “moderation,” “compromise,” “bipartisanship,” “prudence,” “reform,” and that most politically platitudinous of all political platitudes, “unity.” Depolarization just has a few extra syllables.
So how do you get people excited about political family therapy? How do you get 1.5 million individual Americans (our internal estimate of the membership tipping-point required to get our message and work to NRA/BLM status) to go to a Red/Blue workshop, sign up to join a local alliance, pay our $12 annual membership dues, and pledge to strive to understand and appreciate their political opponents in person, in public, and on social media, at all times and without exception? How do we scale up 200 times our present size, in time for the polarizing partisan pugilism of the 2020 presidential election?
It’s a worthwhile question, and we’re still working it out ourselves. Media scaling and strategy, deeper partnerships with similarly-oriented national organizations and local communities, and oodles of donation and foundation money couldn’t hurt.
But why our model? Why not someone else’s? Why is Better Angels a unique, effective, and potentially transformative social movement for America’s challenges at the dawn of the 2020s?
Why Better Angels Does What it Does
A variety of bipartisan, centrist, and reformist groups have been set up in the last decade, all with some claim to being post-partisan and grassroots-based. Some of them are oriented specifically towards civility and respectful dialogue—Listen First, the National Conversation Project, AllSides, and the National Institute on Civil Discourse, among others. Others are geared towards promoting bipartisanship and policy-based problem-solving at an institutional level—the Bipartisan Policy Center and No Labels have been doing this for quite some time. Still others have a communitarian, social solidarity ethos—the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project and Eric Liu’s Citizens University are examples of this, and there are some explicitly conservative organizations like Pepperdine’s American Project on the Future of Conservatism, and the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project, working on solidarity policy ideas on the right. Then there are moderate partisan groups, working towards building centrist wings in the two major parties, and good-government reformist associations like FairVote, Represent.US, and other notable Bridge Alliance organizations.
All of these groups, it could be argued, are in some way addressing the political dysfunctions and divisions that define our era. Some of them are absolutely integral to that work, and some of them are more or less aligned with Better Angels’s mission in key, specialized areas. But we are sometimes asked why we don’t simply merge with one of them, or explicitly endorse the platforms and programs of others. The reason for that is, in a nutshell, we see the ways of Better Angels as being preferable to those of our fellow-travelers in this space, in terms of addressing the particular problems we try to address. Below are some principled responses to the common, and thoughtful, critiques of our model:
You focus a lot on civil discourse and intellectual humility, which is nice, but doesn’t actually get anything done. Why not focus on a particular issue that would meaningfully change policy in a way that restores popular sovereignty? Winning on an issue like money in politics, fair and equal representation and voting rights, free speech, social justice, or something that can be fought for, with achievable results, would do more for depolarization than workshops.
We at Better Angels generally view civil discourse, intellectual humility, and the relationships that are preserved or formed through them, as social goods in themselves. Civil discourse, intellectual humility, and cross-cutting relationships across political, social, and cultural divides, are marks of a society capable of addressing its own flaws without fundamentally undermining itself. We want to be the kinds of citizens who can cultivate and demonstrate these virtues in our own lives, for their own sake and for the sake of our fellow Americans. To the degree that we are a civil society organization rather than an expressly political organization, we see the ability to have these kinds of healthy relationships, to engage in productive discussions, to question and thus better understand one’s own views, despite the political issues at stake, as some of the foundational, pre-political values undergirding our American civic order.
This is not to say that issues—and there are so many fundamental issues at stake in the present day—don’t matter much. They do, and the political decisions and compromises made in our own time will be important for determining the political order of the rest of the century. But with the habits and virtues of intellectual humility, civil discourse, and cross-cutting relationships as our lodestars, it becomes clear to us that on so, so many different issues, there are fundamental values and ideas upon which reasonable, mutually admiring people can and often do disagree. We don’t, as an organization, endorse candidates for office or take stands on particular policies, because we don’t see any particular policies or political projects as being integral to our work.
In the future, our work may well involve us working more closely with public figures, elected officials, and media influencers on various things, especially should we scale. But even in this sort of situation, our emphasis on direct political polarization will not falter. We’d be interested in helping public figures contribute responsibly to an environment where their words and actions do not turn Americans viciously upon one another; in helping media figures to cover controversial, passion-laden issues and stories in ways that inform the public and elevate the discourse instead of coarsening and dividing it; in helping elected officials to practice regular order and long-term governance for the common good, incorporating all sectors of society, rather than resorting to polarizing tactics for their very survival; and in reforming all our institutions such that the imperative of depolarization always rewards people, rather than the easier imperative of polarization.
Again—this may involve various good-government reforms, or it may not. But it certainly would involve, as it does now, the continual inculcation of the habits and virtues of intellectual humility, civil discourse, and relationship-building that form the core of Better Angels’s ways.
A lot of people don’t fit into the Red/Blue categorization. Why not give up partisan identities altogether, and encourage people to be Independents and think for themselves? Or at least allow a centrist middle ground—moderate, or purple, perhaps?
In the spirit of red-blue admissions, let me lay down my own cards. I am conservative—perhaps a somewhat heterodox conservative, but definitely a conservative nonetheless. In our parlance, I am a red.
Better Angels has a hard-and-fast rule that we divide our leadership, at all levels, in roughly even parity between reds and blues. We also generally require new members to join as a red or as a blue—not so much to keep track of people, but to observe the balance of bipartisan identifications in the organization more broadly, and to ensure we don’t begin to lean too much one way or the other, lest we become part of the polarization problem. We strive as much as possible to preclude moral and intellectual pigeon-holing with our practice of red-blue identification, but at some level, practicality and honesty requires some form of sorting.
We do encourage people to think for themselves. We do want people to attain and practice a certain independence of mind and action that will make them better citizens and better neighbors. And when done properly, there are various ways that Better Angels’s programming—most especially the Better Angels Debate program—brings out people’s ability to show true independence of mind and appreciation of nuance beyond the red-blue split.
But we see it as more productive for people to admit their biases upfront, and move towards transcending them, than to allow them to enter under the mistaken impression that they have no biases at all, and slowly reveal themselves to be quite biased, as we all inevitably are. So here are some defenses of the red-blue identification requirement.
First, we don’t strictly define either “red” or “blue.” It is commonly understood that reds tend to be Republicans or conservatives and blues tend to be Democrats or progressives—but there are plenty of exceptions. There are also no particular policies, identities, slogans, or other shibboleths universal to the red or blue side. Identifying as red or blue, then, is as much a matter of subjective self-interpretation as anything; it can mean any number of things to any number of people, but for various reasons, it is clear that vague and nebulous red and blue cultural-political forces do, in fact, exist in America, and influence most Americans.
Second, as innumerable honest pollsters and pundits have resignedly admitted, the vast majority of Americans fit either as red or as blue, including the vast majority of those who consider themselves to be independent. Simply ask a series of questions about how someone reacts to various political or cultural statements, and their lean will become evident soon enough. Some people tend to be very liberal on some policy issues and very conservative on some cultural issues, and vice-versa; others will appear to be true centrists, splitting the difference on many things. But someone’s general outlook, and affiliation, is usually either red or blue, regardless of how heterodox and interesting it might be.
Third, having a political leaning is not a bad thing at all. We live in a pluralistic political society; having a lean is only natural. We have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to be affiliated with a side—usually, I’ve found, it’s because we don’t want to be affiliated with the worst parts of that side. It is merely descriptive, and helps other people, and us ourselves, realize where we are broadly coming from. And realizing where we are coming from, and where others are coming from, is one of the first steps of the depolarization process.
Fourth, realizing one’s own subjectivity, and the contingency of one’s own basic beliefs, deepest values, and strongest convictions, is crucial for having empathy towards others with equally subjective, equally deeply-held beliefs, convictions, and values. The realization of one’s own subjectivity, and the subjectivity of others, can melt self-righteousness into curiosity, and turn a sense of arrogant moral superiority into an appreciation of humble moral equality. And these, it need not be explained, are some of the building blocks of the relation-building civic friendship that Better Angels strives to promote.
Part of the problem is fake news and misinformation. Why not figure out, first, what is objective and real, and require everyone to agree on that, so we can have certain facts with which we can build agreement later?
Generally, in the fractious world of relationships, facts and realities are secondary to feelings and impressions. To reverse a famous trope of Ben Shapiro’s: “feelings don’t care about your facts.” And given that Better Angels’s mission is not to instruct people in what is real and what is not real, but to help people who disagree on numerous things—including political realities, narratives, and facts—to maintain relationships with each other, we do not make a point of having workshop participants “agree on the facts” before any event.
This is not to say that facts don’t matter—they do, they most certainly do. Factual delusion is as bad as affective polarization, in politics. But “the facts themselves” do not, it seems, exist independently in personal or political discourse. They exist nestled among narratives, heuristics, understandings, and values—not created by narratives, but interpretable only in the context of the constantly-shifting narratives and heuristics and understandings and values we human beings already have in our heads. The diversity of such understandings between different human beings, especially in a pluralistic and diverse society such as our own, typically results in the reality that the same facts will be interpreted differently by people with different backgrounds and understandings. Facts, delivered in the context of understanding and empathy, can enlighten; the same facts, delivered in the context of scorn and derision, are bludgeons that only enrage.
The problem is not that some people have fact-based opinions and others do not; the problem is that different kinds of backgrounds can lead to different valuations of the same facts, and different conclusions drawn from them. This creates room for fundamental disagreement, and anything that creates room for fundamental disagreement at a social scale leaves the door open for polarization. So in our work, knowing that we can’t change minds directly, and that the effort to change minds directly—to “educate” people, as blues sometimes say, or to “tell it like it is,” as reds sometimes say— often backfires and results in further polarization, we don’t try to change minds by recourse to objective facts. If anything, it seems people are more likely to change their minds and agree on facts once the conditions of mutual trust and empathy have been put in place, rather than the other way around.
We also don’t try to stack our workshops in ways that privilege particular narratives and understandings of the facts over the others. For example, in Better Angels Debates, we don’t typically send out pre-readings, nor do we have a session at the beginning where numerical, relational, or other facts are announced or agreed upon. Debate participants instead are encouraged to speak their minds, admitting when they are unsure of things, and are allowed to ask questions of clarification to the chair, who serves a minimal reference purpose. The alternating currents of doubt and conviction, opinion and insight, so characteristic of speeches in Better Angels Debates, bring out not objectivity but understanding; not cold hard fact but the communal search for truth. In understanding each other’s views, people begin to understand the deep moral stakes and ethical complications and trade-offs of the issues, and the complexity of their own thoughts and feelings towards them. It’s not a fact, but it’s a valuable thing for, perhaps, less-than-quantifiable reasons.
Aren’t people allowed to be angry? Aren’t people allowed to have righteous anger at injustice, and contempt at their oppressors and those who don’t care about them? Isn’t that kind of anger what pushes forth so many social movements and political changes that we all enjoy today?
This critique comes from both left and right, and very consistently. While the emotion we most stridently work to counteract is disgust, the emotion which most frequently challenges our work is anger. And why not? Why shouldn’t a blue, who happens to be Jewish, be outraged at reds in the aftermath of a murderous synagogue shooting by a right-wing white supremacist, especially if reds don’t condemn the violent radicals on their own side with sufficient vigor? Why shouldn’t a red, who happens to be a former cop, be outraged at blues in the aftermath of the murder of police officers by a leftist radical, especially if blues condemn the violence while making implicit justifications for the feeling of resentment about police? Why not, indeed?
For my money, Ezra Klein’s argument against depolarization in his interview with our spokesman Ciaran O’Connor—that righteous anger is a natural response to injustice, and moreover that righteous anger moves people enough to get things done while civil discourse can entrench injustices—is the most interesting and powerful argument against the work of Better Angels.
But what is the alternative? Let’s grant that the oppressed and downtrodden have a right to be angry, and further that that anger can be mobilized into practical political power capable of righting great wrongs. Suppose the angry liberal and the angry conservative, moreover, are tactically correct—that they are right to think that the stoking of popular righteous anger can help them to accomplish their political goals.
But then what? When you’ve owned the left and beat the liberals and elected conservatives and have all the tools of the public weal at your disposal, ready to build this real American conservative consensus, what do you do with the defeated liberals? Reeducate them, take away their voting rights? And when you’ve buried the right and beat the conservatives and elected liberals and have the apparatus of the American government and society at your fingertips, ready to build this new progressive American order, what do you do with the defeated conservatives? Wait for them to die off? Or do the scales fall from their eyes, and they awake reborn to the clear and obvious mandates of justice you have brought forth? What exactly do you do to your foes once you’ve beat them?
There are three possibilities, it seems, for how people can relate to each other in a diverse and pluralistic political space, where every political constituency sees itself as ultimately legitimate. People can engage in perpetual conflict, holding out for that final victory which will vindicate their ideology and remove all challengers. People can work to manage their political conflicts, playing give-and-take strategically and existing in a cold balance of power with their rivals. Or, people can work to transcend their political conflicts, finding shifting common grounds as trends develop and issues change, ultimately moving in general harmony rather than general disunion. The natural habit for a society is to be always somewhere between engaging in and managing conflict; the habits Better Angels seeks to promote would bring our society to being somewhere between managing and transcending our conflicts at most times.
The techniques of discourse and relationship-building which Better Angels seeks to inculcate in its members and participants are the school of citizenship for a pluralistic democracy. Though they may not be useful for offensive political action, they are certainly indispensable to the representative art of coalition-building and consensus-building, and the electoral art of persuasion. They demonstrate how free citizens in a decentralized republic can act to live with each other and participate in political decision-making, while preserving their relationships with each other. Better Angels Alliances and the workshops they host are great little spots where the formation of cross-cutting relationships, the articulation of communal consensuses, the indispensable work of empathy and persuasion—the arts of free government—can be practiced, all despite our centralized, nationalized, and polarized political media environment that provides citizens far too few opportunities to practice these Tocquevillian skills.
If we are not to destroy each other, we must understand how to live with each other. David Blankenhorn, riffing off of Thomas Paine, once said that in a democracy, every citizen must act with the dignity and generosity of a king, for the crown of sovereignty has been broken up and spread amongst the people. And the power to make change through persuasion and consensus is, it seems, far more potent than the mere harnessing of anger.
The Sacred Writs of Better Angels: Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses
In Ferguson’s Atlantic essay covering us, he referred to the members of Better Angels as “Angels” several times. It should be made clear, however, that this is not how we refer to ourselves (although it’s understandable how Ferguson came to the conclusion that the term refers to us.)
The term, of course, comes from one of the most memorable and frequently-shared Abraham Lincoln quotes, excerpted from the sixteenth President’s First Inaugural Address. For context, it’s worth repeating it here. Bear in mind that newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln delivered this speech at his inauguration, after several southern states seceded in reaction to his election, but before the majority of the south had gone over to the Confederacy, and before a single shot had been fired in the Civil War. The violence of Bleeding Kansas, the beating of Senator Charles Sumner, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was on people’s minds; but they could not know the traumas yet to come in Manassas, Shiloh, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Andersonville, and so many other places.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Better Angels, then, is not a term describing what we are, or even what we become in the context of the workshop and depolarization. Better Angels describes that part of us, that part of our hearts and souls and consciences, which when willfully cultivated and generously shared, brings us into common goodwill and communal solidarity with each other as fellow Americans. It is the better angels, Lincoln says, which touch the mystic chords of memory we share, making civic friendship, and the bonds of affection it supposes, possible.
Four years afterwards, after hundreds of thousands of Americans had died in the horrific conditions of a fratricidal modern war, but as the endgame of that war and the divisions and judgments that would surely follow beckoned on the horizon, President Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address—if anything, given the situation, a more paradoxical and profound statement than the first ever was. The final blood-soaked campaigns before Appomattox had yet to be waged, in 1864, and the subsequent Reconstruction would only bring out further hatreds as it wrapped up the settlement of the war. But Lincoln, regardless:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and his widow and orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
No triumphant martial trumpet of an onward march to victory, was this. In the midst of the hellishness of war, Lincoln called for charity towards the Union’s opponents, fellow Americans as they were.
Abraham Lincoln looms large in the organizational imagination of Better Angels for obvious reasons—he saved the Union in its Civil War, and perhaps our organization’s historical purpose might be interpreted as precluding another future American Civil War by laying the grounds of civic unity and social love for which he, and so many other Americans, provided us with the greatest possible example. There’ve been many others in American history who either stirred the American soul in their oratory, or articulated its principles in their writings, and who’ve to one degree or another influenced Better Angels’s self-conception; Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind, each in their own context and their own way, against the divisions of their own age.
Many of our leading activists came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the last time in our long history when social divisions and polarizations reared their ugly head in ways that smelled like civil war. In our own age of mass shootings, attempted political assassinations, occasional riots and street fights, and cruel words exchanged across the airwaves of social media every second of the day, the call to unity does not come off as mere rhetorical gloss or mandatory lip service. It comes as a sanctuary and a promised land, and a commission from our forebears, a blueprint of how to navigate this wonderful, treacherous, boisterous, beautiful landscape we call American democracy, in an age when it comes apart at the seams.
And like American democracy as a whole, we take words, language, documents, and ideas very seriously—they form the expression of how we of Better Angels know what we are, and what we aspire to be. So Lincoln’s poetry in prose, many decades and orders removed from our own, speaks to us profoundly. Our work, we hope, makes Lincoln’s particular principles of the inaugural addresses immanent in our social world of 21st Century American politics. And it is none too soon, given the ascendant divisions around us.
So our organization is a social movement with a moral core going all the way down to first principles: how we know what we know, how we ought to treat each other, and what the resultant epistemology, sociology, and philosophy mean for society and government. If that’s not radical in the true sense of the term—going back to the roots of reality—then nothing is.
Better Angels, I think, truly melds the aspirational and the appreciative, the traditional and the radical, the progressive and the conservative, the hearth-and-home and the creed-and-principles roots of American order and identity in its conception. Our reds see themselves as patriotic preservers of a free, just, and self-governing order, like the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention. Our blues see themselves as progressive revolutionaries reforming a fallen society into a more just, more inclusive new order, like the marchers and activists of the Civil Rights movement. Both are entirely American; and the dialectic of their conversations makes our purpose stronger and more American than it ever could be, were it solely and entirely either red or blue.
Moreover, it does all this in a way that doesn’t merely ask for assent to a creed or membership in a community—it demands an active, and difficult, moral bearing from each of its members at all times, to practice intellectual humility and interpersonal charity, to build relationships across divides, to treat those who disagree with us and even despise us, as human beings and fellow citizens worthy of our civic love. It gives us each a little way we, by our own power, in our own lives and our own little worlds, each do the work of binding up the nation’s wounds, and building a better future for America. Not a lot of movements can offer so much.
For my own part, the chief benefit of Better Angels has been intellectual. It’s encouraged me, a curious and heterodox conservative, to explore a broader range of voices than I previously would’ve investigated; to find value in the insights of libertarians, socialists, intersectional activists, ultra-traditionalists, progressives, anarchists, internationalists, and other schools of thought I’d previously discounted; to practice better relationships and ultimately have better conversations with people of these points of view and many more; to question my own convictions with greater honesty, and understand the limitations of my own views; and most of all to see myself contained within the great orchestra of society and the grand tapestry of tradition, in communion with others around me, neither entirely belonging to them, nor belonging entirely to myself; to see myself as part of something bigger, something fundamentally real and good, despite its imperfections. The world, since I was sucked into this movement by mere chance and duty, has become more interesting than it ever seemed before.
So from an intellectual to my fellow intellectuals: Better Angels is exactly the political talk-therapy grassroots group you think it is. But it is also so much more. From our beloved community to you, you’re invited to come and get in on the action.
Because we have a vision for America—to build a house united—and all are welcome in.
Luke Nathan Phillips is the Editor of Better Angels’s opinion page, The Conversation.
The opinions he expresses here are solely his own, and are not indicative of the official positions of Better Angels or of the opinions of any other members of Better Angels.