Featured Essays

The Limits of Empathy

It’s often presumed that empathy is a good thing, and that more of it will make us, and our country, considerably better. If only we could put ourselves into each other’s shoes more easily, so the thinking goes, we would have so much more respect and compassion for one another. Not only will we be …

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Red or Blue? Liberal or Conservative? The Pitfalls of Labels

Our political divide between red and blue, left and right, is often characterized in the media as an ideological conflict between liberalism and conservatism. Yet the meanings of these ideological terms are often misinterpreted and mischaracterized–most often by opposing points of view– in order to fit a preferred political narrative. For those on the left, …

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Dispatch on a Debate at UC Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley, holds a distinct place in the history of political discussion in America. In fact, it’s practically synonymous with left-wing campus protests. In the midst of great national division over the Vietnam War, it was in fact a local land dispute—which spurred the crowd-powered creation of People’s Park on university land—that …

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A Mild, Sympathetic Critique of Better Angels Debates

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a Better Angels Debate event in Santa Monica, California, and wanted to offer my insights into the process and how that may or may not feed into BA’s mission of depolarization. The particular debate topic was posited in the affirmative: To abolish the Electoral College system of …

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Mistakes were Made, But Not By Me: A Look at Some Common Cognitive Errors

When I started researching the different types of cognitive errors to which we fallible humans are susceptible, I had a hypothesis: Blues don’t make cognitive errors. Reds do. Oh, the irony. My presumption that my team of liberal and progressive Blues is free of cognitive bias was itself a trifecta of conformity, availability and confirmation …

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Our Descent Toward Political Loathing, Resentment, and Distrust—And How We Rise Again

“My country is tearing itself apart. I must do something…but what, exactly?” These were the thoughts running through my head during the 2016 election. It seemed our country– and my Facebook feed– was full of vitriol. It couldn’t lead to good governing, and it couldn’t be healthy for people to constantly be outraged. Yet what …

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Work and Fairness: Different Visions, Same Values

Perhaps more than any other Western democratic people, Americans revere work. This is not surprising, given our history. Unlike the aristocratic European societies that colonized the Western Hemisphere, where unaccountable noblemen gave the order to work to their peasant subjects, and where labor was carried out for the benefit of society’s rulers, the United States …

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Building a House United: The Political Understanding of Better Angels

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 …

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Political Violence and Bullying on the Left: We’re Better Than This

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that we’ve been fostering a sense of fragility within an entire generation of Americans. I think they make a cogent argument that progressives often go too far in their assertion that speech can be equated with violence, at the risk of shutting …

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AOC was Right about Amazon

Better Angels doesn’t try to change peoples’ strong views or move them toward the center. It’s an organization very comfortable with the red/blue divide, as long we speak in productive ways that include empathy and careful listening. Still, there can be powerful moments when the red/blue divide breaks down, and when two people connect on …

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Against Confederate Monuments

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not indicative of any official positions of Better Angels or The Conversation. This Piece is part of a symposium. The other two parts can be found at the links below. Understanding Confederate Monuments Waffling Over Confederate Monuments   Growing up in New …

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Some Benefits of the Large Democratic Primary Field

I’ve been moderating Better Angels workshops for around two years, and there are several experiences that have been consistent for me from one workshop to the next. Among these is listening to the conclusions that participants draw from their time with us. Without fail, at least one participant will mention how much closer the two …

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Thoughts on Gun Violence

From the “This is why we can’t have nice things” file: last month a new internet “challenge” broke, with copycat videos being posted of people licking ice cream and putting it back in the store fridge, inspired by a viral Twitter video of a girl doing the same. With fears naturally high that this would …

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Outsiders and Communities: Comparing Immigration and Gentrification

Image: Joseph Vorves (CC by/nc/sa) Change is a constant in the United States, including changes in population demographics. Whether it is immigrants arriving on our shores, or Americans moving from one part of the country to another, our history is full of people who are unsatisfied with their conditions, and who decide to settle somewhere …

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Getting Beyond Capitalism and Socialism

Since the 2008 financial crisis, there’s been a renewed interest in talking about the inherent problems and weaknesses of capitalism. There has even been renewed interest in socialism, or at least the “Democratic Socialism” which Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez espouse. This conversation is long-overdue. Economics is at the very heart of our national life, …

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Thoughts on the Return of Aziz Ansari

As we’re making progress with ourselves, we should also extend a “generosity of spirit” towards those who don’t have the same ethical framework as us, who haven’t “evolved” the way we insist is necessary. As we’re asking others to exercise their empathy, to perhaps finally address the harm their behavior or inaction has caused, we can offer the same empathy to them, and realize that we cannot fully know what’s in their hearts.