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Donna Nielsen Murphy has lived on the east coast, Midwest, and west coast, and for nine years in Japan and South Korea. She has worked as an economist in both the public and private sector, most recently at the U.S. State Department, and is the author of three books.

Finding Our Better Angels

Better Angels
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Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, VA)

A year ago, I was a stovepiped blue looking for reds, any reds, to attend a Better Angels Red/Blue workshop designed to bring conservatives and liberals together to listen to and learn about each other.

Now, I was giving two reds a lift to the Better Angels Founding Convention in Harrisonburg. Earlier I would have had no use for Greg Smith who, judging the book from the cover, embodied my stereotype of a redneck conservative; now this dear, large-hearted man and I were co-chairs of the convention who realized how much we needed each other in order to further the mission of Better Angels: depolarizing America.

Polarization is a term from physics describing two poles that push one another apart. Its very essence is relational. Depolarizing doesn’t mean kumbaya or turning everybody purple, but rather removing the charge between the poles so that we can dwell together as American citizens without name-calling or vitriol, respectfully disagreeing with each other, and finding common ground when it exists.

Convention delegates from across the country, evenly divided in number between reds and blues, participated in workshops about controversial issues such as immigration, and engaged in Better Angels-style debates.

We exchanged powerful stories about why we believed what we believed. We wore name tags hanging from red or blue lanyards, and at every meal, tables were populated by folks of both colors calmly talking to and laughing with each other.

On June 8, in view of wall-sized quotes from Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution, we adopted an American Declaration. It wasn’t easy. When leaders asked delegates to voice their concerns over the declaration, they named them, one after another. We opted to change the document on the spot to reflect those concerns.

Better Angels President David Blankenhorn asked 12 of us, six red and six blue, to work together to negotiate acceptable changes. A few hours later, delegates voted unanimously to adopt and then sign the declaration stating that the era of polarization must come to an end (see That evening, we enjoyed a joyous concert by Peter Yarrow, Steve Seskin, Dana LaCroix and Sage Snider which included songs penned for the occasion.

Delegates I spoke with felt honored to have attended this founding convention. We experienced first-hand what Lincoln wholeheartedly held true: We are not enemies, but friends, and the chorus of the Union swells when we appeal to the better angels of our nature. We learned that we are not as divided as we thought we were, and yes, there is common ground.

We believe it is our sacred duty as American citizens to spread this spirit of civil discourse. Less than two months after Lincoln gave his address appealing to our better angels, the Civil War began. We wish to step away from what Carl Bernstein has called our “cold civil war,” and toward the more perfect Union the U.S. Constitution promises this country we love so much.

Donna N. Murphy was the blue co-chair of the Better Angels Founding Convention, and is a regional coordinator for the organization.

More to explore

Success Happens Podcast: Better Angels’ Tom, Jim and Natalie

Political polarization did not start with the 2016 election — it’s been gaining momentum for over 20 years. But with the rancor and divisiveness that has been on display in recent years, polarization may have reached its worst level in the United States since the Civil War.

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