There is an inherent contradiction at the heart of Better Angels that we need to resolve. Better Angels is sometimes a mediator: through our workshops, we provide space for two parties to speak their minds in a structured way and without resorting to blows. Sometimes, however, it is itself one of the potential combatants, advocating for or opposing certain modes of thinking via its media output and advocacy. Put simply, Better Angels can, depending on the circumstances, be either a neutral arbiter or a partisan combatant. And we seem to be reluctant to embrace our role as a combatant presumably because doing so might, in the eyes of some, undermine our role as mediator.
But if that’s an unacceptable risk, then we should close down our commentary department at The Conversation, seriously curb our social media presence, and excise the sections in An American Declaration approved at our inaugural convention which stated our intentions to advocate for certain causes. We then should instead focus simply on workshops and debates.
But if Better Angels desires a more forceful role as a protagonist on the political stage, then we had better be careful and specific about what we stand for. Unfortunately, much of our messaging tends toward the vague and anodyne. Neutral-sounding platitudes like finding “common values” or “common ground,” or expressing a desire to find “what unites us instead of what divides us”—like those found in this tweet or this article—might feel safe. But they convey clandestine sentiments that subtly undermine our organization’s real purpose.
These are just a few concrete examples of something you hear a lot from Better Angels members (and really, the culture at large.) In news articles and op-eds about workshops, a common refrain goes, if only citizens could see more of what we have in common as Americans, then polarization would improve, and the country would return to a supposedly more harmonious time.
But Americans have never really shared much in common, and frankly don’t need to. For when was this magical time when all Americans shared common values? In the 1990s during the Clinton impeachment scandal? In the 1960s and 1970s when domestic terrorism was at its peak? The Great Depression, when opposition to the New Deal prompted the origins of the contemporary conservative movement? During Reconstruction, after the nation had just barely avoided dissolving itself in the Civil War? Or just after the founding of this country, when—putting aside the Anti-Federalists who had opposed the Constitution—the intractable philosophical disagreements between Madison’s and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton’s and Adams’ Federalists prompted the formation of the original American political parties?
Americans best exhibit common purpose and unity during temporary moments of conflict and war, when the country’s coming together is literally a matter of existential necessity. But the benign-seeming, vaguely militaristic rhetoric of “we’re all in this together” has always been appropriated during peacetime to the service of partisan agendas. Politicians from all over the political spectrum—from George W. Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from Gerald Ford to Woodrow Wilson—have urged Americans to unite, usually to combat some crisis, in order to serve relatively temporary political ends. This is the origin of the “War on _______” framing of issues, and the need to make problems potentially extinction-level events. Doing so makes individual pet issues not just politically viable, but morally necessary, elevating them from political mundanities to the level of just and holy crusades, and allowing the crusaders to smear those not on board as obstinate, backwards, possibly treasonous and un-American opponents of self-evidently noble goals.
It does not matter what issue this is all in service to. The point is that even when placed in service to worthy causes, the language of national unity can be inflexible and divisive. Better Angels, in decrying the problem of polarization and urging unification as a tool for its (benign) goals, is taking part in this dubious tradition, and I firmly believe we should not. Using the rhetoric of hyper-partisans, no matter how worthy the desired result, undermines Better Angels’s message and intentions.
Besides, the American system of government does not depend on everyone sharing values. What we “share” as Americans is a value-neutral constitutional framework that allows space for Americans to largely define their values for themselves, with no requirement that they share them with anybody else. Most institutions and mechanisms within our governing framework are designed with the fact that people won’t agree, and won’t share values, and will form into factions, foremost in mind.
That is why the founders designed multiple and competing spheres of influence and mediating institutions. Some of that has been chipped away (shakes fist at the 17th Amendment) but the reason our constitutional republic has largely been so successful is that the founders took human nature, and people’s tribalistic instincts, animosity, and division into account, crafting a system of government that plays these behaviors off each other and channels them toward productive ends.
Better Angels is at odds with itself when on the one hand it says, “We’re not trying to change anybody’s beliefs” and on the other, “We need to find common values.” This can sound, essentially, like “We’re not trying to change you, but we’re trying to change human nature in a way that’s never been achieved.” There will be more to say about what Better Angels really means when it says that in a bit, but for right now it’s important to stipulate that it should cease with sentiments such as, “We need to come together as Americans and discover what unites us more than what divides us” or other such bromides. They are unnecessary, if what we are trying to do is sharply curb partisanship.
Another temptation Better Angels leans into at its peril is the lure of bipartisanship. For example, a few months ago Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently dallied together on Twitter, producing a proposal that the Better Angels Twitter account approvingly highlighted.
The chief problem with this public display of camaraderie is that the very thing Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are promoting is blatantly in violation of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment protects the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, which is more or less what lobbying is. This goes to show the problem with gushing over bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake.
To take an absurd example, if two senators from opposing parties voted to give all blonde-haired citizens wedgies every third Wednesday, it wouldn’t make that legislation right or fair or worthy of respect just because it sprung from the sick minds of ideological opponents. Bipartisanship is not in itself a good; bipartisanship is a tool, a method of accomplishing other goods. But whatever bipartisanship ends up accomplishing should be evaluated on its own merits, not whether people who disagree with each other worked together to pass it.
If we want to unify the country over common principles, it can’t be for the sake of unity, and it can’t be for the sake of bipartisanship. Those are two abstract goals that have the capacity to lead the organization astray. So what should Better Angels stand for, if anything? Again, it’s perfectly acceptable that we limit ourselves to the infrastructure of our workshops, debates, and other programming. But if Better Angels is going to stand for something, then we should look inwards towards our lifeblood for guidance. A close look at these workshops and debates of ours can light the way.
And upon what, exactly, do Better Angels workshops and debates hinge?
Freedom of expression. Were it not for the space for people to say what’s on their minds freely and openly, without fear of immediate or eventual reprisal, the workshop format would not work. We live in an age where this kind of radical free expression is under attack in certain quarters: on some college campuses, in some sections of the internet, on some streets by groups such as Antifa. There are those who would have people believe that some opinions are dangerous and tantamount to violence, and that these opinions should be curbed or forcefully pressured out of existence.
Better Angels should fight this sentiment wherever it occurs, and advocate for the right of people to speak their minds—most especially for the freedom to be wrong or offensive. We should take a stand that words are not violence, except for the rare instances in which they’re explicitly and specifically calling for it. This principle, this unqualified support for the First Amendment, would further ground our advocacy, and give us a more coherent and tangible intellectual and moral framework.
Free speech could be the guiding light and the unifying principle that Better Angels calls for; not some vague notion of togetherness, or bipartisanship, but a specific rallying cry that, yes, might alienate some people. But it would rally the rest around ideals that the organization could promote and proudly stand by, using them as a call to bring others into the tent who might not care for the workshops, but respect the strength of purpose and principle.
I’ve outlined a few specific principles that we at Better Angels should consider emphasizing in order to better embody our role as a combatant in the political sphere. This approach runs the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way, which is fine—we should have these discussions on the direction of Better Angels here at The Conversation. Organizationally, Better Angels should practice universal inclusivity in our workshops while acting in our role as moderator. But as a combatant, we can’t be afraid of taking potentially alienating stands. Realistically, people who would be turned off by Better Angels’s advocacy for strong free speech rights, for us promoting the same values in public that we practice in our workshops, are probably people who wouldn’t be attracted to Better Angels anyways.
The governing documents that this country is built upon are designed to maximize individual liberty, protect citizens’ right to develop opinions on their own terms, and protect against abuses of power. None of that requires any “getting on the same page” or “coming together.” People are free to develop their own notions of what it means to be an American, and people are free to develop their own ideological opinions.
So instead of looking for principles that don’t exist and aren’t necessary, we at Better Angels should strive for the protection of the mechanisms our country relies upon. This is in accord with the original intent of the founding generation. By advocating this position on freedom of expression, Better Angels will make space for a realization of the universality it strives for, without making that universality the necessary condition for depolarization.