I. Campus Politics
Seven liberal St. Olaf students, on campus one snowy Sunday in January, quietly regarded a whiteboard populated with ugly stereotypes about Democrats.
Entitled snowflakes. Socialists in love with big government handouts. Politically correct, fiscally irresponsible hippies. Unpatriotic.
Coming up with these was easy. They laughed as they did it. But now they had to dissect the kernel of truth underlying the cliché, and the exercise was slightly cringeworthy.
“Some people believe in regulating discourse and suppressing new ideas,” declared freshman Markian Romanyshyn, an environmentalist from Washington.
Next door, six conservative students agonized over how to describe Republicans’ feelings about gay rights.
One struggled to shape her thoughts aloud: When religious people oppose homosexuality, it can be wrongly construed as hatred.
“It’s not hatred. It’s a moral stance,” another clarified.
“Some people are completely in support of LGBT,” interjected freshman Keerthana Babu, a future pastor from California, speaking for herself.
The students have signed up for a red-blue workshop with an organization called Better Angels, which specializes in depolarization of the politically fraught. They came by way of Students for Life, the anti-abortion club, and the Institute for Freedom and Community, St. Olaf’s first-in-the-nation center for free inquiry.
St. Olaf is one of two liberal arts schools in Northfield, a small city on the banks of the Cannon River, an hour south of the Twin Cities. Like most colleges, its student body leans left. But it’s also a Lutheran school, attended by liberals and conservatives who derive their contending politics from the same faith.
While other campuses have rioted over right-wing speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Jeff Sessions and punished student newspapers like the Daily Northwestern for reporting it, St. Olaf has mostly rejected the bait. In October, a spate of white nationalist stickers appeared on campus lamp posts. Students scraped them off. The year before, leaflets sprinkled on cars vilified women who wore skin-tight clothes and demanded “the right to murder babies.” Students for Life quickly disavowed whoever left them. The club’s posters are occasionally vandalized. Members say it’s nothing serious.
Not since the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election has any crisis engulfed St. Olaf. At the time, an outbreak of racist messages targeting black students forced the school to reckon with its maltreatment of minorities in the past and lack of diversity today. An activist ultimately admitted staging her own death threat to manipulate a conversation about race.
These days are quieter. Like détente at Thanksgiving, students with opposing views often maintain civility by not exchanging words. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of college students believe campus climate prevents them from speaking freely. St. Olaf is no exception.
Freshman violinist Addie Jo Lambrecht, a conservative, signed up with Better Angels expecting to defend all her beliefs against liberal condemnation.When the reds and blues convened to compare the problems each had with their own side—which in politics would have been considered conceding ground to the enemy—she was warmed by the results.
Conservatives value strong family units and local governance. They suspect federal welfare of replacing people’s responsibility to hold each other up, Lambrecht says.
Nevertheless, she believes former Gov. Scott Walker’s zero-sum approach to taxation was disastrous for her home state of Wisconsin, where her prison guard father didn’t get a raise for more than a decade and union benefits for teachers like her mother were replaced by merit-based raises that empowered school districts to reward their yes-men and punish dissent.
“Our infrastructure was falling apart, and it was not good. Like, you live in Wisconsin. You can’t just let your roads be,” she said. “You can’t just go around slashing everything.”
Leander Krawinkel, a German exchange student with aspirations for public office, said American and German liberals seem to share a similar angst over national identity, unable to express pride in their country for fear of being misunderstood as the sort of people who think all the world beneath them.
“Nationalism is: My country is the best, we are superior. Patriotism says, ‘I love and I’m proud of my identity, I’m happy to share these experiences with others, and it’s why I want to stand up for others,’” he said. “I think as a liberal it is very, very important that you’re proud of where you’re from, or if you’re not proud, you have ways to change that.”
Conservative students worried Republicans weren’t appealing to minorities and wondered why environmentalism wasn’t a bigger deal to a party that purportedly protects local communities. Liberals vented their frustration with activist culture and its moral veneer of calling out injustice without doing the work of enacting constructive change.
No one changed sides at the end of the day. But everyone seemed relieved.
II. The Marriage Counselor
On the eve of the last presidential election, popular University of Minnesota couples therapist Bill Doherty saw the outbreak of a new type of marital discord—Democrat women threatening to divorce their Republican husbands if they voted for Donald Trump.
These were couples who were in counseling for other problems, who in some cases had been married for decades, and whose life-long political affiliation was no secret.
But to the liberals, Trump personified evil itself, whereas the George Bushes might have just represented conservative values. He was an existential—Dictionary.com’s 2019 word of the year—threat to the very survival of the country.
According to a 2019 Public Religion Research Institute poll, far more Republicans and Democrats alike would object to their child marrying someone of the opposite political party than someone of a different race.
The former president of the Minnesota Republican Party posited that “Barack Obama had an imperial presidency.” Among Doherty’s liberal friends, there were people who predicted, unequivocally, that Trump was a fascist who’d never leave office.
Doherty is a no-nonsense 75-year-old who suffers no Twitter. This was the most polarized America he’d ever seen. People used to take the purple prose of political propaganda with a grain of salt, he thought. Now they held it close to heart, with everyone everywhere outraged all the time.
He considered assembling a corps of citizen therapists to heal America’s wounds. Later, the startup nonprofit Better Angels asked him to be its founding therapist. He set out to create a process that could bring passionate partisans together without insulting anybody’s intelligence, and without igniting war.
In the summer of 2017, Better Angels embarked on a cross-country bus tour. Doherty found himself part of a motley fellowship including a Tea Party Republican as bus driver, a liberal Iranian American as events coordinator, an obligatory millennial social media guru, and David Blankenhorn, the former gay marriage opponent who changed his mind in 2012.
They kicked off from Dayton, Ohio with a concert. Bleeding-heart hippie Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary and country star Richard Lynch, who’d founded the local Tea Party, played a duet of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Then Better Angels cut through the Midwest to New England, carried on through the mid-Atlantic states, and swung down through Virginia.
Along the way, they invited staunchly divided people to group therapy. The ground rules defy impulse. There would be no telling the other side their fears were exaggerated, and no fact-checking of opinions. No assigning motives to strangers. No trying to convince anybody to change their mind.
Some people expected fight club. But what they got was a safe space with a twist. Everyone got to express themselves, which meant everyone also had to be quiet for some stretch of time and listen to conflicting points of view.
“Democracy is a rough sport,” Doherty says. “We’re not going to protect people from hearing ideas that 50 million of their fellow Americans believe and half of the Congress. Even though I think there could be some people who could be bothered by that.”
Better Angels’ depolarization workshops—named after a line in a speech Abraham Lincoln gave on the brink of Civil War—are now in all 50 states. They cover how to deal with warring relatives, how to have rational conversation without flying off the handle, how to question one’s own assumptions. Each red-blue faceoff is run by a pair of moderators, one from each side. Membership costs $12 a year.
California has the most members, but Minnesota boasts the most per capita. Better Angels is actively promoting its model among colleges, activist groups, and charities.
The people who show up seem to occupy different moral universes. Still, they self-select according to some commonalities, Doherty says. Many of them love someone on the other side. All of them have conceptualized a bigger meta-problem with America than whichever party is in power, and worry that a divided people won’t stand a chance against the world’s looming threats.
The process assumes most people can be reasoned with. It’s discovering that policy divisions among Americans aren’t nearly as strong as the emotional ones. The average American is somewhat suspicious of government, and worried about big business too, Doherty says after a few years of this work.
“But there’s a tendency now to confuse policy with underlying values. That if you believe in a certain policy that has racist effects, then you must intend those effects,” he says. “If I hear you’re against Obamacare, particularly if I’ve absorbed all the rhetoric, then maybe you want grandma to die on the street.”
People also tend to identify the opposing party with its most extreme factions, Doherty says, recalling a conversation with a red leader who insisted the violence of Antifa was intrinsic to the left, while white nationalist neo-Nazis were just fringe lunatics completely detached from the conservative movement.
In couples counseling, “That’s what’s called a self-serving bias.”
III. Battle Royale
In the fall of 2017, Oprah Winfrey gathered a focus group of seven Trump supporters and seven detractors on CBS’s 60 Minutes. They sat around an oversized table under a spotlight as Winfrey lobbed a series of America’s juiciest polemics into the mix. Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia to win the election? Why would he say there were “fine people” on both sides of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville? Were liberal tactics destroying the country?
A screaming melee ensued. Participants left portending civil war.
Winfrey caught up with the group six months later. They were apparently hungry enough for connection that they’d gone out of their way to stay in touch. They talked—and fought—regularly via Facebook group chat. They watched hockey and went to target practice. They still couldn’t agree on anything to do with Trump, but they did start seeing each other as complex people with conflicting feelings.
Bill Doherty intended for Better Angels to achieve the same outcome—without the initial brawling. Some participants start out loathing the other side, convinced their leaders are powermongers and their followers fools who vote against their own interests. Doherty denies his goal is to move people toward the center, but to show them everyone has something to contribute.
Some of his expectations fly in the face of popular culture. Doherty, who admits he has a lot of hope for people, doesn’t think much of social media. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found 10 percent of people on Twitter are responsible for 80 percent of the tweets. He prescribes analog conversations.
In November, Better Angels invited Congressmen Dean Phillips (D) and Pete Stauber (R) to test their process.
Phillips and Stauber are part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan alliance that requires Democrats and Republicans to join in pairs and endorses legislation supported by at least three-quarters of its members. Since 2017, the group has steered Congress clear of a couple government shutdowns.
It’s also been criticized by the right and the left as a centrist scheme to preserve the status quo.
Last summer, Senate Republicans and House Democrats clashed over immigration enforcement funding and humanitarian standards for asylum-seeking migrants. Democrats wanted, among other things, soap, toothbrushes, and a two-meter-square space for every individual. The Senate leader vowed to forestall all their demands.
Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus took it on themselves to push through border funding in return for some safeguards for children, including a 90-day limit on holding them in temporary intake facilities, and a requirement to notify lawmakers within 24 hours of a child’s death in custody. They and their Republican counterparts traveled down to the border to witness conditions for themselves.
The chair of the Progressive Caucus, who wanted to keep fighting, renamed Democrats who compromised the “Child Abuse Caucus.” Others criticized them for giving hardline Republicans a pass to call themselves problem-solvers when they haven’t earned it.
In October, Phillips and Stauber’s congressional staff attended a Better Angels workshop in Forest Lake. Political operatives trained to listen for things to refute were encouraged to be honest. They talked about how they grew up and where their values came from. They quizzed each other on policy.
The political world is black and white, and neither side ever publicly admits their ideas have downsides, says Zach Rodvold, Phillips’s chief of staff. “There’s actually a lot of gray area in public policy, and this exposed that. I think both sides walked away realizing the other was aware of that.”
Rodvold says win-at-all-costs campaigning drove him out of politics after 2016. Democracy had become a blood sport. Operatives had to own their part. He told everyone he was going to get a career change.
He returned to support Phillips, who ran a clean campaign with the express purpose of breaking Washington’s gridlock.
In this case, Minnesota’s western suburbs voted for the candidate who didn’t spend millions on false attack ads.
“A majority of people say they want to see both sides work together, they want compromise, they want civility,” Rodvold says. “But they vote for people who don’t adhere to those values and those principles.”
It’s a cognitive dissonance he’s yet to understand.
“The reality is we’re divided. There’s no other way to get anything done.”