What is Better Angels?


Our Mission

We disagree, therefore what?

That’s the question we seek to answer.

Our mission is to engage social conflict to form a more perfect Union.

The Crisis

The crisis of American public life is evident to nearly all observers. With each passing day, it seems, our politics grow uglier and dumber. Rancor is in the saddle. The center isn’t holding. The grownups are missing. Americans’ trust in their institutions, and in each other, appears to be evaporating. Mounting evidence tells us that at the heart of this crisis—what’s driving it all—are approaches to conflict that produce polarization.

Polarization is the process of society separating into mutually antagonistic groups that increasingly do not trust or even know one another. Today America is polarizing in three important ways:

  • A large and growing partisan divide: Americans increasingly believe that those with whom they disagree politically are not only misguided, but are also bad people, members of an essentially alien out-group.
  • A large and growing class divide: The approximately 30 percent of Americans with four-year college degrees are mostly thriving, while the other 70 percent are falling further and further behind on nearly every measure.
  • A large and growing governing divide: Huge numbers of Americans no longer believe that their elected leaders, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do the right thing.

These three toxic and overlapping polarizations are why we’re launching Better Angels. In the days ahead, we seek to build a new political culture in America consisting of less uninformed animosity between left and right, less separation of upscale America from the rest of America, and fewer good reasons for the governed to hold the governing in contempt.

We invite you to join us. It seems increasingly clear that nothing less than our American experiment in ordered liberty is at stake.

Who We Are

Better Angels is a bipartisan network of scholars and leaders whose goals are to bring people together from across the divides to rethink currently polarized issues, show why reducing polarization is an important priority, and recommend public policy and institutional reforms that will permit progress and compromise to be substituted for impasse and frustration.

A Holistic Approach

To change the approaches to conflict that produce polarization, which is more important—to change ideas and emotions, or to change rules and institutions? Such a debate occurred at the American founding. For example, James Madison, the intellectual progenitor of the U.S. Constitution, insisted that self-government cannot depend simply upon on the virtues of the governed, observing that: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Yet Madison also famously asked whether there “is sufficient virtue among men for self-government.” The question worried him precisely because when it comes to “qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence … republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

For Madison, then, both things are necessary—institutions that do not assume that people are angels and character traits in the people “which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” At Better Angels, we are Madisonians. Focusing on structures and values—institutions and ideas—we seek to change both the rules that incentivize, and the qualities of mind and heart that constitute, how Americans understand and relate to each other.

A Theory of Conflict

Nowhere is the goal of Better Angels better expressed than in the phrase the founders chose for our national motto, E pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.” It tells us that us people from many and often conflicting backgrounds and views can live on this continent in conditions of unprecedented freedom while also thriving together as one people. It tells us neither to deny nor inflame our differences, but instead to seek to reconcile them at higher levels in order to form what our Constitution calls “a more perfect Union.”

Implicit in our national motto—implicit in the founders’ vision—is a theory of conflict. It seems that there are three basic approaches to conflict, which we can also think of as three stages, from simplest and worst to hardest and best. In the first approach or stage, we submit to conflict. Conflict is in charge. Some people in this stage ignore conflict, failing to acknowledge that it exists. Others internalize conflict and thus make conflict their cause, becoming both its relentless advocate as well as its captive. Either way, polarization is perpetuated, as conflict dominates society rather than the other way around. Tragically, this simplest and worst approach to dealing with conflict has increasingly become America’s approach.

A second approach is when we seek to clarify and manage conflict. By trying to assume good faith in our adversaries and trying to correct partial understandings and false stereotypes, we aim in this stage to achieve actual rather than inflated or imagined disagreement. This better and more difficult approach to dealing with conflict requires both civility in our treatment of one another and a willingness to acknowledge areas of common ground. At least as importantly, insofar as we want conflict not only clarified, but also managed for the good of society, this approach also requires the capacity for negotiation, compromise, and mutual accommodation.

A third approach is when we seek to transform conflict. In this approach, we do not avoid or deny conflict. Nor do we become its pliant servant and enabler. Nor do we stop and declare victory once we have understood conflict accurately by using the tools of reason and managed it pragmatically by using the tools of compromise. In this hardest and yet arguably most fruitful way of dealing with conflict, we try to go beyond polarization and beyond compromise, toward a creative new framing a higher synthesis that includes what is valid and helpful on both sides, leading us, together, to a new place in the discussion. This approach depends at least in part on epistemological humility, recognizing relationship-building as a valid shaper of identity and viewpoint, and a belief in the equal dignity of every person.

The founders feared that the first approach to conflict would destroy the nation. (In 1861-65, it almost did.) They ordained and established the U.S. Constitution to embody the second approach. And they left us many words and deeds, including the ideal of E pluribus unum, to help us aspire to the third approach. Today, these priorities guide us at Better Angels. We want to depolarize our society. We want to achieve actual disagreement and recover the practices compromise. And we want, as often as we can, to transform conflict by going forward together.

What We Do

Better Angels is a bipartisan network of scholars and leaders committed to engaging conflict in order to reduce polarization and form a more perfect Union. We do this in four ways:

  • Ideas: Through research, reports, and an essay and podcast series, we explain what polarization is, how it’s harming us, why depolarization is necessary.
  • Issues: We convene working groups—bringing together scholars and leaders from across the partisan divide—to rethink and reframe polarized issues, producing a series of jointly authored “reports to the nation” pointing the way to depolarization.
  • Reforms: Through outreach to political leaders and scholars, we build bipartisan consensus for reforms to the U.S. Congress, our voting system, and the society as a whole aimed at reducing polarization.
  • Education: A multi-disciplinary team of scholars and educators develops, tests, and makes widely available online, blended-format, and seminar-style education in polarization and its remedies.

Through these activities we aim over time to achieve the following major goals:

  • A Critical Agenda—developed over time by bipartisan groups of scholars, policy makers, and civil society leaders—is the policy and institutional path to depolarization.
  • A Critical Mass—thousands and ultimately millions of Americans motivated and equipped to advocate for that agenda—is the political and movement-building path to depolarization.
  • Critical Thinking—better ways of reasoning and arguing—is the intellectual and ethical path to depolarization.

Our Workplan

1. Make the public argument for why polarization matters.

Partnering with The American Interest, we’ve launched a monthly publication series—typically one month an essay, the next month a podcast—focusing on what polarization is, what it’s doing to society, and why depolarization should be a national priority.

2. Depolarize one issue.

To test the Better Angels model, we’ve convened a philosophically diverse 20-person working group to deliberate together, produce a podcast, reach out to other leaders, and produce a jointly-authored report to the nation (Religious Freedom Versus Gay Rights—Is There a Better Way?) on the topic of religious freedom and LGBT rights.

3. Conduct research on “learning depolarization.”

This survey of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults will (for the first time) delineate and measure the main dimensions of American political polarization and provide a template for measuring U.S. polarization over time. A popular and/or scholarly article will present the survey findings, including a summary “score” indicating the nation’s current degree of polarization. We’ll then create a web-based polarization questionnaire through which participants can both discover their own degree of polarized thinking, comparing their personal scores to the nation’s, and also volunteer to help the project team develop educational modules for teaching Americans about polarization. (See also item 8 below, “Educate Americans on polarization.”)

4. Create a book series.

Our books will be available as pdf downloads (free for Better Angels members) and as eBooks. Our first two scheduled titles are Reconnecting America: In Search of our Better Angels and “Shining and Stinking”: How Americans Get Along—and Don’t, both by David Blankenhorn.

5. Create working groups to examine currently polarized issues.

We’ll create up to eight Better Angels working groups, each with about 20 members, to build relationships across the partisan divide, engage in collaborative inquiry and research, and produce jointly-authored reports to the nation on currently polarized issues. Working groups to be formed are likely to include: Religious Freedom / LGBT Rights (pilot project); Free Speech / College Campuses; Punishment / Forgiveness for Crime; and Public Safety / Right to Bear Arms. Each working group will deliberate over 8-12 months. Each report to the nation will focus either on reframing a currently polarized issue or on an important challenge connected to polarization.

6. Convene state-level Better Angels leadership gatherings.

In each state, we’ll work with local partners to bring together about 20 state leaders from across the divides for two-day gatherings to build better relationships, clarify disagreements, and identify areas of common ground and possible re-framing regarding one or more issues currently polarizing the state.

7. Produce Polarization in America: A Report to the Nation

Because polarization is a multi-faceted phenomenon, grappling with any one facet of it can feel disorienting, like the person in the dark touching an elephant. That’s why it’s important to grasp polarization whole—to understand its roots in our civil society as well as our governmental institutions; to see its social class and social trust dimensions as well as its partisan political dimensions; to see its relationship to social conflict; and to see the need for a compelling public argument that touches minds and hearts as well as offers a concrete agenda of practical reforms. Seeing polarization whole will be the goal of our Commission on Polarization in America—a distinguished team of scholars and leaders from across the political spectrum and across the human sciences who will survey work to date on the topic, deliberate together, and produce Polarization in America: A Report to the Nation, that analyzes the crisis and makes recommendations for the future.

8. Educate Americans on polarization.

Dr. Steven Clements, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, will author and circulate for review a Better Angels working paper outlining the possibilities for developing, testing and marketing online, blended-format, and seminar-style education in polarization and making recommendations for next steps. Our goal over time is to develop and disseminate high-quality curricula through which large numbers of Americans can learn about and incorporate into their lives the habits and practices of depolarization.

9. Take the Better Angels message to communities.

A core organizational development strategy for Better Angels will be regular public presentations—our goal is at least one per month—in communities across the country.

10. Recruit members.

To help build a critical mass—a viable public space for depolarization—we’ll strive to double our Better Angels membership each year, aiming for 130,000 members by 2020.

11. Hold regular leadership gatherings.

At Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and with other partnering institutions, we’ll hold periodic two-day gatherings of 15-20 Better Angels leaders to work on Better Angels projects and to develop the overall initiative.

12. Assemble a network of founding leaders.

Our goal is a broadly based, uniquely qualified, and steadily growing consortium of leaders and co-sponsoring organizations. This network will provide members for our working groups; create our public arguments; conduct and disseminate our research; credential and publicize our reports and recommendations; develop and participate in our educational programs; and in other ways help to found and lead the initiative. We’ll aim to convene a major two-day national gathering of these leaders in the fall of 2018.

Why “Better Angels”?

“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…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

— Abraham Lincoln, 1861

The idea of recognizing something that is shared with the other—even in moments of fierce conflict—is beautifully reflected in Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term “better angels” in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. William Seward, who would serve as Secretary of State under Lincoln, had suggested that Lincoln close his speech by calling in hope upon the “the guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln changed it to “the better angels of our nature.” In Seward’s version, what was needed would come from outside us. In Lincoln’s version, it would come from within us, something “better” in the “nature” of both Northerners and Southerners.

In America today we haven’t reached the point of violence and chaos—yet. But surely in our increasingly and dangerously fractured nation—liberals and conservatives detesting one another, the upscale minority increasingly isolated from the majority, and the ruled holding the rulers in growing contempt—we all need to be touched by something “better” within us and within the institutions that we build together.