About Better Angels
Better Angels is a bipartisan network of leaders and organizations whose vision is to reunite America. Our method is to improve our society’s approaches to conflict. We seek an America with 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.
To work for these changes, we show why reducing polarization is an urgent priority, bring people together from across the divides to rethink currently polarized issues, seek out and train leaders, and recommend policy reforms that will permit progress and compromise to be substituted for impasse and frustration.
The Disunion Crisis
We’re becoming several Americas, each a stranger to the others and each increasingly hostile to the others. Each America today views its political adversaries as enemies whose ways of thinking are so harmful and alien as to be incomprehensible. This degree of rancor and mistrust threatens our democracy.
Mounting evidence tells us that at the heart of this disunion are approaches to conflict that produce polarization. Polarization is the process of society separating into mutually antagonistic groups that do not trust or even know one another.
We’re polarizing today in three harmful 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.
The United States is disuniting. In these large and growing separations from one another, the great task is to find our better angels, which fundamentally means finding better approaches to conflict.
Three Approaches to 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 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 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 disagreement. This better and more difficult approach to 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 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 higher synthesis that reflects shared values and incorporates what is valid and useful on both sides. The result is a creative new framing, a new place in the conversation.
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 of compromise. And we want, as often as we can, to transform conflict by going forward together.
Figure 1. Three Approaches to Conflict:
The Better Angels Vision
- Critical Thinking—better ways of reasoning and engaging conflict—is the intellectual and ethical path to a reunited America.
- A Critical Agenda—developed by bipartisan groups of scholars, policy makers, and civil society leaders—is the policy and institutional path to a reunited America.
- 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 a reunited America.
- Making the Case for Depolarization – we’re launching an essay and podcast series focusing on what polarization is, what it’s doing to society, and why depolarization must be a national priority.
- Creating a National Network – we’re reaching out to citizens, leaders, and partner organizations from across the country and on both sides of the political aisle to create a steadily growing network of Americans committed to working together for depolarization.
- The One America Initiative – we’re launching a series of gatherings around the U.S. in which Trump Administration critics and supporters meet to clarify disagreements, reduce rancor and stereotyped thinking, and search for common ground.
- The One America Documentary – we’re producing a documentary film showing how these gatherings work, what can be accomplished, and how people can organize similar gatherings in their communities.
- A Leadership Curriculum – we’re developing leadership training podcasts, educational and how-to booklets, and other teaching, organizing, and training tools to help Americans become leaders for depolarization in their communities and networks.
- Depolarizing Religious Liberty / LGBT Rights – we’ve convened a philosophically diverse, 20-person working group to deliberate together, reach out to other leaders, and produce a jointly-authored report to the nation on the highly polarized issue of religious liberty / LGBT rights.
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.