A recent article, Can Marriage Counseling Save America by Andrew Ferguson, is a marvelous article about Better Angels, an organization that offers people facilitated opportunities to listen to each other across partisan lines.
Perversely the author makes a classic mistake. The article dismisses the many other efforts to renew civic connection as less worthy when in fact they are a bright spot in the work of civic renewal. Initiatives to create connections across differences have sprung up around the country and they are fundamentally complementary! Turning our culture toward respect and collaboration even when we have differences is going to be far more effective if we have generous collaboration in the bridging ecosystem.
The work to depolarize politics and promote good relationships with people we do not agree with requires us to create many paths for people to discover and connect with "the other.” Pastor Trevor Estes put it like this when introducing monthly Living Room Conversations to his congregation. “God is love. You cannot make God visible to others without loving them right where they are.”
In other words, we need to meet people where they are at. It is a strength that we have a variety of organizations offering meaningfully different ways for people to connect. The bridging ecosystem has many entry points inviting us to improve our collective emotional intelligence.
Some people want to talk about politics across the partisan divide. Other people do not want to talk about politics but they will commit to working together on a local challenge like improving a school, addressing homelessness or dealing with a natural disaster. This kind of connection tends to soften our sense of division and create openings for more understanding.
A growing number of citizens do not identify as right or left. They may hold both conservative and progressive views or they may have simply turned away from polarized politics. We need something for everybody… or as close to that as we can get.
This work needs to meet people where they are most comfortable — in schools, libraries, faith communities, cafes and homes, including video conversation across the country. Small conversations and larger facilitated gatherings, short exchanges and long weekends are all good. Generous listening, true curiosity and holding the tension of our differences is best practiced in many venues. This is a movement that will make our lives richer and our country capable of meeting challenges with everyone’s best ideas in the room and the agility to adapt as we learn together.
There is social science that suggests culture change can happen when 3.5% of the population step up. Together we can do this. No one organization is going to be able to do it all.
Joan Blades is Cofounder of MoveOn and Living Room Conversations