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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Narrowing the political divide begins with us

Not long after the 2016 election, David Lapp, David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty held their first Red/Blue workshop with 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters. The aim was to discover whether Americans could disagree respectfully and perhaps find some common ground on divisive political issues. That first workshop was the start of Braver Angels (braverangels.org).

Braver Angels addresses what its founders perceived as our accelerating problem of “affective political polarization,” rancor less importantly of opinion than of feeling, a personal contempt for, and distrust of, those with differing political views. They wanted to move us along a spectrum from Hatred (“those others are our enemies because they want to harm our country”) ultimately to Respect and Appreciation (“Their point of view has a lot to be said for it even if we disagree about many matters”).

I learned about Braver Angels from a fellow member of South Mountain Friends Meeting. He organized a group in Grants Pass to implement the Braver Angels program and experienced some success. Another member is committed to doing the same work in Jackson County. It’s not surprising that Braver Angels resonates with Quakers, because we believe that “there is that of God in everyone” and that everyone has some part of the truth, no matter how small, and no one has all of it. Those articles of faith are a good starting point for the transformations of attitude and conduct that most of us must undergo if we wish to be agents of healing.

For, to be honest, it’s hard for me — and probably for you — to respect and appreciate many of those who have supported Trump. The first step we might take, though, is to separate them from him. I’m not going to waste my psychic energy working up respect and appreciation for Trump. But it’s unlikely that the 74 million people who voted for him — an historically high number exceeded only by the 81 million who voted for Biden — are all grossly immoral, self-promoting narcissists. Nor are most of them flagrant racists like the neo-Nazis that came to Charlottesville. Instead, they are likely to be run-of-the-mill racists like most of us.

Here’s a hypothetical exercise. Think about being in a circle that includes Trump supporters and that the subject is immigration across our southern border. You bring to the subject a number of highly-charged memories: Trump’s calling immigrants from Mexico rapists and murderers, his caging small children apart from their parents, and his intention to end DACA. Will you lay all that on the people in your circle and thus regard them with contempt, or will you give them a chance to express their concerns about illegal immigration? Can you hear their insecurities about their economic future even if you believe that it isn’t immigration that has created that insecurity? And once past making judgments on their character, can you discuss immigration policies in a way that acknowledges their inherent complexity?

Without a safe space and a structured process — Braver Angels workshops offer both — it’s not likely that the foregoing exercise would go well. There’s too much fear, especially (I think it fair to say) among Trump supporters. So, I won’t intentionally take one of them to lunch. I don’t even think I’ll try to talk politics with those members of my family who voted for him. But I am going to work on my own attitude and be more careful in my speech. That much is under my control.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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