Coming together in a polarized political atmosphere

Can we all get along?

December 8, 2021 6:38 am
Boxer with gloves up

Image by Valentin Tikhonov from Pixabay

In the middle of one of the worst weeks in recent memory for democracy in Wisconsin, the Rotary Club of Madison hosted a luncheon with speakers from the group Braver Angels on Dec. 1, to talk about “starting conversations, not fights” and bringing people together across our gaping political divide.

As the Rotarians met to enjoy fellowship, songs and lasagna in the ballroom of Madison’s Park Hotel across from the Capitol, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had just issued its decision siding with Republican legislative leaders on redistricting. In an unprecedented decision that reeks of partisanship, the conservative majority held that there should be as little change as possible to the heavily gerrymandered maps that have locked in disproportionate Republican legislative majorities for the last 10 years. 

Two days later, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who was appointed by GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to lead another partisan “investigation” into the 2020 presidential election, appeared before the Assembly Elections Committee. There he continued to cast doubt on the integrity of local elections officials, bully and shout over committee members who dared to question his partisan inquest and the taxpayer money he is spending on the Trump cronies who are conducting it. He even threatened to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay for supposedly failing to adequately cooperate.

And that was just the week in state news.

While the Rotary Club members were tucking into their lasagna, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court was signaling, during oral arguments on a Mississippi abortion ban, that they are prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade once and for all. 

Our country’s drift toward authoritarianism is picking up steam. If Republican efforts to undermine elections and gerrymander political maps in swing states like Wisconsin succeed, we could be in for even darker times ahead, as rightwing ideologues consolidate their hold on both the legislative and judicial branches of government and make it harder for citizens to do anything about it by restricting our access to the vote.

Cameron Swallow and Susan Vergeront of Braver Angels at the Madison Rotary Club | Photo by Ruth Conniff
Cameron Swallow and Susan Vergeront of Braver Angels at the Madison Rotary Club | Photo by Ruth Conniff

It’s a heck of a time to talk about bringing people with different political opinions together. But there’s no doubt we need some sort of movement for peace. After the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the Waukesha Christmas parade tragedy, in a year that began with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, we seem to be coming apart. And despite alarming rhetoric on the right about fomenting a new civil war, there are plenty of people who would rather not descend into a violent abyss.

If we are going to rebuild the trust, civil discourse and the sense of community that form the foundations of our democracy, we need to figure out how to get along better.

To that end, after the Pledge of Allegiance and the Happy Birthday song for members who turn a year older in December, the Madison Rotarians listened to the Republican and Democratic state co-directors of Braver Angels talk about depolarizing political conversations.

Susan Vergeront, a Republican former member of the Wisconsin Assembly, opened with a joke about how the group changed its name from “Better Angels” to “Braver Angels” after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, because nowadays we all need to be brave. The joke, she acknowledged, fell a bit flat. “Too soon?” she said. (Actually a trademark lawsuit forced the name change). 

Vergeront went on to compare the Jan 6 attack with Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Ore. that devolved into riots and clashes with police. Her point: that “both sides” have their extremists, and we need the people in the middle to meet and talk, is well-meaning. 

But both-sides-ism, a time-worn construction that far predates our current crisis, doesn’t really capture our predicament. At best, it promotes lazy thinking and a false equivalency — between the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence and violent white nationalists, for example, or darrbetween people who say the election was stolen from Donald Trump and the results should be overturned and those who say the election was fair and Joe Biden is president. 

At worst, it can feed dangerous distortions, like the disgusting effort to tag Darrell Brooks, Jr., the man accused of driving his SUV into the Waukesha Christmas parade as a “Black Lives Matter protester.” Brooks, who has a long criminal record, is merely Black, not a representative of a political “side.” 

Still, the basic mission of Braver Angels is unimpeachable. Using a family therapy model to try to get people with different political views to talk to each other and forge understanding is a laudable — and apparently successful — strategy.

“We have more in common than we think,” said Cameron Swallow, Braver Angels’ Democratic state co-director (the group’s leaders are evenly split between “red” and “blue.”)

Swallow,  a teacher, bluegrass musician and spouse of the president of Carthage College in Kenosha, described a successful 2016 experiment, in which Trump and Clinton supporters spent a weekend together in Ohio and came out feeling more warmly toward one another. Overall, 70-80% of participants in Braver Angels programs report better understanding of others, feelings of warmth and a reduction in “affective polarization” — the political road rage that afflicts so many of us lately.

“If we can remember that ordinary people on the other side are not monsters then we have a chance to work something out.”

– Cameron Swallow

Through workshops, regular discussions, town halls and skills training in civil discourse, Braver Angels is seeking to make the political atmosphere less fraught and therefore less dangerous. It’s hard to argue with that.

“Most of us are not monsters,” said Swallow. “If we can remember that ordinary people on the other side are not monsters then we have a chance to work something out.”


Vergeront and Swallow hope the Madison Rotary Club will adopt the Braver Angels program. The goal, they say, is not to change people’s views about the issues, but about each other, so they can find collaborative solutions to problems. 

That kind of work is “in Rotary’s DNA,” as Swallow put it, “working with people who aren’t like you but who share common goals for the common good.” 

Looking around the ballroom at Madison’s Rotary members, who are engaged in service projects, fundraising efforts to support kids in the arts, who were happy to be together in person at last, exuding energy, optimism and friendliness, it’s easy to see the potential for a remedy to our toxic politics in the form of old-fashioned civic virtue.

Just bringing people together, physically, is good medicine, especially as we endure this everlasting pandemic. Hunkering down in our social media silos, while connecting us more readily, also contributes to greater alienation. Putting people back in touch with each other might help us relearn how to be a real community again. 

Braver Angels promotes face-to-face interactions between individuals, who interact with each other as whole people, as opposed to two-dimensional stereotypes. It makes sense that this practice fosters a greater chance at finding common ground and a shared sense of humanity. 

But what happens as the group “scales up,” as Vergeront and Swallow put it? Braver Angels recently launched an initiative for political leaders. 

Dr. Bill Doherty, a family therapist from Minnesota, who co-founded the national group,  spoke to a Congressional committee recently about how the workshops he helped develop around the country to lower rancor and increase understanding could be helpful to Congress. He urged members and their staff to take part in Braver Angles workshops and one-to-one “red/blue conversations” with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle in which they share personal stories about how they came to hold the beliefs they have, and to “model depolarization” in constituent town halls with people who hold a variety of different views.

Apparently a few politicians are taking him up on that. But there’s a reason bipartisanship is a rare phenomenon these days. Exacerbating anger, paranoia and resentment are winning political strategies. Polarization works. 

And while there are certainly cynical, self-serving politicians on both sides of the aisle, only one party is explicitly promoting a Big Lie and seeking  to undermine elections and our democratic institutions. 

The unbalanced truth is, in most of the major problems we are confronting in our politics, there really aren’t two sides. One side is lying. A better way to find common ground, rather than looking for some elusive “middle,”  would be to try to identify the values most of us hold in common.

Most of us want safe communities and don’t want to worry about our children getting shot. Not coincidentally, a large majority of Wisconsinites, including Republicans, Democrats and independents, favor gun-safety legislation including background checks. Most of us want to get past the pandemic. The only way we are going to do that is by practicing basic protections like social distancing and wearing masks and by getting everyone vaccinated. Big majorities of voters of every political stripe want nonpartisan redistricting and are opposed to gerrymandering. And most, despite the Republicans’ best efforts, still believe the 2020 election was not stolen or riddled with fraud and want a democracy in which everyone’s vote counts.

The hard part about the kinds of discussions Braver Angels is promoting is that, more than conflicting values, people on either side of the political divide are now debating with conflicting facts. On one side are the actual facts. On the other side are wild conspiracy theories we, the taxpayers, are shelling out $11,000 per month to Michael Gableman to promote.

The war on truth won’t be settled with a truce on some middle ground where we agree the election was kind of fraudulent or maybe vaccines and mask wearing are fine for some people while others need not participate. These, in fact, are the current Republican positions — even Gableman now claims to not want to relitigate the presidential election he once characterized as “stolen,” but merely to try to tighten up the rules for the next election. That can only mean making it harder for people to vote in the Democratic cities where he is threatening to jail the mayors, thus helping Republicans win without a majority of votes.

When it comes to the pandemic, school districts in Republican areas of the state have settled on optional mask policies, a split-the-difference solution designed to appease “both sides” — COVID realists and COVID deniers— which makes zero public health sense.

The truth cannot be in the middle when one side is fueled by lies. And the “Big Lie” is fueling Republican politics at both the state and national level right now.

Braver Angels’ Susan Vergeront, who calls herself “a conservative Republican,” understands that. When she endorsed Joe Biden in 2020, she explained that she abhors “the willingness to lie, the willingness to back up someone who is lying” in her party today.

Since I left the Legislature in 1994, the Republican party has become more greedy and more vicious and ruthless than I ever imagined it could be,” she said in a YouTube video posted by the Republican Accountability Project.

“I still call myself a Republican,” Vergeront said, “because I believe in the Republican ideals of limited government, freedom of the individual, seeking public good … I call myself a Republican in the traditional sense of the Grand Old Party. I am so disappointed, sometimes to tears, at where our country has come.”

Amen to that.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.