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It has become increasingly apparent that our country is now so sharply divided between political parties and philosophies that we risk a level of polarization that threatens our democracy.

As recently as 2004, the Pew Center reported that Democrats and Republicans had considerable overlap in their political values. Now the chasm has widened and loud voices in both parties decry the other as a threat to our country and to our way of life. Our hostility for the other side grows as it is fueled by the hyperbole of a 24-hour news cycle and the increasing use of social media as a weapon.

The American experiment in ordered liberty has worked so far because we have found common ground even when we have strong disagreements. Our own Civil War is the most extreme example of what occurs when we are unable to put our differences aside and work together for the good of the country. However, there are lessons to be learned from our most difficult moments. Even when the U.S. came to blows over disparate views, we eventually had to practice give-and-take through nonviolent means, utilizing our founding fathers’ thoughtfully constructed checks and balances among the three branches of government.

At this moment in our history, it is critical that we heed the lessons of the past and not allow the current divisiveness and hostility to become our primary means of resolving disputes. At best, putting party over country makes it almost impossible to solve the serious problems facing us. At worst, our fear and hatred of the other side could lead to violence or even civil war.

We can all agree that a war between citizens has a terrible price and ultimately, we will still need to find a way to settle our differences in its aftermath. It would be much better to go straight to the talking and problem-solving stage. That will require significant numbers of individuals with varying politics to commit to this nonviolent and respectful approach.

Fortunately, there are now movements afoot across the country that seek to reach beyond our divisions to practice civility and listening with empathy to the other side. One of these organizations seeking such reconciliation is Better Angels (better-angels.org).

Founded in 2016, Better Angels is a bipartisan citizens movement that aims to unify our nation, one conversation at a time. The group takes its name from President Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address in which he appeals to citizens to heal a divided nation by relying on “the better angels of our nature.”

Recently, a group of local Better Angels met to kick off a civility campaign in central Arkansas. In coordination with the national organization, we are planning a series of community workshops that will recruit equal numbers of “red” (conservative or Republican) and “blue” (liberal or Democratic) persons who are committed to listening with empathy to those of differing persuasions. It is not our purpose to change anyone’s beliefs or advance any political agenda. We seek to create a safe space where all voices are listened to, with respect. The workshops will follow a standard format and will be facilitated by trained moderators.

Eventually, if enough citizens become committed to working together across party lines, we can pressure those within the political system to do likewise. Ideally, our example will inspire persons within the political system (e.g., governmental and party leaders, political operatives, politicians, and others) to join us. Our hope is to spread this approach widely so that more and more citizens and politicians will come to see the benefits of civil engagement across the aisle.

We invite interested individuals to learn about Better Angels, connect with us, and volunteer your time. If you seek more civility with the goal of solving problems and reaching across the aisle to make our system work as it was designed, join us. The future of our country, whatever your particular vision, may well be at stake. We invite you to commit to working together to create a peaceful, respectful means for finding common ground, and of disagreeing without rancor.

For more information about Better Angels in Arkansas, please contact the state coordinator, Cindy Kyser, at ckyser@better-angels.org. Let’s depolarize America!

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J. Glen White, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who leans toward blue, and Cindy Kyser, MBA, PMP, a project manager who leans toward red, are two Arkansas Better Angels who have reached across the political divide to find common ground.

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