The anti-polarization movement in American politics is by now a well-established lobby. Since at least 2010, when centrist Republicans and Democrats created the group No Labels, there’s been a specific space, however cramped, for self-professed post-partisans to express their dissatisfaction with the ugly state of affairs. For its part, No Labels has struggled to actually accomplish much. As a 2013 article from the Boston Globe reports, “No Labels has been unable to advance, in any meaningful way, a single item from its relatively modest list of goals,” which include balancing the federal budget by 2030 and securing Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years.
Aware of the underwhelming performance of such groups, then, David Blankenhorn has set up a “new bipartisan network of leaders and organizations committed to reducing polarization” that he’s calling Better Angels. Run through the Institute for American Values—which has eschewed partisan labels since 1988—Better Angels has a few things going for it.
The most important is that, unlike No Labels, which simply asserts the principle of bipartisanship and mostly focuses its attention on different policy proposals, Better Angels devotes itself first of all to understanding the phenomenon of polarization. For instance, the group provides a useful taxonomy of civic division, distinguishing the right-left divide from the rich-poor divide and the governed-governing divide. Realizing how these three dynamics relate and interpenetrate already gets us closer to understanding the improbable rise of Donald Trump, for instance, than any of the vague platitudes about ‘progress’ on tap at your typical post-partisan Ted Talk.
Many of the partisans of bipartisanship are so inane because of their delusional wishing-away of legitimate and profound disagreements in values, worldviews, and (therefore) political preference of huge swaths of American voters. To notice that America is currently more divided than ever, and then in the same breath insist that we must come together like never before defies even the most linear exercise of logic.
But Better Angels appears, in these early days of its creation, to be different. Displaying a high quality of writing and analysis, the group reflects thoughtfully on the issues motivating our partisanship, while also diving into discrete political questions (Blankenhorn’s recent essay on Hillary Clinton’s relationship to the community organizer Saul Alinsky, for instance, is noteworthy for its deep research and even-handedness).
In naming his group, Blakenhorn evokes Abraham Lincoln’s plea at his first inaugural address that Americans heed the “better angels of our nature” rather than give in to further division. This sort of civic community is necessary for any republic to function and flourish, and now seems to be more threatened than at any time since Lincoln’s own tumultuous era.
It is telling that Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, who had helped Lincoln draft the inaugural speech, initially suggested the final line, “the guardian angel of the nation.” By replacing this with the “better angels of our nature” Lincoln shifted the effect from one of passive hope to participatory mission. Maybe we all might take up this mission as our own, regardless of who delivers the next inaugural address in January.