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I first saw Norman Lear’s iconic sitcom All in the Family as a preteen with my Episcopal priest/sociology professor father and my Whole Earth Catalog mother. In their estimation, Mike “Meathead” Stivic embodied the freethinking hippie sensibilities present in the hordes of college students who plotted, protested, and partied within the comfy confines of our seemingly “radical” suburban home. 

After my parents died from their addictions in the late seventies, I stopped watching those television shows that defined a childhood I now viewed as toxic. So I wasn’t aware that as All in the Family morphed into Archie Bunker’s Place, Meathead ran off to a commune in Humboldt County, California with some co-ed, leaving Gloria behind as a single mom. 

Archetypal conservative Archie Bunker and archetypal liberal Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic in a 1971 episode of All in the Family (YouTube screenshot)

Rewatching the show, I can see how Meathead got his nickname. He’s so committed to maintaining his image as a benevolent social justice warrior that he cannot hear any actual legitimate concerns voiced by his in-laws, his eventual ex-wife, and his supposed best friend Lionel. (Watching Meathead lecturing Lionel, a Black man, about race issues is particularly jarring.)

My parents may have praised Mike’s messages, but even when Mike was right, Meathead could be just as bullheaded and self-centered as his father-in-law. 

Making connections across the political divide

So how do I deal with those in my life like Meathead and Archie, whom I genuinely care about even though they tend to come off as more asinine than aware? Monica Guzman, author of I Never Thought of It That Way and Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, utilizes her own experience as a liberal Seattleite trying to find common ground with her Mexican pro-Trump parents to help others make similar connections across the political divide. 

In Guzman’s analysis, disagreement and polarization are not the underlying problems: “The problem is the blindness that we have toward each other that comes when there is so much animosity at the fault lines of our divisions.” 

She recommends that people curious about bridging this divide begin by changing how they frame their questions about specific issues: “When we ask why, we end up moving closer to judgment. Each side lists their reasons for why they believe until it just blows up without building up any trust or respect.” 

Instead, try asking, “How did you come to believe what you believe?” This question allows one to journey with another person to learn how they arrived at their views instead of putting that person on trial for their beliefs. Also, Guzman finds power in asking what worries someone or gives them hope about a particularly hot-button issue like guns or abortion. In her experience, this line of thinking leads to conversations about values, which takes away the temptation to judge. “We have to first build the trust before we can search for the truth,” Guzman says. 

When someone switches from lecturing to storytelling mode, Guzman can feel her shoulders relax. Her brain starts to picture and visualize the experience this person is relating to her, and she can put herself in their shoes. As she reflects, “Darius Ballinger, this wonderful community builder, says that the shortest distance between two people is a story. We have this incredible capacity to visualize each other’s path once we see it. When we share stories, we’re illuminating those things that are hard to see.” 

Tapping into the Braver Angels of our nature 

The name “Braver Angels” derives from Abraham Lincoln’s calling upon “the better angels of our nature” as an acknowledgment of the bravery required to try and bridge a toxic divide. Launched in 2016, Braver Angels describes itself as a national movement to bring liberals, conservatives, and others together at the grassroots level—not to find a centrist compromise, but to find one another as citizens. Through workshops, debates, campus engagement, and more, Braver Angels helps Americans understand each other beyond stereotypes, form community alliances, and reduce the vitriol that poisons our civic culture.

Since then, they’ve grown to more than 80 local alliances. Among them is the Oregon Chapter of Braver Angels co-led by “Red” State Coordinator Jeff Spitzer and “Blue” State Coordinator Elise Keith. According to Spitzer, he may be conservative, but he changed his registration from Republican to unaffiliated over a decade ago as he grew tired of the dogma expressed by both sides and did not feel represented by either, saying, “Unaffiliated felt like the best choice for me.” Similarly, Keith became appalled at watching what she thought was a foundational progressive value of trying to be inclusive and peace-loving get tossed aside in the name of inflammatory issues that she found weren’t particularly well examined.  

When I expressed skepticism about whether workshops with titles like “Skills for Social Media,” “Is It Time For A Third Party?,” “Walk a Mile in My News,” and “Skills for Bridging the Divide” could have demonstrable results, Keith reminded me of the media’s proclivity to illuminate the worst examples on each side. She noted, “Honestly, those on opposite sides of the political divide are probably not going to get along until they get to the point where they’ve moved out of that anger and towards wanting something different.” In Spitzer’s estimation, people are tired of the relentless news cycles that make them angry by telling them the other side is evil. “They’re looking for something different. Braver Angels can be a resource for them,” he says. 

Both of them have observed an exponential growth in the number of people who leave their events expressing hope and optimism that they can understand the other side and find some semblance of common ground. Many write to them afterward for contact information to continue the conversation. 

For those who do not feel safe engaging in direct communication with those of differing political beliefs, Spitzer and Keith recommend watching Braver Angels’ online debates. Set in a special parliamentary format, these debates provide a space where all can speak or ask questions civilly to foster a better understanding for all. 

During the recent election cycle, Braver Angels officially launched Braver Politics, their national campaign to engage candidates and elected officials at every level of government along with Braver U, their hub for personal, educational, and leadership development. Other programs include the We the People’s Project geared for working-class Americans and College Debates, a program held in conjunction with  ACTA (American Council for Trustees and Alumni) and the student group BridgeUSA.

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...