We often hear that politics is like a pendulum, in that it swings from side to side as the shortcomings of the latest victorious extremists are exposed by how they conduct themselves once in power.
As the victors consolidate their power and begin to enact their theories through their agenda, the pragmatics of the real world come to either douse the hot fires of their fervor, or to pour fuel on those fires. This back-and-forth has long been understood academically, with the most famous form of that understanding being under the banner of the Marxist theories that claimed that the repeated struggles of history could be understood as a series of cycles of concentrated power followed by revolutions to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, as we note in Russia, China, and North Korea, this dialectic itself is an idealized and mostly theoretical concept that does not play out well in the crucibles of history.
In our history lessons we are taught that famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Almost generational, for Jefferson a mere 20-year cycle was his thinking, which he expressed as “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion”.
A more recent report, one that is based on analytics and a quantified measure of unrest, suggests a 50-year cycle between outbursts of American political violence. In Peter Turchin’s book, “Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History” (2016, published just weeks before the 2016 election) we see presented a 50-year cycle that shows political discord to be cyclic and predictable. Ominously, the current 2016 and 2020 elections fall well within the current cycle’s danger zone.
Many commentators are already warning us of this danger. In his Sept. 3 opinion piece in the New York Times, David Brooks asks, “What Will You Do if Trump Doesn’t Leave?” In that op-ed he lays out some nightmare scenarios. None are pretty. All call for us to be prepared.
Enter Braver Angels. Shortly after the surprise of the 2016 election, two friends whose experiences were diametrically opposed came together to ask (and answer) the question, “What just happened?” One, living in Ohio, was at the center of the “hope and change” that the Trump victory represented. The other, living in New York City, was at an epicenter of “despair and grief.” They turned to a family therapist for insights — and from that beginning formed a bipartisan organization to help bring mutual understanding to the table. Remembering the words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural, they named their effort Better Angels, later changed to be Braver Angels.
In his first inaugural speech, delivered on the threshold to the second American Civil War (we usually refer to the first civil war as “The American Revolution), Lincoln ended his speech with an appeal to our “better angels.” Unfortunately, within a few weeks, we were at war.
Now, we are on the threshold of what could easily be the most divisive election in recent memory, one that may be followed by weeks to months of anger and protest from one side, with jubilation and gloating on the other. Neither is a healthy way to deal with the outcome if we are to move beyond the ballot box-fueled rancor to a future that brings us together. Every junior league coach understands this concept — that win or lose, we must come together — and if our politics were being run as well as a 3rd grade playground we’d be applying that lesson. But right now we are operating in the realm of “social media,” and what is needed is an appeal not only to our better angels, but also an appeal to the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural — in which he called for us to move beyond the conflict “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Braver Angles (braverangels.org) has set out to provide a model for moving through the minefield that our polarization has laid down. Their “With Malice Toward None” initiative calls on civic organizations (e.g., Rotary, Lions, Sertoma) as well as Churches and Colleges to lay a foundation for healing through dialogs both before the election and after. If we have no clear winner on election night, as is almost certainly to be the case, we will need to be fully engaged in building bridges across our divides, rather than walls between us. While some organizations may be tackling this challenge, many of them are monocultures, little more than echo chambers, and no more prepared to help build bridges than most of our media channels are. Actually reaching across the aisle takes skills and practice, and the With Malice Toward None Initiative is a good first step toward that.