What is Better Angels?

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861


Better Angels is a ten-year campaign to depolarize America. Please consider joining us!

Political polarization — particularly affective political polarization, which is when we view our opponents not simply as misguided but also as bad people — has risen dramatically in the United States. A recent study called it “the defining feature of early 21st century politics, both among the public and elected officials.” It may be our most urgent social problem, because it’s the problem that prevents us as a society from addressing so many problems.

By polarization I mean … an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.

James Q. Wilson, “How Divided Are We?” 2006

Polarization hurts our society in many ways. It produces policy gridlock, replacing governing with arguing and name-calling. It makes our public discussion coarser, meaner, and dumber. It separates us from one another. It makes us less trusting of one another and less capable of empathy. Perhaps most importantly, it weakens our intellects — it’s an intellectual deficiency, akin to a handicap — and lowers the caliber of our citizenship.

The Better Angels Idea

Our goal is ambitious and achievable: To equip up to eight millions Americans to become depolarizers in their communities and networks and make an enduring impact on American government and society in favor of nonpolar principles and practices.

The focus of Better Angels is not primarily on Washington, D.C. and on the behavior of our top elected officials. That’s important, but probably achievable only as one part of a larger change. Instead, the overarching goal of Better Angels is to improve the ways that we Americans — all of us, together — think about and respond to the challenge of polarization. Our focus in this initiative, then, is on our civil society.

For polarization ultimately threatens nothing less the “Unum” in our national motto, E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). It erodes our capacity to recognize and value one another as fellow citizens pursuing a common good. Polarization is therefore about us, not just them. It’s about the health and functioning of our civil society, not just our legislators. To address this problem effectively, then, will require widespread cultural change, or changing many people’s values.

We assume that such a values shift in the United States is not only necessary, but also that it’s realistically possible. Toward that end, Better Angels aims to develop, test, and employ largely new methods for depolarizing America. In brief, we’ll seek to help evolve the society’s way of thinking, not by asking people to water down their views or to give up the values they hold dear, but rather by helping them to add new values to their existing conceptual framework. We assume that it’s possible to show convincingly why and how the fundamental goals of each “side” are best achieved by integrating and including some of the other side’s enduring values. We believe that if partisans on each side can better use some of their opponent’s defining values to construct their own identities and their own ways of reasoning and choosing, something new and important will have happened.

This new thing won’t be called centrism, splitting differences on issues, capitulating, changing stripes, compromising, switching sides, pretending to believe something we don’t, being bipartisan, or being nicer. It will constitute a much deeper and more radical change — a change in how we think together about each other.

Better Angels is not one organization, but rather a diverse group of leaders and co-sponsoring organizations working together to create a social movement. The three components of Better Angels are scholarly research, public argument, and community organizing.

What We’ll Do: Years 1-3

In the area of public argument: annual reports to the nation, community presentations, articles and op-eds, media interviews, and a podcast series and other website-based and social media communications.

In the area of scholarly research: establishing the nation’s Leading Depolarization Indicators, contributing to the initiative’s educational and training curricula, convening interdisciplinary scholarly consultations on depolarization, publishing timely scholarly articles and reports, and evaluating the Better Angels initiative.

In the area of community organizing: recruiting and involving Better Angels affiliates, holding annual national conferences, creating, testing, and launching a national training program on nonpolar principles and practices, and helping to start new local initiatives for depolarization.

What We’ll Do: The First 15 Months

  • Visit scores of communities to identify leaders of civil society (Better Angels Affiliates) committed to working for depolarization.
  • Convene a major gathering of U.S. leaders to put the challenge of depolarization on the national agenda.
  • Prepare and disseminate a report to the nation, A Call to Depolarize America, jointly signed by up to 100 prominent U.S. leaders and scholars.
  • Release and publicize the nation’s “Leading Depolarization Indicators.”
  • Develop, test, and launch a grass roots education and training initiative on depolarization, with the ultimate goal of online training that can reach millions of Americans.

Want to Get Involved?

You can subscribe here (it’s free) to the Better Angels Reporter, the initiative’s e-publication.

You can contact us here.

Why the Name “Better Angels”?

The idea of recognizing something that is shared with the other — even in moments of fierce conflict — is beautifully reflected in Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term “better angels” in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. William Seward, who would serve as Secretary of State under Lincoln, had suggested that Lincoln close his speech by calling in hope upon the “the guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln changed it to “the better angels of our nature.” In Seward’s version, what was needed would come from outside us. In Lincoln’s version, it would come from within us, something “better” in the “nature” of both Northerners and Southerners.

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