Episode #37: Pushing Back on Polarization with David Blankenhorn

Peter Wood

We live in an acrimonious age, when mere accusation is tantamount to proof, when people increasingly view those of a different opinion as evil, or enemies. My guest today, David Blankenhorn, is working to reduce polarization.

David is the founder and president of the Institute for American Values, and the president and co-founder of Better Angels, a nonprofit that brings together Americans of all political leanings to understand one another and get beyond stereotypes. In this episode, we talk about what polarization is, when it is bad, and how to promote tolerance.

This episode will also be our final show of the summer. But don’t despair, we’ll be back in the fall! Until then, go back and re-listen to some of our past episodes and we’ll be back before you know it.

Show Notes

00:00: Peter introduces David and Better Angels.

1:45 David recorded this podcast wearing a t-shirt from East Tennessee University, where Better Angels had just hosted a debate on whether students should have guns on campus.

3:34: David started his career as a community organizer in Massachusetts and Virginia. He found that polarization could be an effective activist tactic--but today he is alarmed that polarization has become the dominant way of speaking with others.

6:58: Is there a line between good polarization and bad polarization?

12:23: Conflict is an inevitable product of a free society. The issue is how we think about and handle those with whom we disagree.

14:33: Does our governmental system of checks and balances protect against faction? David cites James Madison on the importance of virtue in the citizenry.

16:36: The NAS mission statement calls for colleges to promote virtuous citizenship. What does that mean?

19:43: Peter just finished reading Myron Magnet’s book Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, which suggests extra-constitutional agencies has made virtuous citizenship more difficult.

22:33: David says many in rural areas are furious about the heavy hand of the administrative state--but haven’t always encountered it personally.

27:36: Peter and David have both been criticized for not being polarizing enough--especially regarding President Trump, and on Judge Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.

30:50: David talks about his decision to pull back from political controversies in order to promote dialogue and lessen polarization.

32:20: Who are David’s models of virtue in the public square? He cites several American politicians, including Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator John McCain, and President Barack Obama. But he says Vaclav Havel is his hero on this issue.

36:22: David started the Institute for American Values in 1987, the same year NAS was founded. He tells about its early days.

40:30: What led David away from Alinsky-style polarization?

46:43: Peter often thinks back on the Institute’s work criticizing the use of donors to conceive children.

49:15 The Institute also tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the expansion of gambling.

52:44 Pew found that in 2016, 91% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats view members of the opposite party very unfavorably. What should we make of this?

54:51 Better Angels hosts debates and community events that bring together equal numbers of “Red and Blue” citizens. How do these work?

59:15 David describes Better Angels’ debates on college campuses.

1:01 20: Many on college believe truth is relative, or that it is unknowable. Does Better Angels feed into or push against relativism?

Resources:

Better Angels website: https://www.better-angels.org/

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