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Braver Angels: Organization with Tri-State roots aims to help bridge nation's political divide

'The need is greater than ever'
Biden Inauguration National Guard
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 18:13:20-05

CINCINNATI — President Joe Biden talked about the need to unify the nation during his inaugural address Wednesday.

But how?

An organization with Greater Cincinnati roots could be part of the answer.

Called Braver Angels, the group brings together people with different political perspectives to help them discover what they have in common. South Lebanon resident David Lapp and his two co-founders, David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, created the organization after the 2016 presidential election because they saw the country’s political divide widening.

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David Lapp

“The ultimate goal of Braver Angels is to bring together red and blue citizens to help build trust in each other and to depolarize American politics so that we get to the point where we will disagree with each other, but we will do so with respect, with understanding of what the differences are and with pursuing the common ground where it exists,” said Lapp, who said he leans red.

Braver Angels is officially based in New York City but held its initial events in Southwest Ohio. The organization has about 40,000 members and subscribers nationwide, with members in all 50 states, Lapp said. Those numbers have grown dramatically since October.

“We want to have a bottom-up reform of American politics so that we get to the point where Congress is worthy of our trust, where congressional representatives are worthy of our trust, where they’re working together and collaborating,” Lapp said. “Not that they’re going to just, you know, agree on everything. But we want to get to the point where citizens — conservative and liberal and in between — that they feel heard by their government, where they do really feel that this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Beverly Horstman is the volunteer state coordinator for Ohio and considers herself an independent. She got involved with Braver Angels after she retired a couple of years ago.

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Beverly Horstman

“I knew that I wanted to be involved in something that would try to help make this world better for our grandchildren because I was getting very concerned about what I saw happening,” she said. “It felt like we were becoming enemies, and when you do that, you stop seeing the humanity in each other.”

Figuring out ‘what the heck we need to do’

Ohio has four Braver Angels local alliance groups: Greater Cincinnati, Greater Columbus, Southwest Ohio and Brown County. Each alliance has two co-chairs – one red and one blue.

Rebecca Johnson is an adjunct history professor at Northern Kentucky University and the blue co-chair for the Greater Cincinnati alliance. David Dennis is an IT professional and serves as the Greater Cincinnati alliance’s red co-chair.

Johnson said she didn’t realize how strongly she felt about people on the other part of the political spectrum until she got involved with the organization in 2017. Now, she said she works to set aside her preconceived notions about others and listen more carefully to their points of view.

“Braver Angels is not about convincing other people to change their minds. It’s not trying to push an agenda,” she said. “It’s only trying to help Americans pull together and depolarize.”

Johnson said she views the Braver Angels mission as having three levels.

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Rebecca Johnson

The first is to take the contempt out of the way people view each other so they can see each other “as human beings who love America and want this country to be good, and yet have different ideas about what good looks like right now,” she said.

The second is to help people find common ground.

The last, she said, is to “find a third way.”

“We talk about compromise in a negative fashion in our society,” she said. “But there is often a third way of doing things that is not even a compromise. It’s a win-win for both sides.”

When the country’s founders were deciding how to structure the government, for example, they created two houses of Congress: the U.S. Senate, so each state would have two elected representatives, and the U.S. House of Representatives, where there is proportional representation.

“That wasn’t a compromise,” she said. “That was a third way.”

The goal for Dennis, he said, is to help people get to know each other and build bridges.

“It’s progressed to the point now where it’s become largely a shouting match,” he said. “And I see actually both liberals and conservatives as being at a crossroads where both sides have to decide, do I go with the agenda? Or do we go toward the center and figure out what the heck we need to do to be Americans?”

‘The need is greater than ever’

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Braver Angels held in-person meetings where people would divide into groups based on their shared perspectives and then come together to talk and find common ground. Discussions have centered around the red and blue political differences but also around such themes as rural and urban perspectives.

Those in-person meetings screeched to a halt last spring, Johnson said, but virtual meetings began in the summer with interest continuing to grow.

A statewide Ohio workshop planned for Jan. 23 already is filled to capacity, and a Jan. 30 workshop scheduled to handle the overflow is nearly full, too, Horstman said, adding that organizers are working to get a third meeting scheduled to satisfy the demand.

A virtual meeting earlier this month after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol drew 4,500 attendees from across the country, Lapp said, including people with strongly held beliefs on both ends of the political spectrum.

“We had people who had participated in the Trump rally on January the sixth and were there to peacefully protest,” he said, “getting along with people who had marched at Black Lives Matter protests.”

Participants know they can voice their beliefs because Braver Angels is an organization that requires transparency and demands that people in the group feel safe and respected, he said.

“There is precedent in America,” Lapp said, “for us, for movements and political leaders and citizens seeking to overcome these divisions.”

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David Dennis

Even so, Dennis said, people must be willing to listen and work toward that goal.

“We also need to wake up to the fact that it’s not a done deal,” he said of the great American experiment. “We don’t know the end of this movie. You know, if things play out a certain way, we’re going to become a tin-pot Third World nation.”

Organizations like Braver Angels are designed to help people of goodwill avoid that fate, Horstman said.

“I think the need is greater than ever,” she said. “But it seems like the response is coming out greater than ever as well. So I do have confidence that we can do this together. We can roll up our sleeves and do this together.”

More information about Braver Angels is available online. Memberships cost $12 per year, although some members donate more. Information and registration for the Jan. 30 “Depolarizing Within Workshop” is available online, too. Admission to the event is free.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.