Area’s ‘Better Angels’ work to improve political discourse

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The day after the 2016 presidential election, South Orange resident Andy Roth woke up feeling disappointed in the way discussions about the ballot had gone in the country.

“I had this awful feeling about people not being able to talk to each other,” Roth said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 15. “People were getting angry and defensive and I saw how easy it is to escalate into this anger.”

He wanted to find a way to improve discussions on those polarizing issues and talk to people who have different political opinions than he does. Soon he became involved with Better Angels, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that aims to unify “red” and “blue” voters by organizing events that teach them how to find common ground. Roth is a liberal moderator in the Summit chapter of Better Angels, along with Lisa Allen, his conservative counterpart.

“People are earnestly interested in how they can talk and engage with each other better,” Allen said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 15. “We’re all so much more alike than we think. Even though we check different boxes on a ballot, we have a lot of the same values. I thought it was my responsibility to be a part of that.”

The name of the organization, which has more than 5,000 members in all 50 states, comes from the final paragraph of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” Lincoln said. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

In the spirit of Lincoln’s speech, Allen and Roth lead discussions between members of different political parties to find common ground and understand perspectives. Allen, who lives in Summit, said the discussions also help to inform voters, regardless of whether they usually support the elephant or the donkey.

“I feel as though, when you look at the language, we can choose how we’re going to act,” Allen said. “How our political figures act is a byproduct of how we act. I can then vote better and for better legislation. I can choose to vote for people that aren’t just along the party lines, because that’s not productive.”

A psychologist, Roth finds his marital counseling skills useful when moderating the workshops in which area Republicans and Democrats discuss political and social issues. He also described a recent tour the organization took that included an unlikely guest.

“It’s similar to what I see with couples,” he said. “People will get angry and defensive when they don’t have to. We were going on a tour of about 14 towns and doing 18 meetings, and our bus driver, who was a Republican, came to one of them. He said one of the most important things of the night, ‘We’re not as divided as they say we are.’ That’s true here; we like each other and we’re friends.”

With another election just completed, Allen said there is still a long way to go toward repairing the political discourse that she feels is consuming the country. But she is also optimistic about the work she has done as a moderator for Better Angels.

“If you’re not in tune with it, you’re not going to change,” Allen said. “But I think there is a difference in how we’re listening to each other. We’re creating a safe space where we can be open and honest. But it’s going to be a long process to get out of that hole and get out of the polarization that we’re seeing now.”

Better Angels workshop participants learn communication skills, such as listening to reflect on someone’s statements, rather than immediately responding. Allen credited this method as a way to encourage peaceful participation in the political process.

“There are so many issues and nothing is black and white,” Allen said. “It’s only going to get more complicated, so how do you want to participate? You want to learn how to come up with solutions. It really takes a village; it won’t happen on its own.”

In addition to the workshops, which include an even number of Democrats and Republicans, Better Angels also holds other events. December will see Roth, a former Broadway actor, hit the road to show off his musical chops in a nine-date tour around the northeast with a show that reflects the discourse in the country. He’ll be traveling with Sage Snider, a musician from Nashville, Tenn. Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/o/sage-snider-and-andy-roth-17894836101 or contact Roth at betterangelsworkshop712@gmail.com for tickets to this free show. Roth and Snider will be playing in Summit on Wednesday, Dec. 12.

“We try to embrace the complex, rather than writing a post on social media or something like that,” he said. “Democrat and Republican should not be as important as people think it is — we’re all American. We want to come together to come up with solutions and solve these problems.”

Allen agreed.

“In a movement where people have so many different ideas, we’ve been able to find areas of communication,” she said. “We get to build a friendship and understand each other. We get to know each other as people, not just politically.”

Photos Courtesy of Andy Roth

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