Bridging the growing divide by seeking ‘Better Angels’

According to National Public Radio, more than 200 groups nationally are leading people in discussions about sensitive political issues because they are concerned about the rising incivility in public life. 

One such group is Better Angels, co-founded by Bill Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor, marriage counselor and researcher from Roseville.

At Better Angels meetings and those of other groups, folks of diverse backgrounds meet up, talk and discover they don’t have to dislike people with opposing political views.

Don Salverda, the founder of the Roseville Area Optimist Club, invited Doherty to speak at the organization’s March 8 meeting.

Doherty talked to some 100 club members and guests about finding common ground with others by working toward depolarizing reds and blues — conservatives and liberals — and by trying to understand the viewpoints of others, even if you don’t agree with them. 

He said it’s getting to the point where some families can’t even celebrate Thanksgiving together. Doherty wants to do something about that.



The country has been polarizing along political lines in more recent times, Doherty explained. He asked club members what they thought was the cause of this polarization and most people said it was social media.  

“Although the polarization was increasing before [President Donald] Trump, Trump is clearly a figure who brings out strong passions for and against. With his self-admitted combat style, he is in some ways emblematic of our era,” Doherty said, adding that he thinks the country would still be highly polarized if Hillary Clinton had been elected. 

“Presidents reflect and amplify cultural currents: they don’t create them.”

Doherty said nowadays communities are fractured, and people feel their tribe is right while others are wrong. Special interest groups often demonize others, and there is lot more economic insecurity worldwide, high levels of migration and rapid social change, as well as a decline in membership organizations like scouting or Rotary.

There’s less socialization and courtesy among those in Congress, as well, and customs there have eroded and contributed to more animosity and hence, more polarization, he said. Super-rich political donors focus on ideology and gerrymandering. And people live more often in like-minded communities instead of more diverse ones, making it just harder for people to get together across party lines.

Observing all this, Doherty set up a workshop to help people get along better, even if their views differed. 

Through small and large group activities, the workshops focus on identifying false or misleading stereotypes of people’s own groups, and looking to see if there is a kernel of truth in any of them and if the two sides have things in common. The goals of Better Angels worshops are to understand the other side’s point of view, even if while not agreeing with it, and to look for common ground and ways to work together, instead of ridiculing each other.


‘We must not be enemies’

Doherty set up a Better Angels bus tour of small towns. Media showed up at every stop so his ideas spread; conservatives and liberals attended his conferences in equal numbers. 

Over and over, Doherty and state coordinator Pat DeVries kept hearing the divisiveness in the country must stop. The two set up a nonprofit with Minnesota as its hub, and membership is now in 32 states. 

Having heard Doherty speak, Optimist Club member Loren Swanson was bullish on his idea. 

“I do not believe that people will ever agree on everything,” said Swanson. “I believe there are a lot of good things about people’s beliefs that I can appreciate, and I can accept the other things without hating the people themselves ... In my estimation that is a giant step in the right direction.”

Doherty is hopeful that ordinary citizens like Swanson can be part of the solution. When people speak up in a democracy, things can improve, he said.

Inspiration for Better Angels was pulled from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1961, which he gave after seven states had seceded from the Union, and on the eve of the Civil War.

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Lincoln. “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.”

Salverda said Doherty is taking on important work.

“When America was founded, it provided freedom of speech. But nowadays we need more cooperation and less confrontation, and we need civility, even with people’s differing opinions. I give Bill a lot of credit for starting this national movement,” he said.

For more information about Better Angels contact Doherty at or DeVries at

The Roseville Area Optimist Club holds a lunch meeting the second Friday of each month. The May 10 will feature publisher, speaker and consultant Mike McKinley. The meeting will be at the Radisson in Roseville, 2540 Cleveland Ave., from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The cost is $25 and includes lunch.

For more inormation about the club go to


–Pamela O’Meara can be reached at

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