A national tour with the aim of reunifying a fractured America rolled into New England on Monday. The “One America” tour arrived in downtown St. Albans, Vermont.
After months of seemingly constant political conflict, the effort is trying to bridge the vast divide between right and left, to reduce polarization that can become mean-spirited.
The tour is the work of Better Angels, the flagship project of the Institute for American Values, a bipartisan think tank based in New York.
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“At the local level, what people are saying to us is we can’t wait for our political leaders to start bringing us together, we have to start,” explained William Doherty of Better Angels.
The group’s name, Better Angels, is taken from the final line of the 1861 inaugural address from President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln said, “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, 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 St. Albans, as it does wherever it goes, the tour planned a series of events to bring together Republicans and Democrats.
The theme of the dinners and listening sessions, organizers explained, is to ask participants to see their neighbors not as enemies, or even duplicates of the political candidates they supported, but as folks who simply had different personal experiences that brought them to their votes.
Shanna Ratner of Fairfield, Vermont is one of the Franklin County residents who helped organize the visit. She said she has been worried that the nasty tone of political disagreement in the country has the potential to dehumanize people, which she fears could set the stage for potential violence.
“We’re all people first,” Ratner said. “I may not agree with you, I may not share your values, I may not share your ideas — but that doesn’t mean you’re not a human.”
“The goal of this tour is not to change people’s opinions,” noted Kouhyar Mostashfi, who participated in a bipartisan Better Angels listening session near his home of Ohio, who then wanted to volunteer with the organization. “If you’re a Republican or a Democrat, we’re not asking you to join to other side. All we’re asking is to talk and share your experiences and see if you can find common ground with a member of the opposite side.”
And there have been breakthroughs, Better Angels described on its Facebook page, including the Ohio Republican who vowed to move past labels and see people as people. Another example the group described was the New Jersey Democrats who wished their party would project a more positive message around solutions, rather than just resisting the Trump administration.
Beyond the tour, Better Angels plans to develop materials promoting civility in political discourse, hoping to spread the respectful conversations to more communities across the country.
“Ordinary people want something to change,” Doherty said.