In a Time of Political Polarization, Braver Angels Promote Unity

PUBLISHED MAR 7, 2023 3:24 P.M.
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Braver Angels members discuss election reform.

Braver Angels members discuss election reform.   Courtesy of Braver Angels

It was inauguration day 2017 and Carlos Hernandez was strolling down the street in his San Francisco neighborhood. As he turned the corner, he passed a pet store, and there in the window was an effigy of Donald Trump, hanging by a noose.

Head shot of Carlos Hernandez
‘Whether they’re blue, red, or
purple, we’ve developed
friendships over time.’
—Carlos Hernandez

After a nasty and divisive presidential election, Trump was being officially sworn in as the 45th president of the United States that very day. In many parts of the country, especially progressive enclaves like San Francisco, Democrats were fuming—and in shock.

But Hernandez, 66, is a bit of an oddity. The Hispanic retired technical sales professional is a Democrat-turned-Republican who voted for Trump. 

“I admit, I was walking down the street kind of gleeful,” he said. “But then I saw the Trump doll with a noose around its neck. I kept walking. I told myself, ‘Just mind your business, go back home, make yourself a sandwich, and have a nice lunch.’”

But Hernandez instead turned around and marched into the store.

“I didn't know what I was going to say or how I was going to say it. But I walked up to the storekeeper and, God help me, all I could come up with was, ‘What is that?’” 

“It’s a store display,” Hernandez recalls the owner replying.

A tense exchange ensued, as Hernandez asked the store owner if he would also hang a Black doll in the window like that, or a rabbi.

“To his credit, he didn't say a word and walked away. And I was smart enough to not chase him and just leave.”

While it was a relatively mild confrontation, it still shook Hernandez, who is retired from a 28-year career at Westinghouse Electric and Eaton Corporations and divides his time between San Francisco and Hawaii. The experience also helped convince him to join a group called Braver Angels, whose mission is to bridge the partisan divide between conservatives and progressives.

Can the Center Hold?

Three friends co-founded Braver Angels in December 2016, prompted by one of the most divisive presidential elections in history. At the group’s first meeting, the founders brought together 10 Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio. This marked Braver Angels’ first “Red/Blue Workshop.” The goal was to see if Americans could still disagree respectfully and find common ground in the dawning era of Donald Trump.

The first gathering was a success, with people from different backgrounds and political affiliations listening to each other’s perspectives and opinions. The participants agreed this could be the start of a bigger social movement. The founders later went on to help others launch Braver Angels chapters, even as the nation was growing more polarized over everything from healthcare and immigration to gun control.

As Braver Angels gained momentum, it launched bus tours, held workshops, hosted conventions, and started a podcast. By the end of 2017, the organization had members and volunteers across the country, and it has continued to grow.

The nonprofit’s funding comes from members and foundations from across the political spectrum, which helps support the organization’s staff and various programs, which now include debates, public forums, speaking events, and caucuses.

Hernandez said the first Braver Angels workshop he attended was a six-hour affair, during which guests shared a meal and engaged in lengthy discussions.

“It was transformational,” said Hernandez, who now serves as the Red Pacific Region Lead, and also as Red co-chair of the San Francisco Braver Angels Alliance.

After being an active member for some seven years, Hernandez said, his biggest takeaway is not over political policies or candidates, but rather personal relationships with other members.

“Whether they’re blue, red, or purple, we’ve developed friendships over time. I now have dozens of names in my phone I can call and ask, ‘How are you today? By the way, did you see today's headline? What are your thoughts?’” 

But he’s also quick to point out that it’s not all members holding hands singing kumbaya. Hernandez said Braver Angels is like any family, with disagreements and differences of opinion. But for the most part, everyone is courteous, he said, adding that he’s especially grateful to be a part of the group as the country heads into what promises to be another divisive presidential election in 2024.

“The next election is really going to turn up the heat,” he said. “And as long as there’s going to be that kind of drama, organizations like Braver Angels will thrive.”

A Search for Truth

Paul Norris is another early member of Braver Angels. He serves as California State Co-Coordinator and Co-Chair of the Braver Angels Red Caucus. He's also the Associate Director of the Braver Angels Debate Program. 

“I'm not exactly a conservative—I'm probably more of a libertarian,” said Norris, who works as a psychotherapist. He said that living in liberal San Francisco, he often felt isolated and “oppressed by the people who are continually talking about oppression. And the psychotherapy community, especially in San Francisco, promotes woke idealism constantly.”

Braver Angels seemed like an “antidote” to his alienation, Norris said.

“So I joined, and it felt like a panacea. Sometimes meetings can be difficult. But overall the experience is positive. For me, Braver Angels is like therapy that helps me deal with being a therapist.”

Norris said he grew up in a trailer park in Des Plaines, Illinois. In the mid-1960s he moved to California and attended the University of California, Berkeley. At first, he embraced the area’s politically active, hippie sensibilities.

“I was very much on board,” he says. “It looked good to me at the time. And maybe it was good at the time. But what it's turned into today doesn't look so good.”

Norris said that overall, Braver Angles has three main objectives: to engage in civil conversation, find common ground, and determine what actions might have a positive impact on the lives of individual members as well as the country’s political environment.

“Of those three objectives, we’ve succeeded far more at the first one than the second two.”

Norris said that during his time with Braver Angels, he’s developed skills to better communicate with people on the other end of the political spectrum. He’s actively involved in the organization’s debate program, which he said is more about a search for truth rather than claiming a victory for your side.

“The people who I’ve interacted with at Braver Angels have really changed my opinion of progressives in general,” he said. “They’re open-minded and intelligent. When you actually talk to each other, you realize how complex people are. They don't fall into nice, neat categories. And I think we all feel better about ourselves and the country when we have conversations with people who see things differently than we do.”

A Broader Consensus 

Head shot of Dan Carnese
‘We give people techniques
where they can engage
in this deeper kind
of discussion.’
—Dan Carnese

Dan Carnese is a good example of someone who sees things differently than Norris and Hernandez—yet the three are all friends. Carnese, who lives in Redwood City, is the Blue co-chair of the Braver Angels Silicon Valley Chapter. Born in Amityville, New York, he too went to undergraduate school at UC Berkeley, and then to graduate school at MIT. He’s lived in Silicon Valley since the 1980s and is the president of a software company that works mostly with healthcare startups.

He joined Braver Angels in early 2020, just as the country was shutting down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I had been working for some time trying to find an effective way to depolarize political discourse,” he said. “I'm primarily interested in policy and policy outcomes and how to build systems to make it easier to have constructive dialogues.”

Carnese said he found the initial Braver Angels meetings compelling, especially their emphasis on forging personal relationships and going beyond simply debating issues. He said that while some chapters focus on general discussions, which can range from school boards to gun policies, the Silicon Valley chapter digs into what people disagree about and why.

“We know that it's impossible to get people to agree on certain things, but we try to see the other person's side of the argument.”

Carnese uses the immigration debate as an example. He said that he’s in favor of more immigration, which he believes comes with big economic benefits. And he disagrees that it poses an increased danger to society.

Plenty of people in Braver Angels have the opposite point of view, Carnese said. What’s important is to take the time to research the points where you disagree, such as immigration’s economic impact, and explore what other countries have experienced and what Santa Clara County’s projected needs are.

“In addition to having general talking points for or against an issue, we give people techniques where they can engage in this deeper kind of discussion. We may not come to an agreement, but at least we’ll be able to figure out how to more productively explore what our differences are without attacking each other. Over time, this approach can often lead to a broader consensus.”

After some three years with Braver Angels, Carnese said that one epiphany he’s had is how the “liberal versus conservative” dynamic that exists in this country masks both the differences that exist between people who are on the same political team, as well as the commonalities of people on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“We have to get beyond this simplistic divide if we want to make progress,” he said. “The deeper you dig, the more you find we have in common. That’s why Braver Angels is so important. You can find other people of goodwill across the political divide that you may have significant disagreements with, but you can still have a personal relationship and be friends.”


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