The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He dramatically changed his views on gay marriage. Here’s how he says the nation can come together.

Demonstrators rally in favor of transgender rights on Feb. 25 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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David Blankenhorn knows a thing or two about how exposure to opposing viewpoints can alter one’s own beliefs.

Blankenhorn, an advocate for the institution of marriage, testified in 2010 against legalizing same-sex marriage. He believed then that gay people were using marriage as a political football and were not serious about the commitment that comes with it. But later, an unlikely friendship with writer Jonathan Rauch, who wrote, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America,” gradually made him see the issue differently, and in 2012 he wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he had changed his mind.

He is now the founder of an organization called Better Angels committed to engaging people from all sides in an effort to encourage this kind of open-minded dialogue. It gets its name from a line from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “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 … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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A month after the presidential election, he invited 10 Trump voters and 11 Clinton supporters in southwest Ohio to spend a weekend together. At the heart of their gathering was an attempt to dispel stereotypes, to explain points of view and to find some common ground.

Trump voters were asked questions like, “When was America great, and who was it great for?” and “How did you handle the video of Trump saying what he does to women?” While Clinton voters were asked, “Why did you think Hillary’s emails weren’t important?” and “How was Hillary going to unite the country?”

After 13 hours of discussion, sometimes tense, sometimes emotional, they found some areas of agreement, according to a report released after the event. The report concluded that while neither side left regretting its vote, the participants did find some commonalities, particularly that the other side “wasn’t as incomprehensible to one another,” as previously thought.

That seemed, at a time when feelings were especially raw, at least a start.

Since then, Blankenhorn has focused his energies on how to address the nation’s deep polarization. He wrote last week that there are seven ways to be an effective depolarizer. It requires, he writes, reframing your thinking to see issues differently, or at least, not as black and white. We chatted with Blankenhorn by phone last week to discuss whether adopting his prescribed mental habits can really heal our deeply divided country.

Q: In your view what does it mean to depolarize?

Less demonization of political opponents and less exaggerated thinking about them. The thing about polarization is that you not only think they are misguided, but they are bad people and in bad faith and you also tend to have an exaggerated sense of what they think, so you can’t disagree accurately with them. You have a lot of opinions about them as people that are distorted. The simplest level means achieving accurate disagreement with your political opponent. You can aspire to actually see where there is common ground, but the most important is to achieve accurate rater than phony disagreements.

Q: It really does seem like we’ve made our political opponents into enemies. How did we get here?

Polarization is a part of political life, it’s always been there and there probably have been times at least as polarized as we are now. One interesting difference is that we tend to be polarized by a whole range of issues now instead of one or two. Now it’s everything. You have your team, it has a position and in order to be a member in good standing you have to adhere to every position. I’m not sure what has caused it. … One hopeful fact is that I don’t think many Americans are sitting around thinking more polarization is what we’re after, I don’t think many people wanted that. I don’t think people sought it out.

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Q: You’ve written that allowing yourself to have doubt in your own beliefs is one step to depolarization. What do you mean by that?

You’re really getting into the deepest issues here, the most important issues. I heard a quote recently: “Doubt is part of the shadow of truth.” If people are interested in the truth they have to be on friendly terms with doubt, otherwise you’re not really a truth seeker. That’s hard for all of us to wrap one’s head around. Diverse groups make better decisions than the smartest individual. If that’s a fact and I really believe it, then no one person knows everything. Drawing upon the insights of others brings us closer to the truth rather than standing on your individual position. But if you’re a religious person, for example, you’re taught that doubt is a sin. It means your faith is weak. You see this all the time with Donald Trump. He equates doubt with a lack of strength, he is absolutely terrified to admit he doesn’t know something or is unsure of something. If any politician gets up today and answers a question by saying, “I’m not really sure, I need to think more about that,” if they were to say something like that — I think it indicates great wisdom — but they’d be mocked and ridiculed.

Q: There is definitely a trend toward absolutism — there’s only right and wrong. 

You have to be completely confident, there has to be no hesitance or mental reservation. In terms of trying to understand something intellectually that’s a very immature way to think. It’s very intellectually crippling, but not just with [Trump], you see it with politicians and public officials. You also can’t change your mind. When I was involved in the gay marriage debate, you get everybody on both sides attacking people who change their mind. It means they’ve sold out, someone is paying them, they never believed it in the first place, they have no sincerity, anything but, you actually changed your mind, which is really something. There used to be a time where it was more permissible. It’s part of this paradigm we’re living in now where you have to express complete certainty, everything is a struggle between the light and the dark. If I had to put my finger on it, one of our mental habits is to attribute [certainty] with mental strength and fighting. When you’re so eager to call yourself a fighter, who are you fighting? Well, your fellow citizens. I think that’s a huge part of it.

Q: How did you give yourself permission to doubt your beliefs about same-sex marriage?

As you can imagine I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question, and I think what happened to me is making some new friendships I had not had before. After meeting John [Rauch] the relationship broke down some of the barriers that existed. Sometimes I think intellectuals have a thick screen of belief and theory that keeps you away from getting to know people who are different than you. I had this idea that gay people wanted marriage for political reasons, not for the institution. But then, when I met people who were actually getting married and wanted to be sanctioned by law, they were as sincere as could be about it all. I think that’s the key to all of it. When my organization got Clinton voters and Trump voters to spend a weekend of conversation about [the election] they had all these beliefs about each other, now they don’t have those same exaggerated beliefs. If you mention an issue to them like the Second Amendment, they still had their same opinions about it, but what they do, they view the others as human beings and you begin to change your approach to things, you tend to have a more inclusive approach, and it’s no longer that your convictions are the only things that matter. For me, it was really about developing relationships with people I had not known before and that led me to believe it was true on issues other than gay rights.

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Q: But we’ve entrenched so deeply in our enclaves. If you think Trump is bad, how do you engage with Trump voters who think the opposite?

I think the thing to do is to separate Trump and the people who voted for Trump for starters, because a lot of people voted for him who don’t necessarily like or trust Trump. They voted for him for a whole host of reasons. I think liberals have a lot of wrong ideas about this and stereotypes. It would do all of us a lot of good to stop pontificating about this and actually talk to people who voted for the guy. I dislike him intensely, but I don’t feel that way about the people who voted for him. The tendency of people to dig in on tribal grounds is so strong, and it’s just as strong on the left. I’ve seen this with lots of Trump voters who voted for him reluctantly, holding their nose, but now when they see a lot of the stuff that’s being said about them, it makes them more sympathetic to Trump because they are so offended being called all these names. If you tell a person every day that you’re really a racist, you’re a racist, if you tell them that all day, every day, at a certain point they’re going to accept the premise. Conversely, if you say, you’re an unusually kind person, I notice little acts of kindness that you do, they’re going to start thinking, I am a kind person. If you tell people that voting for Trump makes them a racist or xenophobe, it infuriates them, and it might make them more likely to engage in the behavior.

Q: So, where do we even start the dialogue?

There are two ways to go about this task. I think it’s the most important task facing the country right now. We have such intense anger and animosity toward people who differ from us politically, whatever produced it, it’s now baked in. People have bitter arguments on Facebook, it’s a mess. To me a big challenge is to rethink the way we think about each other. Your blood pressure will go down, you’ll become less upset and frantic about things. The world doesn’t consist of people like you who know everything and people not like you who are monsters. Anybody can do this and nobody has to wait.

Q: For those people who have legitimate grievances about things President Trump says and does, what should they do?

How does one say this without sounding hysterical because one of my frustrations is the language of the criticism has been so cheapened in recent years because there is nothing someone can say in criticism of Donald Trump that hasn’t been said about President Obama or Hillary Clinton. What vocabulary of outrage is remaining? It’s a very hard thing to do. it’s really trying to do two things at once. You have a person who is not fit to be in the office who is just gleefully ripping apart the norms of self-government and is a danger to himself and everyone around him. I think that’s just true. But [his supporters] just think I’m delusional. How do you reach out to them? The only thing I can tell myself, you can’t, when Trump says millions of illegals voted, allow that to pass, but at the same time you want to have a conciliatory attitude toward the people who voted for Trump.

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