“Beyond Political Polarization: Finding Common Ground for the Common Good” Sparks Robust Discussion

2018 Rotary Community Forum Draws Record Attendance


“Beyond Political Polarization: Finding Common Ground for the Common Good,” brought together a room full of Rotarians and concerned citizens to unpack the concepts of political polarization.


It was the 13th Annual Rotary Community Forum, held April 11 at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul. Nearly 150 people attended this year’s Forum, which was the largest turnout in the forum’s history.


Leading the discussion was Dr. Bill Doherty, co-founder of “Better Angels” and a University of Minnesota professor. Better Angels was founded weeks after the 2016 presidential election after Dr. Doherty and colleagues took notice of citizen response to the outcome.


Subsequent conversations sparked the idea to pursue funding grants and organize a bus tour to hold Better Angels workshops across America.

More than 80 “Red-Blue” sessions in 23 states followed and provided Dr. Doherty the credentials to conduct speeches about political polarization. The Community Forum was further geared to provide brief and pointed interaction among the attendees. Seated around 10-person tables, attendees learned to communicate with one another, many with opposing views.


What resulted, surprising many, was an afterglow of trust for one another’s humanity.


“This was truly a thought provoking, heartwarming event that reminds us to look at each other as humans and respect all,” said Jennifer Dunn, a Sunrise Rotary member. “We have to stop labeling people. We are all created with free choice and have different perspectives. And that is what makes life so rich!”


Former Rotary District Governor Joe Kovarik said: “Instead of lecturing, Dr. Doherty’s approach was that of an effective facilitator. He worked on the assumption that the knowledge and the answers were in the room, he just had to loosen up our thinking.”


A typical workshop spans three to five hours. With an hour to work with, Dr. Doherty reviewed the depolarization problem and assigned two brief ‘pair up’ exercises, with each followed by participants sharing reactions via roving microphones.


Dis-uniting Problem: Dr. Doherty explained that families and workplaces are strained and fraying around the edges with anger and distrust, and civil rancor threatens the “bones” of our democracy.  He cited examples, including a young employee afraid to be seen by workplace associates attending the “wrong” caucus meeting recently in Minnesota, and a therapist reporting increases in family stress. Parents have openly expressed a higher rate of reluctance when asked if they would welcome into the family a new son or daughter-in-law of the opposite political party.

Dr. Doherty stressed that people usually do not change their views on issues, but they can measurably change their views of one another as people.

In the first exercise, people were paired up to discuss and then report factors that heighten differences. Examples cited included social media anonymity, poor dialogue skills, and perceived media bias. Some talked about how people are tuning out entirely because of distaste, compared to European countries where rich debate in public and amongst friends was said to be more commonplace.

Most attendees voiced eagerness to find common ground.


 “I felt deeply moved by participants’ rapt attention,” Ellen Luepker, Community Forum founder, said. “We all listened intently to Bill’s ideas and to each other’s’ thoughts and feelings about the origins of polarization. We learned new strategies that can help diffuse tensions in our communications with others who hold different political views - strategies that can help reach understanding and find common ground rather than continue to feel isolated, stuck and frustrated.”


Best practices and how to promote change as individuals: Dr. Doherty described a willingness to look at your side’s blind spots and the other side’s  “kernels of truth” about our own sides’ rhetoric. In a workshop format, each side must do this in a non-lecturing non-emotionally charged manner and report back to the whole group. In this way, participants learn how the other side sees themselves, and practice understanding how that affects their ideas without judgment.


The final exercise for forum attendees was to pair up and discuss steps we could personally tackle to suppress polarization.


Mary Vanderwert, a St. Paul School Board and Sunrise Rotary member noted that Our schools can counter the polarization in our world by intentionally teaching social skills and developing emotional intelligence in our classrooms and by giving kids opportunities to collaborate with each other.  And most importantly, the adults in our schools and communities need to model attitudes and behaviors that we want our children to learn.”

Brendan Klein, a student leader at St. Johns University, founded a campus group for political depolarization. He commented that his own group is using techniques that are “uncannily similar to the principles of Better Angels workshops.”


Next steps for Better Angels: Attendees were asked to imagine a state legislator welcoming a pair of concerned citizens into his or her office. Both are well prepared with a proposal and forward strategy on an issue they are both committed to. This meeting would be different from most. The two citizens are from opposing political sides, yet remarkably they insist they are in absolute agreement.

“We both think this is a problem that’s not going away,” one of them says. “We have focused on it together within our groups and have come up with policies that we can all agree on.”


That is music to Dr. Doherty’s ears. He said our first alliances for political change looking for common ground are happening in Eagan, where a Better Angels workshop took place in late 2016.


“An ‘Alliance’ happens when Reds and Blues agree to issues they can work together on,” Dr. Doherty said.


Rotary and Better Angels on-going partnership: Dr. Doherty suggested Rotary’s four-way test, including truth, fairness and friendship are a good match for depolarization.


“This is in your DNA already,” he said.


Rotary Districts 5960 and 5950 were represented with club members attending from City of Lakes, St. Paul Sunrise, Woodbury and Roseville. All indicated they would pass the Better Angels along and pursue building an ongoing partnership.


“Many of us left the forum feeling enthusiastic about obtaining further skills training through Better Angels. I gained a deeper appreciation for how we Rotarians, who subscribe to the ethical principles of the Rotary Four Way Test, are in an ideal position to carry forward the work of Better Angels and strengthen our communities,” Ellen Luepker said.


Several St. Paul Sunrise members expressed interest in becoming certified facilitators for Better Angels. District Governor Kyle Haugen committed to adding depolarization as an upcoming district conference topic.