A former New Hampshire state legislator is working against ‘knee-bashing politics’

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Dr. Doug Teschner has led a big life: he served as a state legislator, worked on the ground in community mental health, has been stationed overseas with the Peace Corps, and was recently appointed to the New Hampshire Commission on Voter Confidence.

While he said it’s hard to look back and identify what exactly motivated each step, his baseline belief today is that “everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” With this in mind, he got involved with Braver Angels in 2019 – taking on various leadership roles, and now serving as the New England Regional Leader. 

But even before he joined Braver Angels, he had its mission in mind. In 1998, as a state representative on the brink of retiring, Doug gave his last speech in office, bidding farewell to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he served for a decade. As he stood in front of the chamber, he issued a warning:

“I want to say one word of caution… the level of civility among members has declined in recent years. This seems to be happening at all levels of government and, indeed, throughout society. We can show people a better way. Earlier, I talked about living in a sacred space. Well, this House, this chamber, is a sacred place, too.”

Unfortunately, not enough legislators took this omen to heart. Years later, in 2012, Doug tuned into an episode of This American Life called “Red State Blue State.” It was highlighting what had transpired in the New Hampshire House of Representatives since he left.

The state legislature descended into the “knee-bashing, 

‘you’re either with us or against us’ politics” Doug had warned about years before.

Dr. Teschner during his time as Peace Corps Country Director in Ukraine.

New Hampshire – which the reporter, Sarah Koenig, referred to as “the swear jar state” because there have been town meetings where “if you are rude, you have to put a quarter in [a swear jar]” – was once known for its cross-partisan courtesy. But, as the episode chronicled, the state legislature descended into the “knee-bashing, ‘you’re either with us or against us’ politics” Doug had warned about years before. 

At the time, Doug said he found the episode “disturbing,” as he wondered what direction our country was headed in. This kind of “us against them” mentality flew in the face of everything he stood for throughout his career. 

Doug first joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Morocco during the 1970s, and then returned in 2008 to work for nine years as a country director and expert consultant across six different countries. He was the Peace Corps Director in Ukraine in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea. Then, he was sent to work in Africa during the Ebola crisis.

No matter what part of the world he was stationed in, Doug knew in order to find solutions and make a positive impact, he had to understand the culture of the local community and encourage people to work across differences.

Dr. Teschner (third from left) serving as a forestry Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco in the 1970s.

No matter what part of the world he was stationed in, Doug knew in order to find solutions and make a positive impact, he had to understand the culture of the local community and encourage people to work across differences. “As Norman Maclean said, ‘If you don’t know the ground, you’re probably wrong about everything else,’” Doug noted.

When he was combatting the Ebola crisis in Guinea, for example, he had to navigate how to work with different tribes and coordinate a response when people didn’t trust the government. At the time, this felt unfamiliar to him as an American, but “Guineans understood this,” he said. So they took the lead, going door to door to talk to their neighbors about how to protect themselves against Ebola. 

These days, Doug is back in New Hampshire, hoping to use his home-court advantage to create change in his state’s politics. A few months ago, he returned to the chamber where he once issued a warning about a lack of civility. He recruited six Democratic representatives and six Republican representatives and, with the help of co-founder of Braver Angels Dr. Bill Doherty, put on a Red/Blue Workshop.

The state representatives had an opportunity to open up to one another and forge meaningful relationships, which was especially hard through the pandemic.

Dr. Teschner, Dr. Doherty, Braver Angels NH state coordinator Travis Tripodi, and the New Hampshire House of Representatives Red/Blue Workshop participants.

It started off a bit tense. “Democrats were on one side of the room, all masked, and Republicans on the other side of the room, all unmasked,” Doug said. “But after three hours – you wouldn’t believe it – it couldn’t have gone better.” The state representatives had an opportunity to open up to one another and forge meaningful connections, which was especially hard through the pandemic. And they had a lot to bond over. “Two of them found out they had both been foster children,” Doug said. 

Behind closed doors, Democrats and Republicans were able to come together in a way they likely never would have otherwise. But back in the chamber, it’s tempting to slip back into polarized dynamics. “There’s a lot of outside pressure on politicians to stoke division – conflict entrepreneurs get money, power, and influence by cranking up their bases,” Doug said. “But I’m not giving up. I’m like a bug in the ear.”

Life has taught Doug that change doesn’t come easy. “There’s a cartoon where a speaker asks a crowd, ‘Who wants change?’ Everybody’s hand goes up. Then he asks, ‘Who wants to change?’ And nobody raises their hand,” Doug said. “It’s really hard to improve your life.” And yet, he’s committed to doing just that.

 “Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life?”

Dr. Teschner in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

On his computer, he has a document called “Life Path Forward,” where he writes down what’s most important to him and checks in periodically to ask himself how his actions align with his mission. He refers back to a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, which reads: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” 

Right now, he’s focused on ensuring the cross-partisan connections forged behind closed doors make their way to the floor of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. And if that means he has to be a bug in a few legislators’ ears, so be it.

To learn more about Braver Angels alliances like the one Doug leads in New England, go to this link. To suggest more stories I could report from the Braver Angels community, send me a note at gtimmis@braverangels.org.

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3 thoughts on “A former New Hampshire state legislator is working against ‘knee-bashing politics’”

    1. dteschnerrwanda@yahoo.com

      How to do it? Wonderful question that got me thinking. As a start, take a risk and put yourself out there. Bring your whole authentic self as well as positive energy, a willingness to learn and change and grow, and a dose of humility.

  1. Just signed up for this Thursday’s workshop on the abortion debate on May 19. I invited my husband since he holds firmly as a “pro-life” and I am most definitely a “pro-choice.” We have had heated but civil discussions throughout this period of Roe v. Wade reversals. I truly believe that if a married couple can learn to live with opposite opinions on a contested issue, our country has hope of restoring its democracy back to civil discord.

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