Braver Angels goes to Washington, testifies at hearing to depolarize Congress

U.S. Rep. William Timmons, Dr. Bill Doherty, and U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer
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I’ve got to tell you about this Congressional hearing on ways to depolarize Congress last Thursday. 

I know what you’re thinking. Congressional hearing? BORING! But not this one. 

First, because our very own Braver Angels co-founder Dr. Bill Doherty dropped some serious wisdom on how to depolarize the very same dysfunctional governing body he was testifying to, along with three other great minds: psychologist Adam Grant, author of Think Again; journalist Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict; and professor Kris Miler, an expert on conflict in the U.S. House. 

And second, because the 11 House members in the room got vulnerable, and opened up about the painful challenges of being a legislator in today’s toxic, hyper-partisan environment. 

“Many Members are just as fed up with the dysfunction and partisanship as the American people.” U.S. Rep. William Timmons (R-SC) told me after the hearing Thursday.

U.S. Rep Derek Kilmer (D-WA) echoed that, telling me about his first days in Congress. “People would ask me how I’m doing as though I’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness: ‘How are you?’” 

The Braver Angels of Congress

Lucky for us, Kilmer and Timmons are not resigned to the abysmal state of their workplace. Far from it. They are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the committee that held the hearing: the U.S. House’s Select Committee to Modernize Congress. 

Let’s not mince words: This committee is the most important small group of legislators that most Americans have never heard of. They’re essentially the Braver Angels of Congress — made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and tasked with the gargantuan job of developing “recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people.” 

Thursday’s event was not just the two-year-old committee’s best attended hearing, staffers said afterward. It was their best hearing, period. That’s in part because the guests they invited to testify stirred up solid ideas in the roundtable discussion that made for some riveting civic YouTube. Ratings for Congress members on civility and respect? Legislators spending time with colleagues across the aisle? Yes, please. 

It was a valuable hearing, too, because the members were speaking from the heart. As Bill put it to me from his Lyft to the airport afterwards, “They were asking for help.”

Not just from the universe, mind you, but from Braver Angels, whom the committee had explicitly invited to this hearing. And Bill delivered on our behalf, passing on three recommendations for what Congress members can do to foster depolarization in their work (which he spells out in the testimony clip above): 

  1. Promote Red/Blue Workshops for congressional and committee staffs (something committee member U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) already did with his own staff and raved about to his colleagues at the hearing); 
  2. Invite members of Congress to do private Braver Angels 1:1 conversations with colleagues across the divide;
  3. Encourage members of Congress to adopt Braver Angels methods for events and forums with constituents back home (which Rep. Phillips is set to pilot pin his own district soon) 

‘This is important work’

How did the committee receive all this? With humility, enthusiasm, and gratitude. Senior committee staffers told Bill they were down to do the Red/Blue workshop, while another staffer told him, gratefully, that asking members to take two hours to do private 1:1 conversations was not only appealing, but “doable.” 

The key thing for Bill: “We were offering a relationship, and not just expert testimony,” he said.

And not a moment too soon. These are our elected public servants, after all, working to fix a broken Congress at a time when “division in the country” is, according to a new poll from Georgetown University, the most important issue facing us voters personally. 

“If Congress doesn’t get it together, we’re not going to have a country in a few decades,” Timmons told me. “This is important work, and I’m honored to be a part of it.” 

Want to catch up on the hearing that could begin to turn it around for Congress and America? The one that Bill called a “breakthrough” for Braver Angels? 

» Watch the full committee hearing: Rethinking Congressional Culture: Lessons From The Fields Of Organizational Psychology And Conflict Resolution.

» Watch Bill Doherty’s full 6-minute testimony in the clip above, or read it here.

» Check out our Twitter thread with highlights from the hearing, including this gem from Phillips, who had literal good sportsmanship on his mind:

“When we open a new Congress and when we close, can you imagine 200 or so members walking the aisle, lining up and shaking hands? Can you imagine?”

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