Learning and unlearning red and blue


At Braver Angels, we lean heavily on red/blue balance. The principle that conservatives and liberals must be represented in equal proportions at every level of our leadership, and also across our community as much as possible. That is what makes us who we are, and it’s what gives us credibility in our effort to depolarize America.

This means we use the labels “red” and “blue” a lot, and if you’ve been with us any length of time you’ve probably found yourself thinking about those colors more than you have since rummaging through crayon boxes in kindergarten.

This focus on red and blue leaves some people to ask thoughtful questions about the implications of our language. As much as Braver Angels seeks to tend to the left/right divide in America, we also have a natural appeal to independents and anyone who seeks to challenge or organize outside of the strict partisan binary of our two party system.

So is Braver Angels a home for independents, members of the Green Party, Libertarian Party, etc.? Absolutely. Our focus on red and blue is not meant to exclude others, and it’s important for us to make that as clear as we can as often as we can.

But sometimes I am confronted with another, perhaps more philosophically fundamental critique. And that is, isn’t Braver Angels reinforcing the very psychological polarization we exist to counter by leaning so heavily on these differentiating labels?

My answer to this critique has tended to be practical: labels are dangerous, but they are also necessary. The differences between us are real, as is the tendency on the part of many to actually want to actively identify with the side that speaks to their political values. We have to be able to identify our differences clearly if we wish to communicate about them and potentially transcend them.

But even while I think that is true, even at Braver Angels we have to guard ourself against the temptation to shorthand the actual thought and character of real human beings through labels and stereotypes. It is too easy to slip into not to be taken care against.

(By the way, this was an important theme of my recent conversations with Senators Tammy Baldwin and Susan Collins about polarization and their successful sponsorship of the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act – you can read more about that in my latest column for USA Today.)

I was reminded of this while listening to a song submitted for our Braver Angels Songwriting Contest in my capacity as a music judge. As it played, my first though was that the song was “blue,” not that this meant anything good or bad…I was just prone to notice. But as the melody began to move me and the lyrics spoke to my soul, the thought that replaced it was “no…this song is beautiful.” Art transcends red and blue. And so does the goodness of the human soul.

We may need labels like “red” and “blue” to do what we do. But let us never confuse our labels with the truth of who we actually are.

So this note is just a reminder to myself as well as to you. We may need labels like “red” and “blue” to do what we do. But let us never confuse our labels with the truth of who we actually are.

That too is part of what makes us Braver Angels.

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