Wrestling With Your Angels


Editor’s note: This piece headed the Braver Angels Weekend Newsletter for July 17th, 2022. -LNP

One of the less-frequent, still-salient critiques of depolarization (“depol”) work I’ve heard, is that it’s uninspiring; that there’s little in it to stir the soul to greatness, to awaken the passion and energy that fuels all worthy politics. It’s a fair critique, if you suppose the task of depol work is classically political, in terms of “getting something done,” “solving problems,” electing certain sorts of leaders, getting policies enacted, “having a seat at the table,” or being a player in “the room where it happens.”

But, to my own biased perspective, that’s never been what depol work has been about. In depol you’re not jostling for power and wrestling with your fellow Americans—you’re wrestling with yourself. You’re wrestling with the dark angels inside you, you’re striving to bring forth the better angels of your nature, no matter what other people do or what happens in politics. We do that in deliberative groups, family-therapy style, because that’s the best way to do it, through encounter; but the change is always personal.

In a sense you’re an ultramarathoner of the spirit, a bodybuilder of the soul; the end goal of depol work, is that you become and act as the sort of citizen with the inner strength, the malice toward none, the charity for all, the confidence in compassion, the love of countrymen and country, to do the depolarizing thing, even when all the world’s demanding you walk the other way. 

We all lived through 2020 and 2021. We were surrounded by our fellow Americans—good people, with all sorts of politics, of all sorts of backgrounds— succumbing to their cruelest demons in fear, condemning each other as un-American, sometimes endorsing acts and attitudes of violence and contempt toward their fellow Americans, because so often it seemed to them to be the right thing to do. Sometimes we might’ve slipped into these habits ourselves; the temptations are always strong, and when the world’s on fire, they’re only stronger. 

We have to be ready. Whatever else Braver Angels does in 2024, we have a firm and solemn obligation to hold the line—to practice what we preach—to live up to the radicalism of our principles—to build a house united—to be a beacon for our fellow Americans who suffer just as we suffer, to show them there’s a better way to live as fellow-citizens. If we would remain a nation we must stand by one another. 

It won’t just be about civility, decency, kindness, niceness. It will be very difficult; it will take a lot not to lose our heads, and we’ll have to hold each other to it. We will have to hold the line when the whole world is telling us not to hold the line, when our fellow Americans who we strive to serve, are screaming at us, demanding that we cease to hold the line; when even in our own hearts, we ourselves might want to give in to righteous hatred, anger, fear. 

But that line is not between us and our fellow Americans, and it’s not between us and any political enemies we might imagine we have. That line is inside each and every one of us; we must hold that line against our own worst impulses, especially when it’s most difficult. To paraphrase a quip associated with President Eisenhower: “To conquer oneself, is greater than to conquer great cities.” We must exercise our better, our braver angels, for if we don’t, it will be so, so easy to succumb to our worst, in the coming fury of 2024.

If we can hold the line in that coming uncertain time, we will have won a great victory for American union, nationhood, and redemption. We will have shown our fellow Americans and the world that unconditional patriotic empathy, the very foundation of social trust in a pluralistic society, is possible by reflection and choice, and hard, hard work. Whatever happens that year, we will have lived as free, self-governing citizens, taking up the task of union and defending it amid the swirling storms of politics, and far more difficult, amid the swirling storms of our own passions. 

So yes, there is a vigorous and assertive virtue in depol work, a way it fans the flames of what the ancient Greeks called thumos and brings out our very best. It’s the hardest virtue to practice, because it demands we conquer something in ourselves, and even then we’ll never beat it forever. But 2024 is barreling towards us; so let’s get down to work.


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