I’m gonna admit this up front: I have a beef with Braver Angels, a non-profit which seeks to reduce political polarization and divisiveness through public debates and community workshops. It’s not that I oppose their goals precisely: US politics is extremely divisive, to a genuinely scary degree. Polarization can be seriously damaging to a body politic, and measures to reduce political polarization are generally good. Relationships building through dialogue and formal debate are both effective ways, in some circumstances, to build relationships between people and help the truth emerge. So my problem isn’t with their goals - it’s with their process.
Braver Angels brings together people on both sides of a political issue to speak their truth at each other. Not speak the truth: speak their truth. The only requirement the organization has, when it comes to their debates at least, is that participants say what they believe to be true. They don’t bring in experts: they simply ask members of the public to share their views, and take some questions from others. Sometimes this is fine: there are many topics which can responsibly be explored simply through a frank exchange of opinions. But when it comes to complicated, highly politicized issues where the truth is hotly contested, this approach can do significant harm.
Their most recent debate was one of these: it explored “Voter Fraud, Voter Suppression, and the 2020 Election”. Anyone can see this is a difficult topic to examine: it is not only highly partisan, but much of the concern around “voter fraud” in the 2020 election is ginned up by bad actors promoting obvious conspiracy theories. Countless courts have found no compelling reason to believe that there was significant voter fraud in the election. Studies have repeatedly found that voter fraud hardly ever happens in the USA. The result - a solid but not overwhelming victory by the Democrats against a historically unpopular incumber who badly mismanaged a major international crisis - is not in itself surprising. Yet millions of Americans believe there was significant voter fraud. You would think this is a topic which would have to be explored with exquisite care.
Braver Angels did it’s regular thing, and brought together some members of the public to speak their truth. Within moments, the speakers on the “Red” side (Braver Angels insists on an infantilizing division of participants into “Reds” and “Blues” - if you mean “Republicans” and “Democrats”, then say that!) were offering false conspiracy theories. Apparently, it is widely accepted that JFK only won the presidential election in 1960 because of widespread voter fraud (false), and that George Moscone won the mayoralty in San Francisco for the same reason (also false). It was claimed that Democratic party machines have for years been submitting large numbers of votes from people who did not in fact cast a ballot (also false). These people were not called on these conspiracy theories - there was no attempt to correct the record or ensure that the truth was known to the participants - rather, they were given a platform to spread falsehoods in the name of encouraging dialogue.
To their credit, those on the “Blue” side did a good job presenting the facts: that voter fraud is vanishingly rare; that there is no convincing evidence of widespread fraud in this election; that these fears are themselves being stoked for political reasons; and that voter suppression is a much graver worry. But here’s the problem: people are not rational, especially when it comes to issues like this. Conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud don’t spread because they are well-evidenced: there is basically no evidence at all to support them, and the theories offered are most often absurd to anyone with an understanding of how the system works. They spread because trusted authorities state them confidently, and because they fit the political perspective their audiences already have. By hosting a well-publicized public “debate” in which voter fraud conspiracies were put on an equal footing with the facts, then, Braver Angels effectively promoted the spread of these conspiracy theories. They took no measures to educate their audience; they did nothing to ensure that the truth won out. They just gave conspiracists their national megaphone and said “Good luck!” to the other side.
This is bad enough. What frustrates me more is how Braver Angels responds to criticism of their “we must host both sides!” approach. In a recent email to supporters, Braver Angels wrote that this was “a challenging week for Braver Angels”, because they “received a great deal of criticism” for their decision to host this debate. But they defended the debate as a “triumph” for the organization. Why? Partly because they got record attendance and grassroots donations, so good for them I guess! But also because they “held to [their] integrity” and continued their mission of bringing Democrats and Republicans together for dialogue.
I don’t think the event was a “triumph” or an act of integrity. Certainly, it allowed people to say what they truly believed, and it was in the main gracious and civil (in the thin sense). It got people on different sides of this discussion into the same room - and perhaps there is some value in that alone. But to protect the health of our democracy we must defend more values than simply that of dialogue alone. We must promote a concern for truth; we must teach electors responsible management of information; we must uplift a willingness to change our minds in response to contrary evidence; and we must foster an appropriate level of trust in civic institutions. An organization which genuinely cared for the civic health of America would try to promote all these values, rather than just one of them - and it certainly wouldn’t undermine many of them in pursuit of just one.
This is the problem, fundamentally, with Braver Angels: they are dialogue fetishists. They believe that the deep problems within American Democracy can be ameliorated merely through civil dialogue between people who believe different things. But when millions of Americans are captured by conspiracy theories peddled by some of the most prominent figures in the political world, promoting dialogue - but not truth, responsibility, and civic mindedness - is deeply irresponsible. It makes things worse, not better.
It is also craven. Craven because they laud their own efforts while refusing to take a stand for the truth themselves. The truth is - as established by countless experts, election-watchers, courts, and data analysts - that there was no widespread voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential election. The truth is that voter suppression - particularly of poor people and people of color - is a much graver concern than voter fraud. And the truth is that the idea that there is widespread voter fraud is a conspiracy theory promoted by Republicans in order to encourage their supporters to have exactly the sort of doubts in the US election system which this Braver Angels debate gave a platform to. Braver Angels dare not say this, because to speak the truth would threaten the participation of Republicans in their programs, and the donations they receive from them.
An honest organization - one with true integrity - would not act this way. It would not stick to its format and its thin definition of “dialogue” in a political environment which demands a much more robust defense of civic ideals. The challenge for Braver Angels is to recognize the civic crisis we are in requires a change of focus and a change of process. To defend our democracy we have to decrease the power of conspiracy theories, not empower them by giving them a platform. We have to be willing to speak the truth, and openly promote it - even if one side of the political discussion feels disenfranchised by that. And the honest truth is that to stand with civil society today means to stand against the extremism in the Republican party: to say that they are wrong, that they are spreading falsehoods, and that those falsehoods are undermining our democracy. Braver Angels so far has refused to do this. Until they do, they are craven.