Better Angels
My Debate with “Dialogue”

Why is dialogue seen as “blue” by folks from “red” states? And what should be done about it?

Published on: January 10, 2018
David Blankenhorn is president of Better Angels. Follow him on Twitter. Professor William Doherty of the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of Better Angels, while not responsible for any of this essay’s shortcomings, has importantly influenced David’s thinking on the issues addressed here.
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  • lurkingwithintent

    “Why is this idea central to dialogue? One reason is that dialogue favors conciliation over conflict. Another and probably more seminal reason is the underlying belief of dialogue leaders—supported now by a body of social science evidence—that diverse groups are wiser and can make better decisions than either homogeneous groups or gifted individuals.6” Dialogue favors change, the assumption is that something needs to change and since the conservatives are usually the ones resisting change, it is they who must be made to go along. If all things are equal at the beginning, there is no reason to maintain what has been or is being done. The liberal dialogue almost always forces conservatives to cede the ground. I have watched this happen in the Mainline Protestant churches for 40 years and it always works that way. Russell Reno is correct and dialogue often has little or nothing to do with charity; it is often the Trojan horse from which the enemy moves in and defeats its enemy under the guise of a gift. Changing the name is precisely what would make dialogue even more suspect. That it is the charitable way to talk is how it is always sold, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Sorry but this article is not up to the subject at hand.

  • Tom Scharf

    This was excellent.

    “Second, and in my view more importantly, conservatives are generally reluctant to participate in a process in which they are expected as a condition of participation to alter their views.”

    Winner, winner, chicken dinner. A great insight.

    There are far too many “smart people” who believe that if reasonably intelligent people just sit and rationally discuss an issue they will arrive at a single conclusion that stands on it merits. This conclusion is of course predetermined in the mind of the “smart people”, their obviously correct conclusion.

    The goal in a discussion should be to get others to:

    1. Understand what your position is.
    2. Understand why you believe it.

    If others can repeat back to you accurately what you believe and why you believe it then progress has been made. It is incredible how often dialog never gets to this point.

    Changing someone’s mind is vanishingly rare, so the best you can typically do is nudge them a bit one way or the other. You must be open to being nudged yourself. It is not a zero sum game, simultaneous nudging is possible. Perhaps “exchange of views” is a better term.

    • FriendlyGoat

      There is a reason why dialog usually does not reach the “progress point” of two sides accurately repeating the beliefs (and reasons for beliefs) of their opponents. Everybody gets mad when this repetition is attempted. When conservatives allege that liberals just want to murder babies, things break down. When liberals allege that conservatives only wish to enrich the already rich, it doesn’t get any better. These two subjects being “hard”, we could always press on to a verifiable count of votes by illegal aliens, I guess. THAT will bring them all together without a doubt.

      • Tom

        (Is astounded at the admission contained in the third-to-last-sentence.)

      • Gary Hemminger

        FriendlyGoat. You are actually making sense to me now. I fully agree wtih your statement. Recently my father had an argument with my sister where he said that her position on immigration (she likes open borders) was a Nazi position. Of course, then the discussion led no where. Why can’t we stop thinking that left or right is evil. they are not evil. they both have good intentions but disagree on how to achieve them. this is where experimentation and analysis come in. try different things and see what works.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Thanks for middle room. As for intentions, there is very little overlap in today’s right and left as to which ones are “good”. It’s not a matter of agreeing on different tactics to achieve the same ends. They are usually completely different ends these days. I would go back to that idea of verifying the count of votes by illegal aliens. It’s never gonna happen from the right because the GOAL there is to knock out left-side votes from poorer people in numbers up to 100 to as many as a 1000 times any that were actually illegal. In the past we didn’t know that. Now we do. It’s widely acknowledged, just not in “dialog”.

          • Anthony

            We remain the strongest country on earth, and being hopeful about our nation’s capacities is not only truer to who we are, it is also the disposition that will serve us best in facing up to the problems confronted by Americans…. Something of interest for your eyes, perhaps:

          • FriendlyGoat

            Thanks. I’ll continue to suspect that any turn away from Trumpism will depend upon whether some of the participants in American white conservative religion are repulsed by what they have seen or are seeing. It doesn’t take a flip of THAT many. Just some.
            Marshalling the votes to overcome them (together with those who say “Gee, my 401k looks bigger—-must be okay) without flipping some of them may be uphill business.

          • Anthony

            It’s uphill to extent focus is solely on opposition to Trump – Dems need a message (narrative) on how they can (will) address problems, concerns, anxieties , etc. confronting America and how we (Americans), from local, state, and federal level, can make this American experiment work (despite of political and social constructs available to divide). Most importantly, honest differences ought not engender enmity. And, you’re welcome.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Dems in my lifetime have always had a message. Collective bargaining, social safety nets, public education, control over the machinations of corporations, public infrastructure, freedom of (and from) religion, voting rights, civil rights, non-discrimination, protection of environment, worker safety, consumer protection, socialized elder care, child protective services, fair trade, promotion of human rights in general—–here and abroad.

            You’d have to tell me why all those things are being “mysteriously” talked down as morally incorrect or politically incorrect and put on a back burner (or in a trash heap altogether). I have my theory, as you know, on exactly how it happened and exactly WHO was mentally captured to accomplish the hoodoo.

          • Anthony

            The message you reference has been lost to many of the voters (18-45) who have experienced 30 plus years of anti-government and Democratic Liberalism bashing (while being unawares or indifferent to its successes [maybe until now]). Whether you’re admitting or not the Democratic Party has since the 1990s been messaging and governing like Eisenhower Republicans (now this at moment is not a criticism but a seasoned observation). Now, partly, that’s a result of Randianism (economic and ideological) that encouraged both shifts in corporate behavior and public policy.

            Though most Americans have not bought these Randian assumptions, many have bought the concept that democrats and government are the problem (and, yes, I’m aware of your theory). Equally, the Democratic Party that you reference helped to propel American prosperity in the 20th century but many of its beneficiaries have forgotten how and why they did it. So, Dems need to help Americans remember what made average Americans prosper and tailor the message to a 21st century country (world).

            A start begins with facing the modern GOP – the increasingly conservative Republican Party. Finally, FG, a Democracy that effectively promotes human flourishing is a Democratic Party retooling its message in the realization that Trump is but a symptom not a cause. More than ever, problems facing our citizens demand a sustained and principled defense of why the Dems (and I use Dems only because we’re locked into a two party dominance) can make more Americans prosper.

            “In any battle of ideas, organizations are at least as important as individuals; scripts as important as speakers. When conservative business leaders such as Charles and David Koch invested in Cato, Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute, and all the other intellectual weapons of the right, they were playing the long game. When Republican political leaders like Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell developed new strategies for tearing down American government to build up GOP power, they were playing the long game. Those like us who believe we can and must build a mixed economy for the twenty-first century—they need to play the long game, too. And they need to speak not just on behalf of individual policy goals. They need to speak on behalf of effective public authority.”

          • FriendlyGoat

            As far as I’m concerned, the long game is two things. It is shaming and discrediting the manifestation of Churchism = Trump/Trumpism among those of church who still have eyes and ears. And it is pulling every other possible voter out of the woodwork with the stern warning that if you do not or cannot vote down a fascist theocracy, you and your children will live in one for the rest of your lives.

            The “let’s be positive and reasonable” approach is not the messaging to be used against the Gatling Gun assault which is now mounted on all fair-mindedness. When nothing actually “politically correct” can be offered in response without being shouted down by theocrats, it is time to face them squarely on their own terms. Religion is kind or religion is mean. If it is mean, say so.

          • Anthony

            I’m all for the Gatling Gun (William Tecumseh Sherman) approach and have always been – meet viciousness with viciousness but we’re writing about messaging for 2018 (and maybe 2020) and in that regard create a message that resonates.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I don’t think I can write a speech for Elizabeth Warren WHILE she is being shouted down as Pocahontas. After we see some Gorsuch decisions, it is going to resonate more with people that they are being had in the most permanent sort of way. Why so? What was sold on abortion and gays is very probably being taken away in voting rights, for instance. Who does that? Only one demographic.

          • Anthony

            The above is a given; now, what’s to be done about it beyond chat-board discussion, my friend?

          • FriendlyGoat

            We are going to need to focus on who enables our decline and with what kind of talk. It’s a big deal to be losing sense and human rights on a world level without knowing why it got up and left the building (as they say). If climate change cannot be acknowledged and addressed, for instance, BECAUSE religious hokum precludes the discussion, then we need to talk about exactly what that religion in politics is doing.

          • Anthony

            “We are going to need to focus on who enables our decline (and there is much duplicity ongoing, wittingly or unwittingly) and with what kind of talk.” Bingo, FG!

  • QET

    If you are going to muse on this distinction then you have to refer to Habermas’ theory of the ideal speech situation. You don’t have to endorse it, but you have to acknowledge it because, under the name of “discourse” rather than “dialogue,” Habermas and his followers (of which there are many in the US Academy) have spent decades trying to formulate, in academic-theoretical terms, the institutional arrangements in which a domination-free dialogue could happen.

    As far as I’m concerned, Habermas’ life-long efforts towards imagining an institution of dialogue free of domination by any party are misplaced. Domination is an ineradicable feature of human social existence. This article suggests as much (and ought to have focused on it much more) in its mentions of certain propositions and rhetoric that the “blues” have declared to be completely off limits in any “dialogue” with them. And really, “angry with today’s liberals” is a totally inadequate and unreasonable postulate. Read the article I linked to in the comments to the Ford article yesterday and then come back and explain how one may “engage in dialogue” with such psyches.

    • StudentZ

      I was not familiar with Habermas’ theory of the ideal speech situation, so thank you for mentioning it. Are you referring to the New York Post article about Ajit Pai? I agree that such a response to the FCC’s approach to Net Neutrality is ridiculous and troubling, though I am not sure how typical such extreme behavior is.

      • QET

        Re Ajit Pai: yes. Although, I would call it rather more than just “ridiculous and troubling.” I would place it in the same category as Antifa beatdowns of people they deem “fascists” and Twitternet doxxers. All of which, today, are quite typical.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Great article. and how true. Even as a liberal, every time I hear “dialogue” it makes me wince. The meaning of “dialogue” to me is that you will listen to me you stupid conservative, and you will then agree with me, for I am sensitive, intelligent, sustainable and loving; whereas you are racist, xenophobic, unsustainable, and mean. So if we just dialogue you will see the truth and then change.

    How about dialogue then debate.

  • Anthony

    “Can we change our idea of how to structure conversation so that in the future red and blue Americans can gather together…for careful conversation aimed at rediscovering civic trust and common ground.” (David Blankenhorn)

    Well, is it dialogue and debate or are we really getting at the medium of language and how to make language more inducing to societal compromise (socially, culturally, and politically). Dialogue and Debate are frames and perhaps for Mr. Blankenhorn’s purpose useful frames for analysis but to my mind the frames are undergirded by words (language) that convey cultural, symbolic, emotional, and literal meaning. So, here’s another suggestion towards my debate with dialogue: because words used in both dialogue and debate are crucial, bringing red and blue together may also require examining certain features of language that either aid or hinder clear thinking – as motive of essay is not changing either (red/blue) but establishing repectable entree exploring ostensible contrasting world views.

    Beyond that and as important as essay’s debate and dialogue pairing (framing), an equally purposeful pairing contributing to envisioned outcome may be the relationship of language and thought (a 2nd pairing). Surely, such an endeavor (conversation aimed at rediscovering civic trust and common ground) benefits from recognition that all language is symbolic and that language usage lies at the heart of many disputes (whether they be red & red, blue & blue, or red & blue).

  • Joe Eagar

    This is absurd. Any project to facilitate communication that is organized by blue upper middle class liberals is going to fail, poisoned by the latter’s status anxiety.

  • StudentZ

    This article raises a few questions, starting with who, what, and why (i.e., What is being debated or discussed, by whom, and for what purpose?). What sort of background or knowledge is needed for participants to be able to have an intelligent discussion in the first place? What role do facts, existing research, and opinions play in such discussions? Also, if a decision is the intended outcome of the discussion, who is making that decision? The value of any dialogue is questionable if these (and other) questions are not addressed.
    The author makes four suggestions, but what problem is he trying to fix? Do we really need a dialogue to address our unwillingness to have a dialogue? Writing articles about political polarization is popular these days, but to what extent are such opinion pieces simply reinforcing a superficial divide and giving dilettantish ideological positions unwarranted importance?

    I tend to disagree with the author on a few points. First off, if you can’t call a dialogue a dialogue, don’t have one. The people you’re trying to engage are too touchy to discuss anything. Second, separate individuals from the views they espouse, respect the former, not the latter, and require a certain level of sincere curiosity or wary open-mindedness from participants in any dialogue (people with inflexible biases or ulterior motives will derail the discussion and ruin the experience for everyone else). Third, avoid a dialogue if you cannot agree on any of the following: (1) a set of ground rules to keep the discussion civil; (2) the purpose and nature of the discussion; (3) established facts, histories, or theories all participants recognize to be true; (4) a shared lexicon, language, or set of definitions; and (5) publications or authorities all participants consider legitimate sources of information or research. Finally, stop focusing on liberal and conservative labels. Work on diminishing the influence of moneyed interests if need be, but focus on objective analyses and pragmatic approaches to issues of general interest. Coddling angry conservatives is patronizing and pointless. Perhaps a reformed system could incentivize informed civic engagement from all corners, but I doubt conversation is enough to foster responsible citizenship from anyone who doesn’t recognize its value to begin with.

  • Ralph Knudson

    As a new and interested person in the history and dynamics of Better Angels, I ask the starting question of: why do conservative and liberal people want to participate in conversation with each other in the first place? What’s their goal?

    I’m a liberal/progressive, and have had great talks with a very conservative neighbor over several years, especially as we worked together to keep a frac sand mine out of our rural neighborhood. We didn’t try to prove each other wrong, or “win” points or change each other’s minds. He put it best: “I just want to figure out how you think”…and was motivated by curiosity about someone he already knew and liked to a certain degree. Ditto for me. We both wanted to learn…about how the other guy put things together. In the process, we found that we shared in much more in common than what we strongly differed on. Respect has grown over time.

    If the agenda is to “win”a debate, conversation will break down. If the agenda is to “dialogue” to change the other guy somehow, there is sneakiness and manipulation. Curiosity and the desire to learn can be authentic without trying to change, prove wrong or manipulate the other guy.

    Is that the dynamic you have seen in Better Angels sessions?

  • Cindy Harper

    I am struck by the quotations about pursuing “the truth.” In our post-modern age, liberals may have less faith in its existence than conservatives. Thus they are more likely to settle for dialogue to arrive at an improvised truth.

  • J Regalado

    Bohmian dialogue structure ( did not advocate for people to come to agreement but to actively explore the area of non-consensus as the place for real learning and deeper understanding But, he also said it could take months for a group to be able to come to a place of suspending judgement, opinions, and habits of behavior, long enought to do this and get deeper and constructively into the area of non-consensus.

    This, of course, doesn’t change the connotation of the word ‘dialogue’ that you write about here!

  • SWSmith

    Enjoyed this article. Important discussion (or dialogue, or debate, or…?)

    New name for “dialogue”: How about Discourse Workshop? Discourse and workshop, imply, to me at least, that this is “work in progress”, or a process being developed, or a means to a new end. This is an ongoing challenge, worthy of deep work.

    The “end” goal for any healthy discourse, should be, IMHO, “understanding”. Not agreement, not resolution, not conversion or even changed minds or even any kind of progress; although all of these may eventually be the result, at some point, of healthy discourse. But it starts with understanding, and the deeper the understanding, the better. We need better tools, better process, better civility and guardrails to ensure that even simple, but hopefully increasingly complex, “understanding” of different perspectives of “truth”, “reality”, “nature”, et al, can ensue.

    Even many of the prior comments in this thread reflect various “biases” or “pre-ordained” beliefs that betray attempts at real understanding..

    We should learn to walk away from any discussion or discourse without feeling like we must have achieved full resolution or some kind of “win” in an argument. We should learn how to spend the time, in relationship and in civil discourse, to drill down to the the precise elements of disagreement or barriers to understanding. In the short term, experience shows us that when tackling difficult or divisive subjects, few minds will change without deep exploration of the depths of understanding (and those points of difference that can be discerned if parties are willing to explore them).

    This takes practice. Online discussion boards are one place to practice, but probably not very effective in many cases.

  • Stephen

    “Rusty seems to me to overstate his case, since I don’t believe that U.S. dialogue leaders are typically guilty of bad faith.”

    I do.

  • Lorensacho

    I’m to the left and my good friend is very conservative. He does not access the large newspapers like the Washington Post or the New York Times and only gets his news from Fox. When discussing things, he refuses to read the so called liberal media’s investigations. So if he and other conservatives refuse to even examine facts dug up by the large newspapers, how is there any possibility for dialogue. By the way, I’m just as inflexible refusing to read his news sources which are Fox and Breitbart.

  • Joshua Bay

    If you’d really like to boil it down to brass tacks I’m not a women and I wish you would stop lunging at my balls and trying to cut them off!

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