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  • Because isolation fosters distrust, the weakening of U.S. civil society in recent decades is an important cause of declining trust. Tweet This
  • When you can’t or don’t trust the first important man in your life, trusting others later on, especially those in authority, becomes harder and less likely to occur. Tweet This
  • American elites today are too implicated in the structures and mindsets of polarization to do much to change it, unless they are awakened and guided by “We the People.” Tweet This
Category: Politics, Interview

Many readers are familiar with David Blankenhorn as a leader who burst onto the national stage in 1995 with his bestselling book, Fatherless America, and as the founder and president of Institute for American Values. For more than 20 years, Blankenhorn’s think tank produced scholarly reports on issues of civil society and especially marriage and family. Today, Blankenhorn is the president and co-founder of Braver Angels, the nation’s largest grassroots organization that addresses political polarization. He recently authored In Search of Braver Angels: Getting Along Together in Trouble Times, a collection of essays about whether the American experiment can survive our present polarization.

Blankenhorn is a good friend and a colleague at Braver Angels, an organization I cofounded with him and Bill Doherty. But like many others, I first got to know him through his work on marriage, family, and fatherhood. In this interview, I ask Blankenhorn about his new book and how he sees the connections between his previous work and his current work.  

David Lapp: First, how does the guy who wrote Fatherless America and helped to spearhead the marriage movement end up leading a grassroots organization addressing political polarization? Is there a connection between the two, or are they entirely different streams of work?

David Blankenhorn: There’s a connection! In fact, I’m now an old man (born in 1955) who has been doing the same thing since I was 15 years old, when I started a group called Mississippi Community Service Corps. The goal was bringing together black and white students from just-desegregated Mississippi public schools for service projects such as tutoring children. 

In nearly everything I’ve done, the underlying goal is bringing people together across differences for a larger purpose. Conservative and liberal. Black and white. South and North. Grassroots and elite. Father and child. A marriage. Scholars from divergent disciplines. To me, it’s all been one thing and always what I cared about most. 

Maybe it’s because my mother and father were quite different, or because the South I grew up in was so bitterly divided over race, but whatever the motivation, I’ve always wanted to unite the moieties, prevent irrevocable fracturing, or at least that’s how I look at it, realizing that no one sees himself with true accuracy.          

Lapp: You’re the one who suggested to me, a couple days after the 2016 election, that we bring together 10 people who had just voted for Donald Trump and 10 people who had just voted for Hillary Clinton. You had in mind ordinary citizens in mind South Lebanon, Ohio, a small blue-collar town where I live. But I’m curious: you had spent the last several decades bringing together mostly intellectuals in big cities or college. Why in that moment was your instinct to bring together ordinary citizens in an obscure town rather than well-known public intellectuals and experts? And what role do you see for scholars in a grassroots movement for depolarization?

Blankenhorn: My instinct, which I think you share, is that American elites today are too implicated in the structures and mindsets of polarization to do much to change it, unless they are awakened and guided by “We the People.” Some social changes are top-down. Depolarization, if it occurs, will likely be bottom-up. 

Having said that, scholars contribute importantly to what we’re doing, often in the area of problem description. What are the roots, dimensions, and consequences of polarization? What are the driving forces? What’s the historical context?  Deepening our understanding of these questions makes a big difference, and we’re honored at Braver Angels to work with many scholars helping us in these ways. We also have a wonderful team of scholars leading our work in the area of program evaluation.   

Lapp: In your book, the essay, “Where’s the Trust” addresses mistrust. Why don’t we trust each other anymore?

Blankenhorn: Trust is fragile–much easier to destroy than create. Also, some causes of declining trust are things we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to change. Rapid social change reduces trust. So does diversity, even though in the long run diversity is likely a social good. Trust can also be harmed when social problems once largely denied or hidden from view – for example, sexual abuse – become publicly known and are addressed.

Because isolation fosters distrust, the weakening of U.S. civil society in recent decades is an important cause of declining trust. Millions of children grow up today separated from their fathers, and scholars have shown that a major consequence of family disruption is children’s loss of trust in their fathers. When you can’t or don’t trust the first important man in your life, trusting others later on, especially those in authority, becomes harder and less likely to occur. Distrust, like trust, begins close in and spreads from there. The trust we most need and yearn for can be extinguished like blowing out a flame.

Few occurrences destroy trust in our political institutions as quickly as public lying, something that seems to have increased in recent decades. Poorly performing institutions, like Congress, are deeply distrusted and rightly so. Institutions that openly abandon professional standards as part of creating and profiting from polarization, such as most of today’s media, could hardly do more to destroy trust if they wanted to. These are hammer blows against soft wood.

"Depolarization, if it occurs, will likely be bottom-up." David Blankenhorn    

Lapp: I love the concept that you describe in your book about “transforming conflict” in a way that goes “beyond polarization and beyond compromise, toward a creative new framing—a higher synthesis—that includes what is valid and helpful on both sides, leading us, together, to a new place in the discussion.” But I confess that I have difficulty naming what it looks like in practice. You’re a student of American history. Is there an example or two from American history that you could point of a time when Americans have transformed conflict in the way that you describe?

Blankenhorn: It's not very common, is it? But to me there are glimmers of it here and there—enough to make me believe that it’s possible and want more. It seems to me that the traditional gender and family roles of the mid-20th century, as they sharply conflicted with the liberationist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, may eventually have led to a new and higher synthesis regarding the family as a social institution—with the important caveat that the family synthesis now dominating upscale America is much weaker in the rest of the country.

In this regard, can we also consider the African-American civil rights movement, in the sense of an historic conflict in which both sides gain? Dr. King often said that the movement was “redemptive,” by which, as I understand it, he meant that achieving racial justice would enlarge the humanity of whites as well as blacks, making possible at last what he called “the beloved community.” Is it possible in part to understand the intense, sometimes violent conflict between the thesis of white racism and the antithesis of the black freedom struggle as leading America to a still flawed but higher synthesis, one result of which is that our only national holiday named for an American leader is Martin Luther King Day?       

Lapp: It's apparent from several essays in the book—including one on “Signs”—that you love hitting the road. Is there a place in America you’ve visited, or an encounter you’ve had on the road, that especially speaks to you of the possibilities for a less rancorous and more perfect American union?

Blankenhorn: If you want examples of citizens overcoming divisiveness that often leaves the rest of us angry and demoralized, visit Utah. I’m still trying to figure out what their secret is. Utah is a very conservative state, reliably Republican in its voting patterns. But somehow, the people seem to be special. Open to hearing other points of view. Hospitable. Willing to compromise for the common good. Decent-minded. 

For instance, after it became clear that the courts and national opinion were moving toward acceptance of gay marriage, Utah political leaders reached out to the state’s gay and lesbian leaders to create the Utah Compromise, which meaningfully advanced gay rights in Utah while carving out some specific exemptions for religiously-motivated conscientious objectors. 

This kind of thing happens often in Utah. It happened with respect to immigration, with what they call the Utah Compact. It happened quite dramatically in the mid-2010s with respect to Syrian refugee resettlement. And on other issues as well.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is almost certainly the most important cultural influence in the state, and so in my view, much of the credit (or blame, if you don’t like this kind of thing) goes to their leaders and, more broadly, their ethos.

Utah has many flaws, as all people and places do. We all fall short, more often than we’d like to admit. But Utahns’ collective effort during this era of American division to take Jesus‘ teachings seriously (“I was a stranger and you welcomed me”) is something I admire. 

David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.