Vahe Keukjian is a moderator with the Hudson Valley chapter of Braver Angels, which works to reduce political polarization. He will lead a workshop on Saturday (March 9) at St. Mary’s Church in Cold Spring; see

Vahe Keukjian
Vahe Keukjian (Photo provided)

Are you preaching to the converted at these workshops?
People who want to deal with political polarization show up and those who think political polarization is just fine tend not to. The group’s founders — David Blankenhorn, who leans left, David Lapp, who is conservative, and Bill Doherty, a psychologist — saw how the 2016 election accelerated political polarization. The first workshop was held in New Lebanon, Ohio, in a swing district in a swing state. Ten Trump voters and 10 Clinton voters attended. When asked why they agreed to participate, they all said: “We have a community to run, schools to operate, roads to build. We have to find a way past this rancor so we can live together.” 

How do you address polarization?
Many people don’t want what is an increasingly intense process in the U.S. of tribal polarization, stereotyping and demonizing people. Braver Angels isn’t about everyone agreeing. The goal is to help re-instill and encourage habits that nourish democracy, such as the ability to hear and respect differing opinions without trying to convert people. It’s the ability to find common ground, the skills of listening and cooperation. It’s learning how to make decisions that everybody can abide by, even if they don’t agree, because they accept the process.

Would it be better if most voters were independent?
That assumes politics operates issue by issue. Even with independents, most of their decision-making probably falls along certain lines, beliefs they may share with a party they don’t want to be associated with. It would be a lovely world if we all made our decisions on the merits of each case, but that’s not how we operate. In the political world, we make affiliations. 

Is extreme emotion part of the problem?
In American politics over the last 40 or 50 years, people have become more polarized and hostile over group affiliations and ideology but less polarized over issues. The hostility hides the fact that there’s quite a bit of common ground. You can’t have a simplistic, cartoonish view of someone else if you don’t also have one of yourself. Everybody has thoughts or opinions across a spectrum of beliefs and orientations. The more people feel rather than listen, the harder it is to make democracy work. There’s no guarantee it’s going to work. But we do know how it’s going to turn out if we don’t try.

What did you take from 2020 election?
Braver Angels spent a year holding workshops on trustworthy elections, getting people from the left, right and center to discuss their concerns. There were an enormous number of points of agreement. Everyone thought there should be voter ID and that it shouldn’t be impossible to get; that voting should be easy and cheating should be hard; and that voter verification systems are needed. Some people thought the election was stolen and others didn’t. It was remarkable to see how deeply committed they were to election integrity, no matter their party. They believed it was essential to democracy. It was wonderful to see how respectful and imaginative they were together. These conversations are waiting to be had all over the country.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Turton, who has been a reporter for The Current since its founding in 2010, moved to Philipstown from his native Ontario in 1998. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Cold Spring government, features

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