Opinion: ‘Braver Angels’ could show us all the way to strengthen our American democracy

Quote by President Harry S Truman carved onto a wall of the World War II memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, USA

Quote by President Harry S Truman carved onto a wall of the World War II memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, USA

Richard Sharrocks/Getty Images

Most of you likely know a few people whose parents or grandparents fought in World War II. And hopefully, most of you also have voted in a variety of elections — from city hall to the state house to the White House. 

Well, those two matters are connected, as the people who went to war were fighting for a pretty simple idea: democracy. 

It wasn’t always seen that way, however. You see, before Pearl Harbor, there was significant opposition to the U.S. entering the war. There were many isolationist groups, among them the America First Committee, founded here in Connecticut at Yale University. 

Once attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, the country unified almost overnight. President Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the nation to eliminate dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Japan. When peace was declared in 1945, democracy won, but only after a long and costly war that saw more than 400,000 Americans die defending the principle of self-government.

Now, 77 years later, those who fought the fight have left the stewardship of the democracy they saved to us. Yet today’s airwaves are pocked with coarsened rhetoric questioning some of the basic pillars of what makes us a democracy: the peaceful transfer of power, free elections and candidates of both parties willing to debate one another. What happened?

It is impossible to pinpoint just one or two causes to explain why public discourse is so hardened and divisive today. The list of usual suspects sounds familiar: the rise of social media, polarized cable news, a lack of civics education in our schools, a shrinking number of newspapers in the U.S., anger over civil injustice, helplessness over unchecked gun violence, the unattainability of a college education and an increasing lack of trust in many of the institutions that were built to keep democracy strong and thriving after WWII.

I had the unique pleasure of working for U.S. Sen. Paul Simon from Illinois, who was a WWII war correspondent and a newspaper publisher before entering politics. As a young man, I learned a simple lesson from him. He was the originator (best I knew) of the phrase, “You can disagree with people without being disagreeable.” He actually lived that lesson. 

Simon was a member of the subcommittee on immigration, chaired by the Republican whip of the Senate, Alan Simpson of Wyoming.  Also on that subcommittee was Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Orrin Hatch of Utah. 

You couldn’t find four more iconic examples of their respective political parties. Each of these senators held passionate and often opposite views on policy, yet they genuinely liked one another. Through them, I had a front-row seat to democracy working well. They could clash on ideas, and in the case of Simon and Simpson, they had fun working together. That’s because they respected each other and viewed their jobs as public servants as a privilege and an honor. 

Far too few of their successors act that way — on the federal, state and local levels. But I recently saw a sign of hope. 

Connecticut Public sponsored an event with a group called Braver Angels along with The Governor M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Service at the University of Hartford. 

Braver Angels cribbed its name from President Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861.

"We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln implored. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” he said, expressing his belief that “the better angels of our nature,” would help unify a troubled union. 

The simple goal of Braver Angels is to get Republicans and Democrats to engage in civil dialogue. The event featured state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey — a Democrat from Fairfield — and state Rep. Steve Harding—a Republican from Brookfield. The program is available on CT-N.

Led by Braver Angels founder Bill Dougherty, the two lawmakers from different areas and different parties shared what they had in common: both care deeply about their families and grew up with strong father figures who instilled a sense of duty by their example, both view public service as an honor and a privilege and both hope their efforts can make their communities and state a better place to live.

These two legislators have voted differently in the past, and they may again. But should they end up working on a bill together, I have no doubt the trust they built during a relatively brief event will result in a stronger, braver bill. And they might even have fun doing it.

Let’s hope the braver angels among us insist on a return to civility in our public discourse and honor the sacrifices of those who perished more than 77 years ago to save democracy. 

Mark G. Contreras is president and CEO of Connecticut Public, which is home to Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) and Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR).