A two-time challenger of Iowa’s second congressional district seat is traveling through all 99 counties in the state to encourage elected officials and the electorate to work together with the opposite party and end the pervasive political polarization that continues to overwhelm day-to-day conversations and social media news feeds.
Former candidate Dr. Christopher Peters, who unsuccessfully campaigned against incumbent Congressman Dave Loebsack, is a volunteer for the Better Angels Iowa Outreach Project, whose mission is to promote civil dialogue between elected and constituent party members, especially in a time where civil discourse seems to largely revolve around the topic of politics.
“We can still have our differences — that’s fine — but we should be able to get along while we do it,” Peters said, noting that although he ran as a Republican candidate he sees himself more as a Libertarian. “So that’s kind of what Better Angels is all about.”
Last week, Peters held a screening of the “Better Angels: Reuniting America” documentary (not to be confused by the similarly named documentary, “Better Angels,” by Malcolm Clarke) and coaxed a brief discussion with some of Jasper County’s elected officials, 2020 campaign workers, candidates and voters at the Newton Public Library.
The name, Better Angels, derives from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:
“…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
A little more than a month later, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, igniting the first shots of the American Civil War, which would rage on for nearly four years.
Peters said, “I don’t think we’re headed toward a civil war but I think you would agree there’s been a lot of really ugly events nationwide. And, fortunately, we’re not seeing that in Iowa that I’m aware of. But we are having this division where it’s ‘us against them,’ and I think we need to try and restore that a little bit.”
There are many factors that lead to political polarization. As both major parties shift to extremes, he added, that polarization increases. Constant national news media attention and social media also play a part. However, Peters is convinced people will “come out of it.” Better Angels’ methods and workshops, he argued, could be a solution. The first step? Watching the documentary.
The 50-minute film is presented like a case study or social experiment showcasing how Better Angels Red/Blue workshop is facilitated. This particular film featured a workshop full of both Republican and Democratic voters in Waynesville, Ohio.
At first, both groups are skeptical of one another, but they eventually find common ground and see the nuances in their stances regarding certain issues. They still may not agree with each other politically, but both groups seem to get along by the end and appear more relaxed and enlightened to healthy discussion.
Better Angels Iowa Outreach Project, Peters suggested, works the same way.
“I think there’s a ton of demand in Iowa for a different way forward,” Peters told Newton Daily News. “We like our politics in Iowa, and ‘Iowa Nice’ is something that we generally adhere to. That’s why I think Better Angels has just been so well received in Iowa.”
The Iowa branch of Better Angels is also led by a full-time state supervisor, Christian Sarabia, who has been accompanying Peters’ statewide visits. Several Jasper County attendees seemed interested in the group’s mission to set up Better Angels workshops in their respective communities.
From his experience campaigning in Iowa’s second district and interacting with its elected leaders, Peters remarked that Jasper County’s lawmakers work well together despite their differences in ideologies and political party. He said this is especially true for local elected officials like county supervisors and city councilpersons.
“They’re generally more pragmatic and get things done that need to get done, and I think that’s largely true with statehouse, too,” Peters said. “Less true once you get up to the federal level.”
Peters’ presentation a week ago was co-sponsored by both the Jasper County Democratic Party and Jasper County Republican Party.
Both chairpersons of the local parties — Michelle Smith and Thad Nearmyer, respectively — have organized and embraced bipartisan events in the past, such as the annual bipartisan soup supper. Held in early December last year, the fundraiser attracted several party leaders to the Jasper County Community Center to raise money for the local food pantry.
Nearmyer agreed Jasper County’s elected officials make efforts to work together, but said the divide comes more from constituents. But based on the reception and higher-than-expected turnout of last week’s event, Nearmyer isn’t ruling out the possibility of another type of workshop in the future.
“I feel like we had a lot of people interested enough to come to the first event so maybe that’s a possibility,” Nearmyer said.
Smith said there are certainly political differences between herself and her GOP counterpart.
“It doesn’t mean at the end of the day there aren’t things we can agree on and work together on, and that’s something we really try to showcase,” Smith said. “I think there’s so much we can do to improve our communities and things that are important to us.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org