November 11, 2020
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We can do better

Arguments are our legacy and our shared history—we can do better by embracing them.

In spite of the national divide, the Better Arguments Project framework can begin to bring Americans together. Photo by Paul Weaver/Unsplash

Presidential elections are galvanizing moments in America. They’re opportunities when we collectively contemplate the country’s trajectory and declare our preferred path forward.

But our winner-take-all system feels cruel to those outside the majority and validating to those in it. Every four years, we come together to deliberate our shared future. Yet the moment a winner is declared, we split apart to celebrate… or not.

The cycle is predictable, as are its consequences. If recent history is any guide, after the president-elect is determined, some will use partisanship to try to drive us further apart. Compromise will be treated as failure. Escalation will beget escalation.

These compounding problems leave us feeling like our society is broken. When ideological fault lines widen, we tend to recede deeper into cozy enclaves of the like-minded, inoculated from hearing challenges to our worldview.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if, instead of presuming this is our fait accompli, we choose a different path? What if we used these moments when we’re acutely focused on our civic and societal interests to engage each other more constructively by rejecting the premise that winning is all that matters?

We can do better. We can safely emerge from our partisan corners to bridge our divides. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we didn’t have a road map to follow. Now we do. And it begins with arguing better.

The Better Arguments Project—a national civic initiative launched by Allstate, The Aspen Institute, and Facing History and Ourselves—is built on a framework that relies on five key principles: Take Winning Off the Table; Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately; Pay Attention to Context; Embrace Vulnerability; and Make Room to Transform.

At its core, Better Arguments is a means to address our issues head-on. Instead of rushing to reconciliation, it forces us to step back and consider the inherited power inequities that have led us to conflict. It requires us to reckon with the hard truths – and that’s our biggest obstacle.

That’s because in the United States, naming the “truths” behind power inequities is complex. No single group can be blamed for perpetuating every inequity across the whole of society. Our history is messy. It’s why our debates need to start from a place of common understanding and be facilitated according to agreed rules for engagement. That’s what Better Arguments offers.

We’ve seen how effectively this framework can bring people together. Over the past three years, The Better Arguments Project has hosted a series of events in communities grappling with chasms. When we come together using the principles of a Better Argument to hash out differences, we take an offramp from the partisan skirmishes that tend to dominate our discourse. We engage each other’s humanity. We demonstrate that when the aim of an argument isn’t winning, we have space to constructively reckon with difference.

In this moment, with tensions amplified by the pandemic and the presidential election, it’s more important than ever that communities have the tools for constructive dialogue. That’s why The Better Arguments Project recently released virtual tools to facilitate those conversations, even as we socially distance.

These conversations are essential. If we don’t engage in a new way, we’ll just drift further apart. Then, four years from now, when it’s time to elect another president, we’ll find ourselves lamenting the same cycle of bickering that’s dominated our civic lives and stymied meaningful progress.

We can do better. Not by shying away from arguments but by embracing them. Arguments are our legacy and our shared history. They’re what fuels the spirit of our nation. Let’s start arguing better.

David Nadig, Roger Brooks, and Eric Liu

The Better Arguments Project

David Nadig is the SVP and Deputy General Counsel of Allstate and Chair of Chicago Debate. Roger Brooks is President and CEO of Facing History and Ourselves. Eric Liu is Executive Director of the Citizenship and Identity Program at the Aspen Institute and the CEO of Citizen University. For more information about The Better Arguments Project, please visit www.BetterArguments.org or email us at betterarguments@aspeninstitute.org.