When Erika Munson was growing up in Boston, Mass. in a left-leaning, Latter-day Saint household, she was in a political majority but a religious minority. Then after she and her husband moved their family to Utah, she was in a political minority but a religious majority.
Knowing that, you may not be surprised to read that Munson is involved with building bridges. She’s doing that right now as the state co-coordinator of Braver Angels Utah Alliance. It’s a state chapter that is a part of the national Braver Angels organization, which seeks to foster unity between “red and blue Americans” to address the political polarization in the United States. And despite being in a strongly right-leaning state, BAUA is making serious headway. Munson said on Aug. 31 that BAUA had 300 dues-paying members. Its first workshop was in summer 2018. Like all state BA chapters, BAUA is run by volunteers, Munson said.
In the summer of 2017, Munson heard a radio piece about BA nationally organizing bus trips across the country to do workshops between right and left-leaning individuals. She then asked BA to come to Utah. The organization initially said no. It said it didn’t have the money for that. But then it realized that it will scale by training people to do more workshops. Once Utah was part of BA’s plan, Munson went to its first national convention in summer 2018 and was trained as a “red-blue workshop” moderator.
Jeremy Robertson, the Utah Braver Politics specialist for BAUA, liked what John Wood, Jr., a BA national ambassador, had to say about BA on a podcast. Robertson then listened to The Braver Angels Podcast and looked into the Utah Alliance in 2020, including attending a few meetings. He then stepped up into the role he has now. “I felt like the polarization, not just nationwide, yes, but also in Utah, has just gotten worse and worse where I am increasingly concerned about how people who have different views are not just wrong, but they are evil,” Robertson said. “If you are on the left, the right isn’t just wrong; they are evil. And if you are on the right, the left isn’t just wrong; they’re evil. That sentiment is becoming more and more pronounced and it’s becoming less and less of trying to find the best idea and more about team sports where I’m on this team and my team needs to win. Why does my team need to win? Well, because it’s my team. That’s fine for baseball and soccer and football and it’s really bad for politics at any level.”
One BAUA objective is for as many Utahns as possible to participate in Braver Angels workshops, Munson said. Some workshops strive to “reduce stereotyped thinking, clarify disagreements, build relationships and find common ground through listening and learning rather than declaring and debating,” according to BA. “Once you participate in a workshop, you can be motivated to organize another workshop in your community,” Munson said. “We just want more people touched by Braver Angels and then catching the vision and bringing it to their own networks and communities,” Munson said later in the interview.
Robertson said he loves the involvement of Rep. Kera Birkeland and Kris Campbell with BAUA. Though they are running against each other for a legislative seat, they are focused on uniting. Birkeland and Campbell have been involved in two BAUA functions, including a town hall. And BAUA will hold another town hall with the candidates on Oct. 26. Birkeland and Campbell reached out to BAUA before the first town hall about wanting to do it.
Robertson said that it mirrors the last Utah governor’s race, when Republican candidate Spencer Cox and Democratic candidate Chris Peterson put out an advertisement that encouraged civility. “I want to see more of that happening,” Robertson said. “I really want to see Utah politicians, elected officials at any level, participating in Braver Angels events.”
The work of BAUA, as part of the larger Braver Angels movement, is “not to try to find necessarily a consensus,” Robertson said. “It’s more about having a chance to express your own thoughts, which are usually only very half-baked because I argue with everybody while I’m showering and I win all of those arguments. “But you get to express your own opinions and you are not being shot down because of it and then you get to hear other opinions … that don’t agree with yours,” Robertson said. “And it’s very civil … so that you separate the person from the politics.”
Munson said on Aug. 31 that BAUA had done around 10 workshops. Folks have wanted to have more opportunities to talk to each other after they’ve participated in a BAUA event, Munson said. Teenagers in high school-level BAUA functions have thought they would be “slammed” but weren’t, she added.
The chapter also hosted the BA co-founder, Bill Doherty, in May. And in another event, Munson and Casey Jorgensen, the other BAUA state co-coordinator, moderated a debate between candidates to represent Utah’s 4th congressional district. (The incumbent, Rep. Burgess Owens, was a no-show. Another Republican candidate participated.) Another event was a potluck in Sugar House, Utah. BAUA meets at 8 p.m. every third Thursday online, Munson said.
Challenges BAUA has overcome include enduring COVID-19 since the chapter couldn’t do any events in person; individuals being criticized from their own political side for talking to the other side; and getting two to three-hour commitments on a Saturday from folks.
Both Munson and Robertson acknowledged that the time commitment is hard. Robertson noted that a lot of Utahns already volunteer a lot of time in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “There’s no shade on that whatsoever. But (Utahns’ time) is a limited resource,” Robertson said. Munson expressed appreciation from individuals at the national level of BA for their support and advice. They are “Really experienced people and principled and this mission is so important to them,” she said. Munson and Robertson agreed that BAUA mirrors when Utah is cooperative politically.
BA nationally had a 300% growth in dues-paying members in 2020, a 329% monthly website traffic increase from 2019 to 2020 and an increase by four times in monthly participation by the end of 2020 versus April of the year. Among workshop participants, 85% felt less estranged or angry with those across the political divide, 87% gained a significant understanding of those across the divide and 91% see lots of areas of commonality after doing them. BA has also earned a great amount of national media coverage.
A group of university political science researchers studied BA’s depolarization model of “reciprocal group reflection,” concluding: “The workshops significantly reduced polarization according to explicit and implicit measures. They also increased participants’ willingness to donate to programs aimed at depolarizing political conversations. These effects are consistent across partisan groups, though some dissipate over time.”