Mónica asks author Chris Arnade how he’s bridged one of the trickiest divides in America by going to parts of the country that others dismiss. Chris shares what he sees differently now and what both our big political “sides” are missing when they claim to fight for the working class. Then we hear from Corrie, a wife and mother who shares what the class divide looks and feels like for someone in her position as she struggles to make ends meet.
Senior Producer & Editor: David Albright
Producer: Jessica Jones
Contributor: April Lawson
Artist in Residence: Gangstagrass
Cover Art & Graphics: Katelin Annes
Publishing Support: Mike Casentini
Show Notes: Ben Caron
Audio Cleanup: Klem Daniels
Featured Song: “Say Can You See” by Scott Cook
A Braver Way is a production of Braver Angels.
We get financial support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and Reclaim Curiosity.
- Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade
- Chris Arnade
- Facing Homelessness- a community focused non-profit focused on solutions for homelessness based on developing relationships.
- We the People’s Project: An initiative from Braver Angels. We the People’s Project is a working-class coalition of conservatives, progressives, and independents working to build a house united in America.
- Nov 2016 article by Chris Arnade: What I learned after 100,000 miles on the road talking to Trump supporters
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Guest Introduction, Chris Arnade, author of “Dignity, Seeking Respect in Back Row America” [1:53]
Arnade shares his journey from Wall Street to traveling across the U.S. talking to people in the “back row” of America [6:45]
- Arnade: “What struck me was the Bronx Hunts Point, which is 98% Hispanic and Latino, and African American. The problems I saw there, and the kind of frustrations I saw there I also saw in, Portsmouth, Ohio. Portsmouth, Ohio is 98% white. It struck me that there was a great deal of similarity to what I saw in Portsmouth, Ohio, you know, and, and what I saw in the Bronx, and it didn’t have to do with race…You could call it “class,” but it was much more about the educational divide in the sense that what unified Portsmouth and what unified the Bronx was most of the people I was dealing with a high school degree, maybe, they had college, it was community college, maybe one or two years. At the upper end, a few people had a few years in state school. Nobody went to Harvard. Nobody went to, nobody went to Cornell. Nobody went to these schools that dominated the other place I knew, which is Wall Street. So, to me it’s easier to define the front row. That’s, that’s me.”
Arnade defines the “front row” of America and the judgements the “front row” has against the “back row” [8:46]
- Arnade: ‘It’s this worldview that I have and a lot of a lot of listeners have, which is, our primary focus is on getting on gaining credential, building a resume, on what I call “careerism.”’
- Arnade: “I understand that a lot of people, do not think they’re looking down on others. But when you tell somebody that you know, “all you need to do is get more education.” Well, that’s a very loaded suggestion because we have one way of thinking how to solve things, which is books, books, education, education, education. Whereas that isn’t necessarily how a lot of people think about the world. It’s more of an experiential level of intelligence.”
Arnade describes the difference between the “front row” and “back row” [11:05]
- Arnade: “there’s a big kind of, very deep difference between the front and back row in terms of how they view, what I would call their metaphysical commitment, their sense of meaning, their sense of worth.”
Arnade shares about the significance of the concept of “home” to people in the “back row” [13:45]
- Arnade: ‘It’s very hard for us to understand how essential place is to people. It’s, it’s, it’s a sense of who they are. They are from Portsmouth, they are from Texas, they’re from El Paso, they’re from North Side. Those things matter and to tell people, “no, no, no, just give up this whole sense of self, give up your identity.” It’s kind of like us that, you know, it’s kind of like saying, oh, you know, just, you know, “Change your career. You know, stop, you stop being professor of sociology, become a professor of physics, you know, or, or, or, or become a plumber.” It’s essential to who they are. And just telling them just, “you know, just, just go ahead and move.” It is just so offensive.’
Arnade talks about the “back row” feeling that systems are rigged against them, and why they don’t vote [17:26]
- Arnade: ‘If you keep playing checkers with somebody and they keep winning and you keep thinking they’re rigging the game. You’re just gonna knock the board over. Eventually, you know that it’s to your advantage to stop playing. In many cases that’s what I think a lot of people misunderstand, is a lot of people have just opted out. The bulk of the people in my book don’t vote. The analogy of the back row is very appropriate here because the whole process of voting is joining a process that screws them over and is giving them nothing but humiliation. They get told they’re not good at tests. They get told at all these institutions. You know, where you go to vote, the courthouse, the middle school aren’t necessarily positive experiences, and they’re just like, you know, “I’m out. I’m done with this.”’
Arnade centers humanity, authenticity and honesty as important qualities in interacting with people from “the back row,” and how that relates to Trump [20:07]
- Arnade: ‘People respect honesty. They respect a sense of understanding who you are. I mean, they don’t blame the individual, they blame the system. And if you’re a decent person who listens.
- Arnade: “Don’t ever go into someplace and lie. I think that’s something people misunderstand about the appeal of Trump was, he doesn’t pretend who he is. I remember the time during the debate when I said, “this dude’s gonna, he, he’s for real.”’
Arnade highlights the struggles and judgements against people who stay in their home towns and don’t leave to pursue an education [26:54]
- Arnade: “People who stay in their community, especially a community that’s suffering, you know, that’s losing population, stay in their community and you know, become an electrician, a line worker, you know, for the power company, feel like they’re being looked down on, because they’ve been told the entire system, every level says, “get more education, get more education, education, education, education, education.” And again, I will never tell anybody not to get more education. I’m, I’m part of that system. But, you know, I talk to kids in these, in these places who are, the high achievers and they all wanna leave. And I’m not gonna tell them not to. I would never tell somebody not to do what I do, which is go out and experience the world and see everything you can see. But the people who don’t choose that feel like losers, feel very much like they’re being judged. What we have to do, in my mind is recognize this is a valid way of living, equally valid to us, and in their mind more valid than us. And allow them to live that way.”
Arnade argues that it’s harder for people in the back row to get to know people in the front row [35:02]
- Arnade: “It’s harder for them to get to know us than for us to get to know them. Meaning, there’s a big power differential here. And the other thing is, one of the things I’ve always said to my academic friends is I say, you know, we, we in academics, you have statements about equality and diversity and all that. The minute someone on the back row walks into a college campus who doesn’t have credentials, people call the police on them. So it’s not like they can go out and reach out to the front row, the front. We put barriers up.”
Braver Angles spotlight: We the People’s Project [36:33]
Mónica talks with her red counterpart, April Lawson, about the interview and compare strengths and weaknesses of reds and blues around the subject [37:43]
- April: “I think that ‘authenticity’ to me stuck out as the central thing…that makes sense if you’re somebody who feels like the game is rigged, and there is a game, and nobody will admit it, and then there are people who admit it. You’re like, ‘thank god.’ And so, I think that my side, it’s both. It has, in my opinion, some of the worst offenders with regard to the class divide, and then also some of the best.”
- Mónica: “I think there’s a thing on the blue side against tradition. There’s a thing on the blue side against religion. And like, these two things are not that bad. But I think on the blue side, it’s afraid that they hold us back in some key way. And so I think we can be blind to how people build meaning beautifully with tradition and religion, including if they might be part of a more dominant culture.”
Supporting Partner: Citizen’s Climate Lobby [57:42]
Community Voice: Corrie Zech, from Middletown, Ohio [59:06]
- Corrie: “People who are in situations where they don’t have to worry about it and they don’t think about it, and it’s not in their face constantly, they just don’t think about it. They don’t think about what it’s like for people like me who literally have nothing. Or what my experience has been. Assumptions have been made about how I got to where I am and that I’m not doing anything to fix it, when in reality it’s the exact opposite. They’ll say, “well, have you tried this?” Yes, I’ve already tried everything you’re telling me to do, you know, and nothing has worked. So they just don’t get that.”
- Corrie: “Politicians don’t, don’t talk to us because, you know, I don’t know why, I don’t know why they don’t talk to us, but they should, especially if they claim to care for us and care about the people they say they work for. That put them in office. We put them there, but they’re not doing what’s best for us.”
Mónica closes the episode with an invitation to send questions, end credits, thank yous and the song, “Say Can You See” by Scott Cook [1:04:11]
How hard is it, really, to step out of your own world?
“For me in many ways it was the walking, it was walking in the neighborhoods, and you can’t not interact with people when you walk.”
And what does politics look like when you’re on the other side of a divide a lot of us don’t even acknowledge?
“People class people like me that are in my situation as something to look down upon because of whatever got us there and they don’t bother to talk to us, find out what happened. Find out our stories, listen to us.”
All this and more is just ahead… on this week’s episode.
Welcome to A Braver Way, a show about how you — yes YOU — can disagree about politics without losing heart.
I’m Mónica Guzman, your guide across the divide, to help you hear and be heard by people who confound you.
We don’t want to be at war in our country. We want to be at home.
So strap in.
‘Cause it’s time we learn how to turn up the heat, turn down the fear, and get real about things that matter with more of our fellow Americans than we thought possible.
Hey everyone. We’re here, we’re back, we’re ready for another go.
And where we’re going this episode is a little off the beaten path.
Crossing the political divide, as we know all too well here, is hard enough. But there’s another divide that’s blinding us to each other all the time in ways some of us barely even notice. And it’s making our political disagreements that much harder to understand.
I used to think of this as just the class divide. But then I learned about a man named Chris Arnade.
Chris spent years bridging this divide on his own, day in and day out, all across the country. He did it in such a direct and audacious way, I still can’t believe how simple it was.
He just went to the towns and neighborhoods a lot of people think folks should be leaving. And one after another, he started getting to know people he’d barely acknowledged before. The kinds of people who — given that Chris worked a high-paying finance job — he had talked about, but never, ever with.
Many of them didn’t go to college. Many of them didn’t make enough to build a life that feels steady or secure.
But just about all of them carried this sense that the worlds America builds for itself… are not being built for them.
Chris wrote about all this in a book called “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.” I bought it. I couldn’t put it down.
And when I finished and looked back up, a lot of things looked different. You know the constant back and forth in our politics about “who fights harder for working class people?” Both parties say they know best, that they’re the ones who get it.
But learning about people Chris got to know makes me wonder if, whether we’re Red or Blue or something else, a lot of us are missing something. Something pretty big.
So for this episode, I invited Chris Arnade to help us answer a tricky question that feels really important: How do we bridge the so-called “class” divide? And what can it show us?
The first thing to know about Chris is that before he was spending time with people who struggle to make ends meet, he was doing something close to the opposite: working on Wall Street.
I started off I was very good at math, um, and kind of always into numbers and when you kind of get channeled into that, I. It’s very easy to escape into the world of numbers and then forget about people. And that sort of reaches culmination, after I got my PhD in physics, when I realized that someone would pay you a lot of money to play with numbers, and that was Wall Street.
Mónica: Then at some point — to help deal with the stress of his high-powered job — Chris started going on long walks through his city.
I take the subway to the end of the line and walk home. The financial crisis hit in 2007. I had more stress but my children were also getting older so that those walks could take on a more extended part of my life They also start taking on a more philosophical. They went from therapy to kind of almost a way of learning for me, and eventually they had no other goal other than just talking to the people I met along the way.
Chris’s walks introduced him to neighborhoods and people his Wall Street world barely knew.
If you know New York, it’s kind of the neighborhood you’re not supposed to go to, um, where none, nonetheless the bulk of New Yorkers live, and I saw I was getting drawn more and more into this idea that what I was seeing on my walks was as important if not more important than what I was doing for my job.
Pretty soon, Chris found himself getting more involved. He spent more and more time with the people he was meeting. Hanging out. Forming friendships. It changed everything. Chris quit his job, hit the road, and opened his eyes even wider…
So, you’re talking about, you know, the shift from playing with numbers to getting to know real people and something true that was emerging for you in that kept kind of pulling you in so much that you got involved in folk’s lives you really got to know them. The divide that you you bridged in these experiences.I find is really hard to name sometimes the shorthand is like a “class divide” but it’s so much deeper than that. There’s something cultural, geographic. You know, you ended up going to towns all over, neighborhoods, all over the country that felt neglected in some ways and finding extraordinary things there. Maybe it’s also got something to do with credentials and degrees and access and your place in the economy. So you call it in your book “Dignity” “Front Row and Back Row America,” that’s somehow a truer way of articulating what this is all about. So describe that metaphor and why that works for you in your experience.
At the time I was writing, this was 2015, 2016, where I was, early on talking about what I saw was the greatest divide in our country was less class, less race. And those, those are divides, but the more salient divide was education.
After I spent time, after I quit my job and I did the project in the Bronx, I then did this across the country for five years. I put 500,000 miles on my car going all around the country, you know, places all geographically everywhere.
What struck me was the Bronx Hunts Point, which is 98% Hispanic and Latino, and African American. The problems I saw there, and the kind of frustrations I saw there I also saw in, Portsmouth, Ohio. Portsmouth, Ohio is 98% white. It struck me that there was a great deal of similarity to what I saw in Portsmouth, Ohio, you know, and, and what I saw in the Bronx, and it didn’t have to do with race. It had to do, it didn’t have to do, yes. “Class.” You could call it “class,” but it was much more about the educational divide in the sense that what unified Portsmouth and what unified the Bronx was most of the people I was dealing with, had, if had a high school degree, maybe, they had college, it was community college, maybe one or two years. At the upper end, a few people had a few years in state school.
Nobody went to Harvard. Nobody went to, nobody went to Cornell. Nobody went to these schools that dominated the other place I knew, which is Wall Street. So, to me it’s easier to define the front row. That’s, that’s me.
You know, it’s a lot of people who probably listen to this podcast, and it’s not a derogatory frame. I’m very proud to have been as educated as I am. But, the front row is generally very uniform. We think a lot similarly, we may be on, you may be a Republican, you may be a Democrat.
For instance, what was supposed to be the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are very similar. They’re both highly credentialed. They both come, you know, with a lot of education. They’ve both been working in the same institutions and they have a very similar world view that transcends politics.
It’s this worldview that I have and a lot of a lot of listeners have, which is, our primary focus is on getting on gaining credential, building a resume, on what I call “careerism.” So that was very, very, very, very different from the people I was spending time with, where there’s a lot of communities who feel completely just, abandoned, who feel like that the front row educated class is looking down on them, judging them, and you know, we are. Mónica:
And are they?
They are. Yeah. They very much are. I understand that a lot of people, do not think they’re looking down on others. But when you tell somebody that you know, “all you need to do is get more education.” Well, that’s a very loaded suggestion because we have one way of thinking how to solve things, which is books, books, education, education, education. Whereas that isn’t necessarily how a lot of people think about the world. It’s more of an experiential level of intelligence.
Yes. Yes, and I can tell you’re, you’re kind of reaching for words because I don’t think we have the words or the concepts even to talk about this at great depth. What you’re talking about is a different way of looking at the world, a different way of, of finding value and meaning. And your book went into that in so many rich ways. And it felt to me when I read it that it took an entire book in some ways to tell me, someone in the front row, what I was missing because you, I, I love that you brought up the educational divide because it’s true. There this sense that you have a degree, so now you’re a better person, you’re more valuable. Says who?
You know, there’s, there’s, there’s a, a lot of different skill sets set out there, and I think we only value one. You know, the way I think about it in a more colloquial way is it’s how you want to be described on, you know, on your tombstone. “I was the head of the faculty of, Smith College.” So, you know, “that’s who I am. That’s me.” We kind of judge us, or in the front row, we generally think about who we are in terms of our resume. Whereas a lot of people, they view life, the goal of life and the treasure of life very differently. “Was I a good father? Was I a good mother? Was I a good member of the community? Did I live a life as God wanted me to live a life?”
And so there’s a big kind of, very deep difference between the front and back row in terms of how they view, what I would call their metaphysical commitment, their sense of meaning, their sense of worth.
What did it take for you, a member of the front row steeped in this particular way of approaching the world in your life and your place in it, what did it take for you to see people fully?
At first it took, it, it took a lot of, a lot of humility. It took a lot of time of having to bite my tongue. We always want to explain stuff. When somebody says something, we always wanna say, well, actually, you know, no, no, you’re wrong. it. It actually took a, it took a few years of saying, you know what? Even if I’m right on paper, is that, how is that what a good human is? If you’re in a bar and somebody points out the window and says “That factory,” which you know, that empty lot where there used to be a factory “is, you know, why this town is having its problems. The factory is gone. It’s in Mexico now.”
My gut reactions to wanna say, well actually, you know, “free trade, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But you know, what would you do that for, I mean, at, at a human level? Why would you do that? Even if quote, “you’re right” and then it took a while of realizing I wasn’t even right. That person out there pointing at the factory is the one who’s right. meaning like, you know, on paper, on spreadsheet, free trade is good. I can make that, I can put my Wall Street hat on and argue that, but you know, it doesn’t take into account, the human suffering that is caused. We just do a very mechanical calculation. Free trade is good because winners win more than the losers lose. Okay. But how we don’t really think about how much the losers really lose, and in this case what they lose is their whole sense of self. The whole sense of purpose. The whole sense of meaning. It’s like taking away from professors their doctorate. And saying, “No, no, no, no, I’m sorry. You have to go teach middle school.” And that’s how humiliating it is to these people to take away their jobs. We’ve take their whole sense of worth away.
Uh, yeah. And you’re, you’re talking about truth in a different way than the people that I know well, which is fellow journalists. You know, we think about accuracy and numbers and all of that, but, but you’re talking about, you know, the truth of, of, of a community, the truth of the human experience, the truth of deep down concerns and meaning, and what changes when certain things are taken away, and the narratives we tell ourselves. It’s, it’s like, it’s so much more profound than we tend to think about. Like, “there’s one truth and these people don’t get it.” And so, you know, “they’re worthless” wherever you happen to be on these divides.
Tell me about “home.” I, I was so struck by the parts in your book where you talked about “home.” Tell me about this assumption that many in the front row have, I certainly had, that people ought to just leave if their factory closes, their community’s done, well, “Heck, why don’t they just move? Why are they still there?”
Yeah, that was, that was one of the, um, yeah, that was one of the hardest lessons to learn. we in the front road tend to move a lot. It’s very hard for us to understand how essential place is to people. It’s, it’s, it’s a sense of who they are. They are from Portsmouth, they are from Texas, they’re from El Paso, they’re from North Side. Those things matter and to tell people, “no, no, no, just give up this whole sense of self, give up your identity.” It’s kind of like us that, you know, it’s kind of like saying, oh, you know, just, you know, “Change your career. You know, stop, you stop being professor of sociology, become a professor of physics, you know, or, or, or, or become a plumber.” Iit’s essential to who they are. And just telling them just, “you know, just, just go ahead and move.”
It is just so offensive. Uh, it’s just, it’s a complete misunderstanding of, what is valuable to somebody and what is essential to them. You know, there are so many times I had so many “aha” moments where I would tell somebody– I remember one of it was in particular in Cairo, Illinois, which is a really fascinating town. Um, It’s, it’s a town that’s been abandoned so many times, it’s, it is essentially a ghost town now. There is one or two housing projects there with a few, it’s now primarily African American. I just remember sitting in this housing project and this, this young woman, maybe 21, you know, gave this wonderful, eloquent defense of the community. And I said to her, I said, “are you from here?” And she goes, “no, no, no. I’m from like five miles away. I’m from, I’m not from here.” Her concept of “here” was literally this town. But no, she’s from a different town five miles away. You know? And you know, how much place matters to people.
Yeah. How do you react when people in the front row say they’re voting against their own interests?
It’s very presumptuous to know what is in somebody’s interest. As if you know what’s in their best interest.
Is that part of what we do? That we think we’re so educated that we know.
We know, everything.
One of my retorts, by the way, to the Left is “you’re voting for your taxes to increase. You’re voting against your economic interest.” We assume that what we would say would be in their interest is in their interest. You know, people have a different waiting, you know, in mathematical terms they, they have a different function for what their interest is. They know what’s in their best interest.
Right. And you use a term from math, right? A different function. The variables are different, the formula’s different. It comes back to your, your shift from numbers to people that you, there was something about just getting to know people and precisely the people that you would never get to know if you followed the default factory settings of your life, that told you how wrong it is to think that you know people, when you do not know them, that you know more than them, and so therefore they have nothing to teach you.
Right. I mean, you know, the, the dialogue around the 2016 election really just broke so many people and it brought out a lot of the worst, worst in everybody. It, it, it was really hard to see the whole debate about people voting best, their, in their best interest.
I mean, and you’re on the left. I should, I should clarify you, you vote on the left?
Yes. I unfortunately was someone who got kind of piled on and yelled at, because I said Trump could win. There was an anger out there and a frustration. You know, the way I, I, the way I kind of always suggest I said it was, is, “If you keep playing checkers with somebody and they keep winning and you keep thinking they’re, they’re going, you know, they’re, they’re rigging the game. You’re just gonna knock the board over. Eventually, you know, that’s to your advantage is to stop playing. In many cases that’s what I think a lot of people misunderstand is a lot of people have just opted out. The bulk of the people in my, in my book don’t vote. The analogy of the back row is very, is appropriate here because you the whole process of voting is joining a process that screws them over and giving them nothing but humiliation. They get you told they’re not good at tests. They get told, all these institutions. You know, where you go to vote, the courthouse, the middle school aren’t necessarily positive experiences, and they’re just like, you know, “I, I’m, I’m, I’m out. I’m done with this.” I remember the gentleman in, Youngstown, Ohio, a Black man, he said to me, he said, like I said, “you, who are you gonna vote for?” This is before the 2016 election. He says, “Nobody.” He goes, “you know, we, we had our president.”
He was talking about Obama. He says, “Nothing’s changed here. No, Youngstown. It’s just as bad as it ever been. Like, you know, the potholes are still here. There’s the factories are still gone, there’s still kids running around shooting guns, there’s still drugs in the abandoned houses.” And he says like, well, “I, I, we did it. I, I went out there and I voted for Obama twice and I got this, and nothing’s changed and it’s just as bad, so why am I gonna vote again?” You know, there’s just a, there’s a sense of kind of like, uh, someone’s gonna say, “well, that’s not his best interest.” Believe me, know, he, he’s doing what makes him feel right at this time. He’s sick of the process and I think I, I, I understand his frustration. There’s a lot, it’s very frustrating to be in the world’s wealthiest country and to, to have such be in places like, like, you know, this where, you know, I spend time in Vietnam, I spend time in Indonesia and those places have a healthier, a healthier neighborhood community than, than sitting in Youngstown, Ohio, which is probably 10 times wealthier.
Yeah, we have material wealth and relational poverty
That’s exactly right.
Mónica: Something’s going on there. How did it feel to be a member of the group that is running things, getting to know people that have, you know, in their perspective and yours, been stomped on all this time. Like, was there shame for you? Was, what was the awkwardness?
I’ve learned that, you know, you gotta learn how to human. You gotta learn how to human.
You gotta learn how to just interact personally. You know, one of the things is don’t have shame in who you are. Meaning, like, I was very honest with what I did and I was very honest with who I was and people.
You would say you worked on Wall Street, no hesitation?
People, people respect honesty. They respect a sense of understanding who you are. I mean, they, they don’t blame the individual, they blame the system. And if you’re, if you’re, if you’re a decent person who listens. Don’t ever go into someplace and lie. I think that’s something people misunderstand about the appeal of Trump was, he doesn’t pretend who he is. I remember the time during the debate when I said, “this dude’s gonna, he, he’s for real.” I think it was when someone asked him about, you know, like, I think it was about giving, giving money to Hillary Clinton. He said, “of course I play the game.” Yeah, he didn’t lie. It was just like, or the time they asked him about trying to cheat on his taxes. “Of course, I don’t wanna pay taxes.” You know, like, just be who you are.
I’m so blown away by this point because from much of the left perspective, Trump is the consummate liar. We talked about different ways of thinking about truth, and in some ways that count, Trump didn’t lie, where others would.
You gotta be honest to who you are. You gotta, you know, and, and I also don’t apologize about being, I don’t try to pretend to be working class. I don’t go around, you know, trying to– I, I mean, I share interests with the back row that are genuine. I absolutely love the NFL. I’ve always loved the NFL, so, I talk about that in a genuine way. I don’t try to talk about stuff I don’t know about.
So you’re, you’re looking for common ground where it really exists. You’re not doing what I, I would venture to say as something the front row is conditioned to do. When I learned how to network, you know, there’s a little bit of sort of “Oh yeah. Oh, I like that too.” Sure. Just to get the conversation going, just so you can build up that resume. Cause that person could help you later, you’re climbing.
A lot of people have suggested, you know, ask me, reached out– ’cause a lot of my book works with dealing with people who are homeless and one of the things I tell them is, is don’t pretend to like somebody you don’t like. The homeless people are not all warm. A lot of ’em are, are, are, are assholes, you know, and so, find the ones you like, you know? And I, I don’t put up with people I don’t like, and I don’t pretend to try to like everybody. So be, be who you are, be natural. I also, I don’t hide from the fact that I read Plato and Aristotle for fun. I’ll go into a dive bar with a book. And I won’t be embarrassed about that. I’ll say, “I love this. This is old, these are, these are old guys. I love them. You should read them.” If you show a genuine comfort, comfort in your own skin and who you are, people you know, want to know about that, there just, just don’t try to fake, you know?
Be human. You said “just be human” which made me think, my gosh, have we forgotten how to be human? Did we ever know? We have, right? Is there something going on?
I’m, gonna pull the age card here. And with a, one of my biggest frustrations is, one of the problems now is it’s very easy not to deal with other people. And that fits into this podcast is like I worked at, I grew up in a working glass town and, I was an intellectual in a working class town. My dad was a professor, he was the only professor in town. It was a small town, like 600 people, 700 people.I had to learn how to fit in and I worked for, you know, I worked blue collar jobs. but that was great experience for me. It taught me how to deal with people. But it also, I learned, I look at my own kids. We, we don’t, people don’t interact with each other. We live in these little bubbles and we shy away from human interaction and the internet has made that even worse. People who go through this, you know, this educational system, this educational meritocracy come out not knowing how to be a human, not how to human, like, you know, not how to deal with other people at a, at a personal level, unless it’s somebody who works for them. You know, like the number of times that academics interact. I get very frustrated when I hear academics talk about, you know “What blacks want, what Hispanics want.” They don’t know any of them unless they work for them. You know? I mean, with the exception of people who are academics, who are black and, and, and Latino.
It, it makes me think like, shouldn’t we be smart enough if we think we we’re so smart in the front row? Shouldn’t we be smart enough to know what we don’t?
You realize that, one of my fundamental rules is, is like 95% of people are decent. The 5% ruin it for everybody else. You know, I mean, there, there are 5% of assholes out there and they ruin it for everybody else, but 95% of the people are decent. And if you, you know, the number of times I’ve benefited from, from the fundamental decency of others on these, you know, like I remember- I remember one particular time, and it was, you know, it was almost a cartoon version of like, it was like an ad for– I broke down in a Walmart parking lot. My car had like 4,000 miles on it, which I did intentionally, partially because I enjoyed breaking down, forced you to deal with things. I remember, I, I broke down in this parking lot in Des Moines, Iowa, of all places. And it was in January and it was minus five degrees and it was snowing. Yeah, within an hour and a half it was like, there was a scene that was like out of some absurd, like if, if it was in a movie, I would’ve said, that’s too Maudlin, that’s too cheap. There was like a Hispanic guy, a black guy, and a white guy all trying to help me. You know, like everybody trying to like, you know, just fixing my car for me, you know? And, uh, you know, pulling together. And I, you know, I’m sure if you looked at the politics of these guys, they’re all over the map. You know, I’m sure they’re, you know, one of the guys is a Trump supporter or another was a Bernie guy or whatever, but they didn’t, but people don’t care, like, people are always trying to find the positive in everybody else and trying to do the right thing by everybody else. The only time that people get angry about politics, is, you know, it’s, it’s gently driven by activists. Most people just want to be basically, you know, want to try to find out, find the overlap in each other. They don’t wanna find the, find the what’s wrong.
Right, the division, the fear-based things. So reflecting on your work, I realized I had a pretty profound concern. I was thinking about the front row, the power, the front row has the compounding tendency to move all the time, you know, and measure everything. You talk about this in the book, you measure everything you know, and well, you, the winners win more than the losers lose. So cool. And, and we don’t, “we forgot how to human,” like you said. Are our communities being built by people who don’t know the value of community?
Yeah, I mean, one of the, one of the things that, it was, I wish I had written this sentence, but someone wrote it about my book was it says “that we have, we have a system that isn’t conducive to building local community.” The system we’ve built, the policies we have is, it’s not, I mean, you can do it, if you prioritize it and put all your effort into it, you can still, you know, build local communities. But it’s becoming harder and harder to do that. We haven’t made a system that’s conducive to that. People who stay in their community, especially a community that’s suffering, you know, that’s losing population, stay in their community and you know, become an electrician, a line worker, you know, for the power company, feel like they’re being looked down on, because they’ve been told the entire system, every level says, “get more education, get more education, education, education, education, education.” And again, I will never tell anybody not to get more education. I’m, I’m part of that system. But, you know, I talk to kids in these, in these places who are, the high achievers and they all wanna leave. And I’m not gonna tell them not to. I would never tell somebody not to do what I do, which is go out and experience the world and see everything you can see. But the people who don’t choose that feel like losers, feel very much like they’ve be, they’re being judged. What we have to do, in my mind is recognize this is a valid way of living, equally valid to us, and in their mind more valid than us. And, and, and allow them to live that way.
Right. And build a country where different ways of wanting to approach life are supported. So the, one of the big questions that’s been in the back of my mind throughout this conversation is, is “how?” You’ve given a lot of really good suggestions, of, you know, “don’t be fake.” Learn how to human, don’t just go off correcting people, “actually….” like, whatever your knowledge isn’t everything, okay? You know, just being real with people and being totally honest and totally yourself. What do you say to people who go, “alright, I’m in the front row and I’m looking around. I don’t know how to meet people who aren’t in the front row.”
Get out and meet people, you know. Don’t do it forced, like, you know, find a shared interest. You have to get outside your comfort zone, even if a little bit. For me, in many ways it was the walking, it was walking in the neighborhoods, and you, you can’t not interact with people when you walk. One of my state favorite parts of the country is South LA. Not North LA, not Hollywood, but South LA. It’s largely a Hispanic community, and I do it without a car. That’s a great way to see the world. I go into a town.
No, Uber. I’ve never been in an Uber. When I come into an airport, I take the bus. Uh, there’s always a bus into town.
It strikes me that it’s, it’s like you’re desegregating.
Buses are the great equalizer. You, you know, I take greyhounds a lot too. When I, when I had to give a talk over at Notre Dame, I took a Greyhound from here to Notre Dame. It was a day journey and I learned a lot during that day journey. And I ended up helping, you know, again, the kindness of strangers. We, you know, we, the, the bus, greyhound buses are not necessarily the most, um, organized and efficient system. And so you end up having to help each other a lot.
Mónica: Yeah. That’s amazing. You, you end up doing the human thing. Being human.
Or from San Antonio to El Paso, I did on a bus. And, um, a third of the people on the bus had just recently been released from the Louisiana prison. And so, you know, I got to know them I, I ended up to help them in ways that, you know, were very, very simple. And they helped me because I, you know they were given cards to basically that could only be used for food. And so they bought me meals, I mean, they were these people who had nothing, who had just been, who had just spent 10 years in jail and this was all they had, and they bought me food. But, and so you, you just recognize again, When you kind of just get outta your comfort zone a little bit, and if you’re open-minded, you’ll learn a lot. Another place is, you know, I happen to be a Catholic. And so when I, you know, I, I shop or I go into going into services when I’m on the road, I always go to services. I go to two services. I go to the Catholic Mass on Sunday, ’cause that’s me. But I also go to Pentecostal. And no one’s, no one’s gonna ever kick you. Believe me, anytime you walk into a church, no one’s gonna kick you out.
Yeah. You talk about that in the book. That church is one of those places where for a lot of people it’s acceptance without any questions. No questions, no condescendence, no judgement.
It can actually be, it can actually be the–the only issues can come from them being too welcoming. I mean, I’ve been in and again, there it can, it can, you know, momentarily awkward. I’ve, you just have to learn to live with it. I’ve been in, I’ve been in. Plenty of services where I’m the literally the only white person. Um, you know, and I’ve been asked to join in and I’ve joined in.
It just, it strikes me that maybe through practice you’re just somebody who just kind of says “yes” and just goes, “sure.” Like, yeah, let’s go. Let’s do it.
You, know, you have to learn. You have to learn that. One of the things I learned is that the initial minute, first minute can be awkward, but people, it’s awkward for everybody and just power through that.
Yeah. How is your view of the big divided political issues different because you have spent so much time bridging this particular divide. Are there things that beforehand on the left, you would’ve seen a certain way and now, anything that sticks out?
Yeah, I mean, I mean probably less on the left than I used to be, and one of the things that frustrates me is I don’t go to, when I go into these communities, I don’t go to the nonprofits. I don’t talk to local political leaders. Just go to the McDonald’s on Northside Avenue in Milwaukee. It’s 99.9% black. And, um, you know, I think every leftist should go there and just talk to people and have a kind of reality check about what people value. You know,
Mónica: Right. What people value. Exactly.
Arnade: I think of the value menu at McDonald’s, you know, um, just kind of funny. What, what do you, what do you think would happen if we continue on the path we’re on where the front row and back row seem to be? Spinning away from each other with no ends in sight.
I think you’re gonna get, more extreme politics that’s gonna ping pong between the left and right. I spent a lot of time in the, the old phrase used to be “Third World Country,” which is now like, um, the euphemism now is “developing, emerging markets.” Vietnam, Latin America, And especially in Latin America, the politics you see there is a politics of retribution. People get in power so they can, they can harm the opposite group.
Right, because the opposite group harmed them. That’s, that’s the traps we’re, we’re in. And I’m, I’m struck by the fact that I had asked you, you know, “what political issues do you see differently?” But you, this is telling, but you’ve, you’ve come back to the theme of, look, it’s not even about the issues. It’s, it’s what I hear you saying underneath it all is, it’s the, it’s the judgment. It’s the lack of understanding. It’s the, it’s the non-engagement. Like the issues are all just up here, but that’s the stuff underneath–is like when you don’t, I feel like what I’m hearing from you is “when we’re not even open to the fact that other people might have other ways that they build, meaning that are valid and that work, that everything else breaks, if we can’t at least hear that.”
Yeah. And the politics is gonna be, the politics is gonna be one of revenge because the policies matter less. They’re just kind of like the window dressing around the central issue. You go from dehumanization, then you go to retribution, and the third is violence. And I don’t think we’ll get there. I feel like this, the problem is bad here, but it’s not that bad.
So I have one last question for you in two parts. What do you tell the question we’re really focused on is, how do you bridge the class divide, but really it’s front row, back row America. How do you bridge that? Because it sounds like it’s something we need to do. If, if you’re, if you’re answering that question for someone in the back row, how can they bridge that meaningfully or, or what’s something, a tip or something that they can keep in mind?
That’s a hard one. Um, “what can they do?” In many ways it’s it’s harder for them to get to know us than for us to get to know them. Meaning, there’s a big power differential here. And the other thing is, one of the things I’ve always said to my academic friends is I say, you know, we, we in academics, you have statements about equality and diversity and all that. The minute someone on the back row walks into a college campus who doesn’t have credentials, people call the police on them. So it’s not like they can go out and reach out to the front row, the front. We put barriers up.
Geez. So what then, I mean, do you tell the front row?
You know, take the bus, go to McDonald’s. Um, you can tell someone’s, you know, you can tell someone is front row by the music. They listen to the, the tv they watch, the movies. They like, it’s worthwhile. You know, I’m not suggesting you have to go out and watch, you know, um, like Yellowstone and like it, I think it’s a pretty shitty, but it’s helpful to know what it is, you know.
It is worthwhile. I happen to like sports in a way that’s very genuine. So it gives me a shared language.
So find the thing that you can connect
Yeah. Find something that you overlap with in and don’t fake it, like I said. Like,
Be real. Be real. Well, Chris, thank you so much for your candor. It feels like you’re being very real with us, and that’s everything.
Well thank you for having me.
Before we move on I want to tell you about an initiative from Braver Angels called We the People’s Project.
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Learn more about We the People’s Project — and, if you see yourself as working class or blue collar and want to get involved — join the Council. You’ll find a link in our show notes.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how many ways we live in our own bubbles. Surrounded only by people who are like us in at least some ways. Usually a lot of ways. It just tends to be the case that the worlds we create for ourselves don’t leave a lot of room for big differences.
It’s hard to avoid this. We’re so busy, right? We have to follow our patterns! There’s so much to do! But It makes it hard to look around and really see.
So what does it take to look across the class divide? … Does that question land differently for liberals and conservatives?
Once again, I invited my good friend April Lawson to chat it through with me. She’s a political Red to my Blue, and someone who never fails to illuminate.
Alright, hi April! We’ve just heard Chris Arnade talk about front row and back row America. So, let’s start with, what’s your favorite moment?
Yeah, well, I loved it. I think front row and back row is just… Perfect. Because it’s so evocative, are you in the front row? Are you stuck in the back? Like, that’s, that’s clear. There were a couple of things he said where I was like, Oh yeah, wow. And one of them that I had not thought about is voting. So I’ve done a lot of, um, research over the years on disconnection and alienation and loneliness and all of that. So, I kind of thought I knew most of those things, but the one that really surprised me was his point that all the institutions where you go to vote, like the courthouse, like schools,that those are often places that have negative associations for people that like, I can see how, by no one’s intention, we have like blended our political system with all those other systems in people’s like sort of felt response. So I, I loved that. I mean, like, I also just loved the whole thing. Uh, but that really stuck out to me.
Well, cool. There were many moments for me, but one that I’ll mention now is I asked him how it felt to come into conversation with folks who are so different from him, right, being a wall street guy, kind of part of the problem in some ways. And, and how did he feel? And I, and I said, did you feel any shame? And he, he almost like dismissed that, like, “No, I, I, I was just being myself, like, you don’t, you, you shouldn’t, don’t be fake. I didn’t feel like I had to pretend to be anybody different than who I was,” and um, so I was really relieved to hear that. I, I felt sort of refreshed, like, oh, yeah! Not every encounter has to be an intellectual, like, you know, crisis of self reflection and what not. And if, you’re just coming in and being you, and you’re being real, what do you have to worry about? That was really cool. That kind of like brought me back to reality.
Alright, well, now let’s talk about blue side, red side stuff. Uh, the question that we deal with here is, what is, you know, for you, the red side good and bad at? With the strategies that came up, and then for me, what’s the blue side? What do I think the blue side is good and bad at?
Well, I think that authenticity to me stuck out as the central, like, thing in some ways that, and I, you know, that makes sense if you’re somebody who feels like the game is rigged, and there is a game, and nobody will admit it. And then there’s some, there are people who admit it. You’re like, thank god. And so, I think that my side, it’s both. It has, in my opinion, some of the worst offenders, uh, with regard to, the class divide, and then also some of the best. One of the reasons that I have identified as conservative rather than Republican is that the Republican policies and even just language of the last, I don’t know, 40 years, Reagan, Reagan stuff, it just seems to pretend that social class doesn’t exist. All of neoliberal economics, like that thing he was saying about how, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are kind of the same, like that has been true for decades. Um, my parents are economists. And so we talk a lot about this in our house and how social class is like, just this thing that until, until Trump, we wanted to just pretend it not exist. And frankly, the establishment Republicans, right? Like, I think it was good that there was a bit of a revolt against that because the no-holds-barred, take no prisoners, like, creative destruction, at least, you know, we’re gonna focus on the creative and the destruction, well, that’s just natural, like, that seems, um, that seems like a view of the privileged, like, yeah, it’s easy to be like, “yeah, well, you know, some people will get left behind.” As long as you’re not them and don’t know any of them, and like, don’t have to like, yeah, easy for you to say, and also the whole like, build yourself up by your bootstraps, there are people who succeed at that, and I admire them enormously, but I would argue that like, even they typically have advantages that, other people don’t, and I just, I have never been able to, uh, let’s say work very easily with the, very sort of pure cold, Capitalist thing. So, uh, I don’t think we’re good on that. But where I do think we’re good is, you know, that I don’t like President Trump, mostly for character reasons, but man, the thing that has happened because of him is that, what is it called? The professional managerial class, can no longer pretend that the working class doesn’t exist, that they don’t matter, that their interests, they can no longer be out of sight, out of mind. And, and I do think frankly, that like Republicans and the right have always been, and I don’t, you may disagree with this, but I think typically we have been better on the like authenticity thing in that we don’t pretend that speech codes are, saying you have to say something is the right way or whatever. The, there’s no pretense about that being the important place where there’s change and there’s a lot more.
What a great point.
And that, that by the way is true, whether you talk about today’s sort of cancel culture stuff or the like political correctness of the 60s, 70s, 80s, like, uh, I do think that the right is good at, kind of impolitic authenticity.
Yeah, I really, really like that point, uh, because I, I remember when I was working on my book, there was a chapter that I was going to title, “Meaning is in people, not words.” Sometimes it feels like we believe that meaning is in words. That’s where meaning comes from. That’s where the source of what we try to exchange with each other. That’s what it is. And words convey meaning, but they’re a very imperfect tool sometimes, right? And so where do you look? What do you hold most responsible for meaning? The words people use, or the meaning that’s in them that they can’t quite figure out how to get right? How to get across to you, you know?
So, I really, really like that point. Well, I saw several things that Chris Arnode was bringing up in terms of strategies. He talked about not correcting people, for example. Not just coming out and correcting people immediately, and I do feel that the blue side can be pretty bad at that. It’s just, there’s, now, I’m making a ton of generalizations, folks. I mean, not all blues, right? I know that, but in my head, the perception that I have of sort of the blue side can, can often really lord its knowledge over others as if it’s all the knowledge there is. And I think we really have to be careful about that. I do think that the blue side, especially lately, has been really conscious about how different people live different ways.
The term “lived experience,” as opposed to just experience, has meaning for the blue side, that, that is really interesting and really specific. Where we’re saying, you know, it’s not just expertise. and book knowledge. It’s also, what have people been through? We have to understand what people have been through if we’re going to build a good society, make a good political decision.
So I think the blue side is, excellent at, at that idea. In theory, we’re saying, people build meaning different ways, and let’s access that by listening to their experiences and taking that into account no matter what we think we know. I think that’s great. I also see on the blue side a strength around a kind of, you know, multiculturalism, a kind of sense that, look, lots of different people who live very different lives and are very different should be able to live together without being threatening to each other. Now, all that said, I think the blue side is, can be pretty bad at staying open to lives that build a different kind of meaning that we don’t like or approve of. You know? Or like, different kinds of meaning that we don’t think are pushing society toward a more, I’m making air quotes, “progressive direction.” So, I think there’s a thing on the blue side against tradition. There’s a thing on the blue side against religion. And like, these two things are not that bad. But I think on the blue side is afraid that they hold us back in some key way. And so I think we can be blind to how people build meaning beautifully with tradition and religion, including if they might be part of a more dominant culture.
I also think, and, and Chris Arnade got right to this, that the blue side can be bad at valuing like life journeys, if you will, that aren’t trying to scale something, or change the world. You know? and I, and I’ve noticed, you know, since reading his book, I, I’ve really opened my eyes to how many politicians, I mean, on the blue side, but probably also on the red side, but I’ll just speak for the blue side, presume that everyone wants higher education. You know, with all its trappings and cultural breeding, because there is a sort of social class breeding that you get in college in America, right? And the presumption is that everybody wants this, and the problem is access to this. That that’s the problem, and so that’s the policies the blue side, you know, puts forth. But like, to Chris’s point, you know, this is a big divide between prosperity and poverty. Getting access to this, that. But is that because we have built it? We have built this system to reward higher education and social breeding? Or is it because it is, because education, that kind of education inherently should unlock the only kind of good life, right? And so I think what, what Chris, Chris’s work has done for me is it’s made me recognize the assumption I’ve made there, and that I, I suspect a lot of people have made. Around, well, higher education leads to a good life because it ought to. I don’t know, like, shouldn’t people be able to live a great life, and not have that many years of school, and not have all these, like, classes that they take all the time?
And, by the way, is it actually fair that so many jobs require a four year college degree? Is that actually necessary? Like, is this really about objective talent and qualification, or is it about breeding?
That so cool. Yeah, you’re recognizing that. Yeah, I love it. I loved also your point about meaning, because, and the funny thing is, I feel like people in the front row America, as he calls it, would say that they think that you can live a good life as long as you’re a good mom, and a good spouse, and a good community member, and all that. I don’t know if they actually think it, like, I think that the, the, if you look at their choices, if you look at where they’re, they spend their money, where they spend their time and, you know, because we would say we agree, of course you can be a good person. Da da da da da, but how deep does that go? Not very deep. Yeah, I love that point.
On this, it feels like we can agree. On the cross the red blue divide, it sounds like there’s agreement here. So, uh, where does the driving question come up in your life? And, you know, formally I thought of the driving question for this episode being how do you cross the class divide? So, how does this come up for you? It comes up in a lot of ways for me.
Oh my gosh, me too. So my family’s story is that my, my mom grew up in, her dad was– worked for the post office, my dad’s dad was an insurance agent off and on, and so both working class families, my parents were both the first in their families to go to college, And the thing is they both studied economics. My mom always says, “you know, I studied it because I saw that money was what was causing all the suffering in the world. And I wanted to know a way to solve that.” But the thing is she didn’t, she and my dad, this is true for my dad too, they didn’t know how to play the academia game, and so like, my mom got into Stanford Law, but like, they didn’t know that was a big deal, so she didn’t bother to go, and like, they worked at a, small state school in Western Missouri, which was a very good place. Um, they did really good work there, but my mother especially could have, like, she’s as brilliant as anyone I’ve ever met, but like, she just didn’t know the rules. And so then it was a big, huge deal for my family, for me to get into Yale, because this is the American dream, right? Like you can, across the generations, even if it doesn’t happen in one generation, you can make it. My parents encouraged me and supported me going to Yale specifically thinking of it as a ticket into the upper class. That’s what they thought of it as. But because of where they come from, there’s always been this sort of, nobody’s quite comfortable with it. Like every time I like came home and talked about like, “Oh, my friend, this, my friend, that.” They’d be like, “Oh yeah, what’s her dad do? Like, where’s their, their money come from? I bet she’s a trust fund baby. Is she a legacy?” Like, and there’s also been a lot of like, “don’t forget where you came from.” Like I, that has been drilled into me so hard. And it’s funny because this was their dream, right? But it’s also something where I have become different from them in a way that scares them, or me. Like, it’s a threat, too. And then there’s also just the thing where, like authenticity, that part of it really stuck with me. I think that like, there’s, that is the answer, um, to how do you relate across this particular divider. And when I have been in spaces where it is very class diverse, I’m not very comfortable, like, not because I, don’t like people, but because I feel like I learned all the ways that you’re supposed to talk and all the signals you’re supposed to use and stuff for one social class. And now you, wait, you just want me to be myself? Like, I don’t know if I know how to do that.
What a profound point, April. You’re right. Yeah. Wow.
And so there’s like this performativity. that I have now learned and it’s hard to take it off like and So that’s what I think about when I think about Chris is like “take the bus go to McDonald’s” I think people in my category they’re not gonna feel like they know how to do that that’s going to be like, actually uncomfortable for them.
Yeah, thanks for that. I, I was thinking, as you were saying in the last point, that one might presume that in those class diverse spaces, the front row has its… Performance and it’s mask and the back row has its performance and it’s mask and they both have to blend. But what you’re suggesting is no only one only the front row as the performance and I think that’s really That that feels right to me, you know without the data It just like clicks with with my experience and and what a thing because what that suggests Is that the back row knows how to be human better than the front row. And, you know, I kind of want to sit with that. Like, the back row knows how to be human better than the front row. The front row with more money. The front row with more prestige.The front row with more power.
Exactly. And. Um, I think partly you can hide behind all those things, right? Like I can say, this is why I’m worth something as a person, because I’ve got this degree, this amount of money, this status, this job, but if you don’t have those things, you’ve got to actually just be you, like you, right?
You just gotta be you. And it, yeah. Take the mask off. Yeah.
I also like we’re generalizing. Obviously there’s performance in all areas, all of that. But yeah, in my own life, those spaces have been very uncomfortable and affecting. Um, so yeah.
How about you, friend?
Yeah, so, the first thing I thought of was I asked myself a couple questions. How do I know I’m front row? And then where do I… Where do I interact with back row in my life? So, I know I’m front row. Chris was saying, you know, you can tell by how you live your life. I mean, I live in Seattle. You know, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. In a big house. Uh, I have a college degree. I subscribe to all the streaming services. You know? Like, all the, I use airport lounges. Um, I don’t… Well, in the name of efficiency, I skip a lot of places where I could interact with folks who are more class diverse. So at the grocery store? Uh, I do automated checkout more often than not. When I was doing daily journalism in Seattle, I would go around, I would go around the city and meet all kinds of people and tell all kinds of stories. And I miss that, April. I miss it. I do, I get, I get less of that in my life, and I didn’t even really stop to notice it very much. So, it’s funny because this whole episode, when I was thinking about it and planning it, I asked myself, you know, “Man, is it really useful to throw another us versus them thing, you know, at the country and at our listeners? Like, now we’re talking about front row and back row America. Here’s a new divide, guys!” But the thing is… contrasts can reveal things about our lives that we don’t even see. So, I was, I was great, I’m grateful for that. That, that, um, I think this is a really important thing to reflect on. And I am front row. Uh, I have a lot of people assume I was back row in Mexico. Because that’s the American assumption. That you would only come to the United States if you were back row and you want to be back row in a better place or you want to try a shot at the front row. But I was actually, my parents both went to college in Mexico. Uh, so, so I do not have the, the, maybe the presumed back row background. Um, so all of that reflecting has been really useful for me. Um, and I guess the, you know, what, the last thing I’ll say I suppose is, um, a couple of sort of contrasting stories. So here in Seattle, homelessness, you know, I covered it a lot in 2016, 17. Um, it became a lot more visible. In the spaces where the front row is, than it used to be, right? And so what does that do? Well, that puts it into the headlines, and that brings it into a lot of consciousness, which can be really good, and can be kind of bad when you consider, you know, people have struggled all along. So, more recently, I, I discovered a homelessness service organization here in Seattle. It’s called Facing Homelessness, and it is, It, it’s, it’s the one that emphasizes the most, this idea of, look, we’re all people. Talk to each other. And so I’ve volunteered for them, and it’s, it’s been really eye opening. Because, like, I, I sat with a bunch of guys, who, you know, live on the streets. And we just… We talked about old movies, um, we talked about art because some of them were covered in tattoos, a couple of them got tattoos in jail. And like, it was just cool to hear the stories. And, and I don’t know, like the part of me that thought, “this is gonna be hard to talk to people who are different from me.” It’s like, “why? Why does that have to be hard? That’s not hard.” And, anyway, it was, y’know, learned a lot. Definitely uncomfortable, definitely wondering how I’m coming off and all that, but I’m remembering what Chris said about, “Just be you, yo. Whatever. Just be you.” These things are uncomfortable, and it does feel like a divide that we, we have a really hard time being honest about. So, all the more reason to bring it into a braver way, right? Somehow. So, alright April, well, thank you so much for, as always, being here for this.
Yeah. Thanks for taking this topic on. I’m, I, yeah. Always happy to be part of it. I would talk to you about pretty much anything. Um, but I’m really glad we did this.
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So, let me state the obvious. We may have different politics but neither I nor April nor Chris nor — let’s be honest — most of the people who make and listen to podcasts like this one, are part of what Chris would call “back-row America.”
There’s something about media… even when it’s more accessible now with social media, and so much more attention is paid to elevating diverse voices … you still hear much more from some kinds of people than others.
How can America be great when we don’t care of the people who need it the most? My husband and I, we both work, three kids, no home to call our own, work hard…
So today, I’m excited to introduce you to Corrie. I first met Corrie at the Braver Angels convention, when she gave a powerful speech at one of our debates. People were taking turns arguing for and against that debate’s resolution, which said, “America is the greatest nation in the world.”
Corrie told the packed room about her three kids, how she and her husband both have jobs. Then she mentioned, without an ounce of shame, that she’s currently homeless. That despite everything they’re trying, her family still can’t afford their own place to live. “How can America be great,” she asked, “when we don’t care for the people who need it the most?”
Getting to know Corrie, it’s clear she’s not giving up. She’s leaning in. She knows we are capable of so much when we really hear each other.
So what do these divides look and feel like from her perspective? Here’s Corrie, in her own words.
My name is Corrie Zack. I live in Middletown, Ohio currently, and I am 37 years old.
I grew up in a pretty conservative household. Um, grew up with a, you know, brought up with Christian values and, um, most of my family is pretty conservative. And, now as I’ve gotten older, more mature, I definitely would align myself more as a blue. Now I’m definitely much more liberal. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve had kids and I’ve seen how much things tend to work against them, uh, I want what’s best for my kids and I wanna leave the world a better place for my children than it was left for me when I was a kid. And so that’s my goal in everything, is to try and make a better world for my children. We were not rich, but my dad always made sure that we had everything we needed. I would say we lived more as a middle class family ’cause he had a very good job when I was a kid.
But when I got out on my own, I really did not know financially how to survive. I had my first child when I was 21 years old. So that really put a monkey wrench into like the prime of when I should have been learning how to do those things. You know, what led us kind of to our current situation is that, you know, we were living in a place where we had no rights. We were not considered tenants, we were considered guests.We lived in a place that is considered more of an extended stay hotel rather than an actual apartment and then things happened where we couldn’t stay in the hotel we were staying in, which is how we ended up with my sister, who happened to live very close to where we did. That’s kind of where we’ve been. We’ve been just stagnant. We’ve been stuck there helping my sister with her bills while being unable to save money for us to leave. You know, my husband pulled out a loan of his 4 01k emptied out half of it with the intention of being able to move out of my sister’s house. And circumstances happened, and that is not happening now. So, it seems like we are constantly just trying to, trying to put our best foot forward, trying to do the next right thing, make the next right move. And it’s like every time we get a little bit ahead, it’s like the rug is yanked out from under us.
People who are in situations where they don’t have to worry about it and they don’t think about it, and it’s not in their face constantly. They just don’t think about it. They don’t think about what it’s like for people like me who literally have nothing. Or as what my experience has been, assumptions have been made about how I got to where I am and that I’m not doing anything to fix it, when in reality it’s the exact opposite. They’ll say, “well, have you tried this?” Yes, I’ve already tried everything you’re telling me to do, you know, and nothing has worked. So they just don’t get that. know, people make it sound like it’s much easier than it actually is, my husband and I work, we both have, he has a full-time job. I have a part-time job. and we still work and we make good money doing what we do. We don’t work, what I would call Joe Jobs. We don’t work in retail. He works at a factory. I work for, um, a doctor’s office as a, a surgery scheduler. So I mean, I make good money as what does my husband. People class people like me that are in my situation as something to look down upon because of whatever got us there and they don’t bother to talk to us, find out what happened, find out our stories, listen to us. When we’re telling you the resources we need are not available, we have ideas that people would just listen, but they don’t wanna listen. So, politicians don’t, don’t talk to us because, you know, I don’t know why, I don’t know why they don’t talk to us, but they should, especially if they claim to care for us and care about the people they say they work for. That put them in office. We put them there, but they’re not doing what’s best for us.
Whose ideas do we not bother to listen to? Whose stories do we assume we know… when we don’t? And what bigger truths are we missing as a result?
These are just some of the questions coming to mind for me right now. But I want to know: what questions do you have for me? Or for anyone going on and on about crossing divides at a time like this? I want to hear it all, up to and including the questions you’re a little afraid to ask. Send your question in, big, small, whatever it is, with a quick email to email@example.com, and we might answer it in an upcoming “Ask Me Anything” edition of A Braver Way.
With that, I’m ready to send you brave souls back to your worlds with a song. It’s called “Say Can You See” by Scott Cook, it was a winner in the 2020 Braver Angels Songwriting Contest, and it is such a perfect song for the themes in this episode. I’ll let it speak for itself. Take a listen…
“Say Can You See” by Scott Cook:
I love this country. I love the people and the land. But there’s a lot of stuff happening that I can’t understand. We’ve got billions for bail outs. We’ve got trillions for war. But it’s hard for working people to make a living anymore. Hear me out for a second. This ain’t a partisan song. It ain’t about right and left, it’s about right and wrong. Fighting over scraps while a few are living like kings. Cuz screwing us over is a bipartisan thing. And it’s working people…
Thank you for joining us on this sixth episode of A Braver Way!
A Braver Way is a production of Braver Angels.
We get financial support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and Reclaim Curiosity.
Our Senior Producer and Editor is David Albright.
Our Producer is Jessica Jones.
Our theme music that you hear in the intro each episode— and in some other spots —is by the fantastic #1 Billboard bluegrass-charting hip-hop band Gangstagrass.
A special thanks to Ben Caron, Michelle Schroer, Mike Casentini, Don Goldberg, Klem Daniels and April Lawson.
I’m your host and guide across the divide, Mónica Guzman.
If you like what you’ve heard, hit subscribe, give us a review – we love those so much! – and share this episode with your networks! Especially anyone you know who’s felt left behind in their own country. It is not complete without them.
Questions? Comments? Want to share your journey across the divide?
You can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take heart, everyone. ‘Til next time.
“Say Can You See” by Scott Cook:
….Profit and prisons.
They don’t even pay taxes, they just buy politicians.
It’s working people who made this country great.
Not the greedy opportunists or the peddlers of hate.
There’s a new day comin.
It’s gotta come through you and me.
Oh, say can you see?
Oh, say can you see?
In the New York Harbor, there’s a lady with a flame
Still calling in the huddled masses in Liberty’s name
There’s fear on the airwaves
And hatred wrapped in the flag
Turning strangers into enemies and our riches into rags
And a revolution to break the grip of greed
Don’t need a strong man or savior
But I believe we’re gonna need
Whatever magic this old world’s got left to start
And all the ammunition in the chambers of our hearts
It’s working people who made this country great.
Not the greedy opportunists or the peddlers of hate.
There’s a new day comin.
It’s gotta come through you and me.
Oh, say can you see?
Oh, say can you see?