Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right
Recommended by: Bill Roos
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Ken Stern, a self-described “lifelong Democrat married to a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill“ and former CEO of National Public Radio, became concerned about the insularity of his “comfortable little world” and decided to go out and actually meet and talk with those on the other side.
One Review for “Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right”
Ken Stern summarizes his book:
“Republican Like Me is a book about what happens when a liberal sets out to look at issues from a conservative perspective. As is the case for most people in this day and age, much of my political information is gained in the confirmation process: listening to the pundits and politicians from “my side,” filtering information to find all the facts that support the undoubtedly excellent Democratic position, and engaging with a social cohort that will relentlessly reinforce the righteousness of my views. For this book, I will change all that. I will spend the year getting outside my liberal bubble, by traveling across Red America, getting my information from conservative sources, and, to the best of my ability, giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
Review: This is the perfect Braver Angels book, and also a fun read: A political partisan makes an honest effort to meet and understand the other side. Stern begins by relating his personal experience (“deep down, I have long suspected that I wouldn’t like many Republicans if I mixed with them on a regular basis”) and the national statistics on political polarization, including research indicating that the gap between Democrats and Republicans is now greater than the gap between blacks and whites. He also points to:
“a large body of evidence, all rather depressing, that demonstrates the limits of our knowledge and the frailty of our political decision making. In general, our view of policy and ideology is driven by signaling; that is, our political perspective is often shaped by what others are suggesting we should think rather than by any careful and independent consideration of the issues.
“And once people cleave to their partisan position, it is difficult to shake them with the facts.”
Stern also discusses research that reveals “tremendous power in group identity, no matter how trivial and ephemeral, and the tremendous appeal of having your team win.” When we consider that other sources of identity – for example, religion and unions – have become far less important and that we are living in an increasingly complicated and rootless society, “political labels provide an enhanced meaning and we thus see less and less in common with the other side. Politics in this way becomes more about winning and defeating others and less about finding common solutions.”
These psychological pressures are reinforced by the increasing tendency of Americans to move into cities and neighborhoods that are politically and socially congenial to them, as documented in Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort. This means many more Americans now live in communities that are politically segregated, reducing the chances that people will come in contact with actual people from the other side. So their view of the “other” is formed in an environment of extreme political rhetoric, Internet flame throwing, politically oriented news and social media, and neighbors who share and encourage a uniform political perspective.
Stern’s take on this: On most issues, Americans’ attitudes continue to cluster in the middle rather than lump up on the extremes. But:
“We are becoming angrier and more polarized not because of increasing issue disagreement but because we are increasingly participating in groupthink. When all the people you know, when all the people in your political sect agree with you, it becomes easy to relax in the certainty that you and your cohort are right, and the other side is not just wrong, but also taking a long, slow bubble-bath in the sea of craziness. When we don’t know the other side, when we don’t hear from them, when we don’t talk to them, when we can demonize them to our heart’s content, there are just no brakes on our sense of self-righteousness. Polarization is increasing because polarization is increasingly easy.”
In the course of his tour of Red America Stern went hog hunting in Texas, attended evangelical services and events, and spoke with people in cities and towns that have been abandoned by the factories, the coal mining companies, and the “tastemakers and opinion elites of both coasts and both parties.” While traveling the country he also rethought his views on gun control, welfare policy and climate change, concluding that these issues are much more complicated than either side will generally admit.
Unfortunately, Stern finds that the media and the new online world are not helping to promote rational discussion:
“[I]n the grand scheme of things, Americans’ views of issues tend to be surprisingly moderate and stable over time—even amid all the insanity of 2016. It is just impossible to divine that from the white-hot rhetoric of politicians, the hatefulness of Internet trolls, and the strident pack-journalism of today’s press.
“Social media has thus created two seemingly contradictory trends—it has encouraged reckless, often outlandish, public comments and at the same time has imposed groupthink and uniformity of mind. It is one of the greatest puzzles of our time: our views on issues have not changed much, but the language of how we express them and who we are willing to engage with has changed enormously, and not for the better. If I found a dystopian view of America during this year, it was not in my encounters in Pikeville, or in Texas, or even at Trump rallies, but on my social media feeds and on the comment boards of major media sites.
“We all live in our own bubbles, of course—it is the story of this book—and it is not surprising that the media has its own comfortable bubble like everyone else.”
Unfortunately, all of this has contributed to generating a great deal of hate directed at political opponents in both directions:
“Comment boards reinforce the partisan norms of the group and strongly repel (and further alienate and anger) anyone with views contrary to the prevailing group norm.
“The thing that has troubled me the most over the last year is not the demagoguery from our politicians, though I don’t like that very much, but the demonization of ordinary citizens who hold contrary political views.”
The hate includes racist comments from right-wing commentators and general nastiness from the left:
“I will grant the readers of the New York Times a significant advantage in terms of spelling, sentence construction, and quality of language, but they break about even in terms of their willingness to abuse anyone who might have a different point of view.”
So what to do? First, Americans should learn about, get to know, and have productive discussions with people on the other side. Give them the benefit of the doubt before slamming them.
“If the year has taught me anything, it is that none of us has a monopoly on the right ideas and none of us has a superior claim on values, commitment to our communities, and the desire to make our nation a better place.”
Second, understand that Americans are actually closer to each other than the news and social media would lead us to think. Instead of turning the other side into cartoon versions of themselves and attacking them, talk with them and figure out where we can work together. For example, Sam Adams, liberal Democrat and the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, Portland, Oregon, told Stern this about his work with evangelicals to improve Portland’s schools, foster care and other programs:
“We can agree to disagree on gay marriage and disagree on abortion but we probably agree on eight out of ten things that are important to society. . . . So we can act together genuinely in our communities on those eight of ten and break out of the trap that has been built around us.”
(Interestingly, Stern discusses research on the views of Democrats and Republicans on abortion that finds far more overlap than we normally see in political battles.)
“This book is ultimately not about who is right and who is wrong. It is about the belief that no one has a monopoly on wisdom and that we would all be far better off doing a little less finger-pointing and a little more listening to the other side.”
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