Culture

Understanding Your Political Opponents Takes More than a Visit to Their Neck of the Woods

Trump supporters at a rally in Virginia Beach, Va., October 2016 (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me is an entertaining work of sociological tourism, but its attempts to reach across the aisle don’t quite succeed.

Any book entitled Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right is bound to be unpopular in New York City. Hence the nasty looks I received while reading it on the PATH train, which connects Hudson and New York counties, two of the most liberal in the United States.

If you’re familiar with the book, which seeks to find a way out of our polarized, tribal politics, you’ll laugh with me at the irony. Author Ken Stern, a former CEO of NPR and self-described lifelong Democrat, tells the story of his efforts to understand the “other side” by approaching right-wing values from a left-wing perspective. In his introduction, he explains that America has never been more divided along political lines — that hatred for the opposite party drives decisions about where we live, how we live, and even, according to one study, whom we would hire. Stern traveled to the heart of red America to immerse himself in so-called rituals of Republicanism. He went on a hog hunt in Texas, saw a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, and attended an Evangelical church service in Missouri. Through these experiences, he discovered that Republicans bear little resemblance to their media-crafted caricatures, and found something to love in their ideology, so different from his own.

Stern appears to have borrowed his title from John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, in which Griffin, who was white, disguised himself as a black man to investigate segregation and racial tensions in the 1960s American South. This is partially apposite. In both books, the authors reveal that the dominant view they set out to investigate is incorrect — the view that life wasn’t really that bad for African-Americans living below the Mason-Dixon in Griffin’s case, the usual litany of stereotypes about Red America in Stern’s. But while Griffin emancipates his subjects from a narrative employed by others, Stern is attempting to rescue himself from his own prejudice. As a result, Republican Like Me functions more like an extended mea culpa than an investigation of ideology, especially considering the deep undercurrent of self-flagellation in what amounts to an overt defense of Republicanism.

It’s a good read — Stern is laugh-out-loud funny at times — and, by design, it doesn’t mock Republicans or their beliefs, so much as send up the author and, sometimes, the Left. Stern approaches the subjects of his study fairly and respectfully, and his conclusion is apt: While he loves his liberal rituals, he decides, he needs “a bit of Fords Branch, Kentucky, from time to time as well.” But there is a problem at the heart of the book: Namely, the belief that a trip to Fords Branch, Ky. is the way to understand Republicans.

Effectively, Stern turns Red America into a modern-day Canterbury, elevating his effort to understand its inhabitants’ ideology into a political pilgrimage. Sure, comprehension requires active effort. But one cannot escape the feeling that those seeking this kind of comprehension believe it requires martyrdom. Like a self-aware Saul of Tarsus, Stern seems to be intellectually blinded by the realization that the political groups he used to discount as radicals actually “have some good points.” In this he is like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who in January resolved to visit 30 states he’d never visited over the course of 2017, and to meet people with whom he didn’t normally interact along the way. The overcorrection is obvious.

This mistake is a common one. Consider the Washington Post feature “The Homecoming,” in which Stephanie McCrummen tells the story of Emily Reyes, a young college student who, having become a liberal, returns to her Missouri home, where Trump received 74 percent of the vote. In the piece, McCrummen discards the fact that “no one seemed to be talking about Trump at all” and the pleasant interaction between Reyes’s husband’s family of immigrants from Guatemala and her own family of Trump supporters as false positives, evidence proving an underlying anxiousness on the part of the intolerant Republicans instead of falsifying the expectation she brought with her to Missouri.

It’s possible that Kahoka, Mo., is, in fact, filled with the stereotypes Republicans themselves try to ignore, but neither Stern’s nor McCrummen’s are effective methods of determining whether that’s true: The Stern method would excessively overturn the hypothesis and the McCrummen method would aggressively maintain it. In both cases, the visitors hope to be a Griffin, revealing something internal to bring about an external change, but ultimately can’t manage to affect anyone other than themselves.

And that’s a big problem for Stern’s book. Should those on the left finish reading Republican Like Me, they’ll arrive at what Stern seems to suggest is his purpose: “We would all be far better off doing . . . a little more listening to the other side.” There’s truth in that prescription, which is often offered by those seeking to bridge the gap between the parties. Yet if a cross-country journey to Republican strongholds is required to bridge the gap, bridging the gap would seem to be highly impractical, if not impossible.

Stern’s heart is in the right place, and I appreciate that his book paints the Right in a good light. But it ultimately fails because it prescribes an incorrect antidote to our increasingly divided political heart. Instead of travelling the country to seek out your political opponents, if you’re genuinely curious, open your ears, close your mouths, and let them come to you. Look to your left, and ask the guy on the train about that book he’s reading.

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— Philip H. DeVoe is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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