Discovering The “Other” America
Lifelong Democrat Ken Stern ’85 left the “liberal bubble” for an odyssey across America’s red states. The year he spent getting to know “the other side” changed his view of politics entirely and inspired a book that’s attracting controversy.
Crouching in the woods on a ranch west of Houston while anxiously awaiting his chance to shoot wild hogs wasn’t what National Public Radio’s former CEO pictured when he set out to discover America’s “other” side. But when Ken Stern ’85 asked Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson how to escape the East Coast bubble and get to know Republican America, Carlson told him to go shoot pigs in Texas.
Armed with a rifle and clad in a Day-Glo vest, Stern spent $250 for the “one-day hog hunt plus gun rental” package at Independence Ranch in Gonzalez, Texas. Encouraged by his new hunting buddies and after six hours of waiting, the lifelong liberal finally pulled the trigger as two pigs streaked by. (He missed.) It was the first time he had ever used a gun. And that makes him far different from much of gun-toting America.
To better appreciate the country’s vast political divide, Stern willingly left his Washington, D.C., home—located in a voting ward where 94 percent of residents identify as Democrats—and a household that’s proudly 100 percent Democratic, and spent one year traveling to traditional Republican strongholds, including evangelical churches, a NASCAR race, Tea Party meetings, and Liberty University.
What Stern learned from this journey behind what he once would have considered enemy lines is carefully and humorously documented in his new book, Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.
The biggest takeaway from his odyssey? That people who hold political views different from your own are not your enemies. If you close your mouth and open your ears, you’ll probably find you’re not that different.
“When you get people together who don’t agree with one another, it doesn’t take that much to find common ground,” says Stern, a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair and president of Palisades Media Ventures, which develops educational partnerships between universities and postgraduate audiences. “You can learn a lot from people even if you don’t agree with them.”
Being open to the opinions of others is a Haverford tradition, he notes.
“There is a real campus ethic that there are a lot of different voices out there, not just in one section of the country but everywhere around the world, that are worth exploring and learning,” he says. “That’s a part of the Haverford experience I hold with me today.”
Haverford also instilled in Stern a tendency to look for the goodness in everyone, he said. That’s especially important in these divisive times.
“To me, the thing we’ve lost in this country is the assumption of good faith in the other side,” he says. “This is all about listening to others.” It’s why he decided to write the book. “The big issues aren’t any bigger than they were 25 years ago, but the anger level in America has gotten higher and higher. I wanted to tell the story of that anger through my own experience. I wanted to test my fairly typical liberal prejudices and see if they stood up in real life.” He listened and learned to like the other side—at least some of them. And he started to understand some very different points of view.
Stern is a longtime resident of Washington D.C.’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, which lies about three miles north of the White House. Most residents identify as liberals and, in their minds, that means they are tolerant of others’ beliefs and differences.
But a joking pledge recounted at an annual party by children who live on Stern’s street suggested otherwise: “Gay or straight, woman or man, all are welcome on Hobart Street–except for Republicans.”
Why, Stern wondered, was it still OK to judge people who didn’t share your political views? To assume the worst in them and hunker down in liberal or conservative bunkers? There’s a danger, he said, to living in bubbles with ever-thickening walls, surrounded by like-minded people.
“When you get beyond your Twitter feed and [beyond listening] only to media that agrees with you, you get a very different view of the world,” he says.
So off he went to Texas, where he joined that pig hunt and, more important, realized his call for more gun control laws in response to violent crimes may not be the “simple solution” he once thought. He visited Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Va., school founded by the late conservative activist preacher Jerry Falwell Sr., who was often accused of hate speech because of comments he made about homosexuals and Muslims. Stern fully expected it to be the highlight of a “Places I Am Pretty Sure I Will Hate” tour.
But Stern, who met with Liberty’s current president, Jerry Falwell Jr., found a campus atmosphere vastly different from just a decade ago. When Stern asked, “Do you accept gay students at Liberty?” Falwell replied matter of factly, “Sure! There are plenty of them.” That’s a different answer than his father would have given, says Stern, who cites the meeting as an example of how we can learn something from almost anyone.
Take Falwell’s views on the importance of two-parent families; in his mind that meant a man and woman raising children according to Biblical standards. The meeting spurs Stern to review secular research, which found children were indeed more likely to thrive in two-parent families, but those family units were much more diverse than Falwell had found.
“Researchers of all political stripes have shown the breakup of the American family has societal consequences across generations,” Stern says. “Falwell had a good conclusion based on faulty information.”
Stern’s travels also took him to the struggling former manufacturing city of Youngstown, Ohio; Kentucky coal country and its Creation Museum; and downtrodden neighborhoods in Baltimore. Along the way, he gains an understanding of just how difficult life has become for a declining working class in America. Among the people he meets is a long-unemployed coal miner whose “sense of grievance, of abandonment by those who are supposed to help him” has led him to vote for Donald Trump, writes Stern, “not out of any great affection, but out of the belief that he will either ‘be a great leader or launch World War III.’ That comment is worth a pause, because that is not a bet I would make on my own behalf or for the country, but when you are on your back in Pikeville, looking up from the bottom of the pyramid, the perspective is quite a bit different.”
During many of these trips, he finds a middle ground and commonalities between himself and people he had assumed he would dislike. In a quest to get in touch with evangelical Christians, for example, Stern attends services run by Pastor Steve Weber of the Freedom Church Assembly of God in Fredericksburg, Va. “We’re the same age, we have a son the same age, we both love football,” says Stern. “We didn’t see eye-to-eye on gay rights, but the things that drove me to write the book were worrying him too— hate and racism in society, and figuring out how we can get to know others in the community and help them.” It surprised him, as those moderate views aren’t the ones that appear in headlines or on TV.
“Face to face, most Americans are actually pretty moderate people,” he says. “You may not know that because the people you see on TV or on Twitter tend to be the loudest and the angriest. In real life, people aren’t that way.”
The book’s title has touched some nerves in these increasingly touchy times. Republican Like Me is a nod to John Howard Griffin’s 1961 nonfiction book Black Like Me, which details how Griffin, a white man, had his skin temporarily darkened so he would appear African American as he traveled the South. (That book, in turn, takes its title from Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Variations.”)
The broad statement in the book’s subtitle—“How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right”—refers to individuals Stern came to know and respect during his travels and research, such as Kevin Palau, a prominent Oregon evangelical leader whose congregants have worked tirelessly to improve two Portland schools with nary a sermon. And Pastor Steve, whose flock is looking for ways to mitigate the hatred being directed at minorities and immigrants in their community.
But some incorrectly interpret “learned to love the right” as meaning Stern grants blanket approval to extreme right-wing ideas. As a result, he’s become a target of both left- and right-wing critics, as well as the media, who took offense at comments he made in the book about media bias.
After a podcast interview during a book publicity tour, a couple of dozen neo-Nazis attacked Stern via Twitter; they were angry that he described himself as both white and Jewish. And an NPR contract reporter, Brian Mann, wrote an angry essay in Current, stating, “For decades city folk have been pulling on a pair of suspenders and spending a few Sundays in church with The Conservatives and then writing books in which you declare yourself shocked—shocked!—to find that they read books and talk in complete sentences and think about race in America.” Public radio reporters, countered Mann, “have been telling conservative America’s story with care and knowledge and intimate, deep, factual reporting for decades.” (Reader comments on the essay ran from hearty congratulations to mocking Mann’s defense of NPR’s reporting.)
Even Stern’s son, age 10, has been known to boo when he hears his father giving TV or radio interviews (though he’s mostly joking).
“What has troubled me the most are the people who want to judge a book by its cover,” says Stern, referring to those who judge the author by his book title.
“If you say you found common ground with conservatives or Republicans and don’t hate them, you must be a white conservative or hate gays, which are all things I’ve heard,” he says. “That reflects how we really think of the other side now and that goes both ways.”
For Stern, the year spent getting to know the “other side” changed his view of politics entirely. “At heart I’m still fundamentally a progressive, but I’m registered now as independent. I think of both parties as not reflecting the country as a whole and giving people two very unappealing choices.”
The book, he says, is ultimately about the consequences of groupthink and living in our own bubble. “People want to hear things that tell them they are right. But the year confirmed for me that most people actually tend to view themselves as moderates, and tend to reject the anger of both sides. Those are the people who read the book and related to it. When you hear from folks like that, it gives me a lot of hope.”