How would you describe yourself politically?
I knew the answer to this question, or just assumed I did, before any of my interviews even began. It was frankly meant to function just as a kind of throat-clearing, an easing into a more substantive conversation about politics – a softball, lobbed gently – but the answers I received surprised me and actually quickly became the most interesting part of my talks: of the five people I spoke to, not a single one identified themselves as “Democrat” or “Republican.” We conducted a survey using the same questions and it held there, too, even despite the fact that online surveys tend to provoke flattened, drive-thru style responses: just a couple of respondents identified themselves simply as Democrats; the rest were more descriptive, identifying themselves, to provide a few examples, as “on the left, but not explicitly a democrat,” or “fiscally conservative, socially leaning towards liberal,” or “Socialist that votes for and is a member of the Democratic Party.”
In other words, the answers I received were far more nuanced than I expected and indicated a broader spectrum of political views than is typically portrayed in national media or those heated conversations around the dinner table us pencils like to reference so often.
This I believe is indicative of the thoughtfulness our current and surreal political era has counterintuitively engendered: even as folks are entrenched, culturally, on either side of the Red-Blue divide, they’re finding the energy to critically assess their viewpoints in light of the policies and politics coming out of DC these days. As Lori Fontanes, a writer and “moderate – AKA pragmatist, bridge-builder, aisle-crosser or centrist,” told me, “We’ve been forced to think hard about what it really means to be an American.” I’m speculating here, but I suspect President Trump’s willingness to air, test, and defend his views over Twitter has encouraged ordinary Americans to jump into it, too – a populist president who’s got simplistic views and uses plain (and sometimes vulgar) language will naturally beg the question: if he can do it, why can’t I?
In fact a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll bears this out: about 20 percent of all Americans have participated in a political protest or rally since Trump took office, and more than 25 percent spent time volunteering for a campaign, writing letters, joining boycotts or donating money. People – women, mostly – are also filing to run for political office in record numbers. These figures indicate a depth and breadth of engagement the country hasn’t experienced since the Vietnam War.
The fake news phenomenon, too, has likely played a role in getting our collective guard up and asses in high gear – nobody wants to find themselves in that nightmarish situation of casually bringing something up in conversation that we’d read and that confirmed our beliefs, only to find out it was false – this, I suspect, is why the media diets of all of my interviewees and survey respondents is so varied, ideologically. Lots of folks mentioned Twitter as a fruitful and timely aggregator of news, or else pointed to NPR or legacy publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which both have 140-plus-year legacies on the line and thus are historically and financially incentivized by accuracy and fairness.
But so, to reiterate: what I found were thoughtful people with idiosyncratic views, unwilling – like good Americans, who’ve historically prided themselves on thinking for themselves – to be pigeonholed into categories as ontologically useless, at this point, as Democrat or Republican.
Take for example Shawn McKee, a 38-year-old writer who describes himself as a Reagan conservative. “I undoubtedly believe in capitalism and free market enterprise,” he told me, between coughing spells (both of us were struggling, Shawn far more heroically than me, with common colds). But he was philosophical, for the most part, about politics generally, taking the democratic (or could be fatalistic) view that the party in power has been given the mandate to govern. His view on net neutrality illustrates this: “I look at an issue like [net neutrality],” he told me, “and well, it’s kind of irrelevant, really what you feel about it, just the way it was irrelevant when they passed that bill in the Obama era, I mean that’s just the way things work. They had the authority to do that, he won the election to do what he wants to do.”
And here’s another indicator of complexity and critical awareness: Robert Stamper, a 30-year-old nursing student at the University of Portland who considers himself a libertarian Republican, told me he got much of his news from NPR, a source that libertarians typically, with their zealotry for small government, consider anathema. When I asked him why, he gave me a simple answer that nonetheless speaks volumes: “I like to hear all different sides of what’s being reported,” he said.
Other writers who’ve ventured out to speak to folks about their politics have generally found the same thoughtfulness I’m describing here. In his richly-textured reporting on Trump supporters for the New Yorker, George Saunders discovers a complexity he hadn’t bargained for, a one-on-one kindness mixed in with the vitriol of the campaign crowd, a kind of dark-light admixture a la Star Wars or Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: “The Trump supporters I spoke with,” he writes, “were friendly, generous with their time, flattered to be asked their opinion, willing to give it, even when they knew I was a liberal writer likely to throw them under the bus.” He continues:
They loved their country and seemed genuinely panicked at its perceived demise, felt urgently that we were, right now, in the process losing something precious…Some (far from all) had been touched by financial hardship – a layoff was common in many stories – and (paradoxically, given their feelings about socialism) felt that, while in that vulnerable state, they’d been let down by their government.
James Fallows, likewise, did lots of reporting from America’s small towns for the Atlantic’s American Futures project, and found a sort of doublemind: while folks in these towns were genuinely pleased with their lives and hopeful for their futures, they felt a profound disenchantment with the country more generally, an incongruity that’s likely explained by our national news media’s overwhelmingly negative coverage of just about everything, the distortion of reality advanced by Trump and his allies during the election (and often since), the nefarious use of social media to spread falsehoods, and, frankly, the extreme difficulty we have in empathizing with people outside our own immediate tribes. As Fallows observed last January,
The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities.
More comprehensive and hopeful even than these two projects is the Washington Post’s recent collage of interviews with people across the political spectrum and from all fifty states. In the introduction to The shared beliefs of a divided America, the Post asserts that the 102 conversations it collected “reveal commonalities and convictions that bridge geography, gender, occupation, race or religion – an indication that perhaps what unites Americans to one another is as powerful as what divides them” – a not-so-subtle echoing of former president Barack Obama’s oft-vocalized belief.
Clicking through each of these profiles, you’ll likely be struck, as I was, by the shared language and vision of the folks interviewed. This, again, was something I found, too, in my conversations: when asked to reflect and assess, to think critically about one’s country and one’s politics, people tended to come up with similar answers, in terms of: they were assessing policies and events through the lens of, is it good for my country? Shawn McKee, for example, spent lots of time talking about the tax bill that passed in December, and how, despite the fact he had serious reservations, he hoped it would kickstart the US economy. His concern, in other words, was not for the money in his own pocket. Robert Stamper was concerned about the money in his own pocket, but he also believed the tax bill would help middle-class Americans. “A big middle class,” he told me, “makes the country run smoother.” Anya Callahan, a 27-year-old Social Democrat who’s active in local Seattle politics, and particularly in the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), was pleased with the fact that Trump’s administration has engendered political consciousness among folks who weren’t necessarily so invested before, because it strengthened the DSA – Seattle’s chapter went from 20 dues-paying members to 600. Democracy relies on a public that’s engaged.
Lana Ghannam, a 28-year-old Palestinian-American poet with “Democratic views,” hit on something my other interviewees vocalized, too, and hearkens directly back to that recognition-of-complexity thing I mentioned earlier: the fact that things we understand in a sort of black-and-white way to be either good or bad often turn out to be multifaceted. For Ghannam, the good-and-bad was racism: “It’s bringing out some terribleness in people,” she said, “but it’s also uniting so many more in solidarity.” Callahan, likewise, saw the good-and-bad to increased political engagement: “I think it’s universal, across-the-board engagement,” she told me. “Unfortunately, we see that with more engagement in Fascist parties, too, and on the far right.”
So it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. My interviewees recognized the complexities of living in a big messy pluralist democracy that’s historically unprecedented and they understand, I think, that it’s our freedom – to form our own opinions, to advocate for various solutions – that breeds these complexities. And there were differences of opinion, serious ones, tightly held: with near-religious fervor, Shawn McKee preached the virtues of capitalism, while Anya Callahan, with equal fervor, proclaimed that democracy was incompatible with it. Robert Stamper told me he favored lowering taxes and stricter immigration laws; Lana Ghannam said just the opposite. All of these opinions, however, were arrived at democratically and explained reasonably. They all mostly made sense to me, too, although there was of course the sort of paradoxical thinking, confirmation biases, tribalism, and emotional logic that’s ensnared even the finest historical minds. But again, more generally, what I detected in these interviews was a political awareness and concern for country that’s tethered to what’s considered an American First Principle: thinking for oneself. My interviewees all want what’s best for the country, and they all want a free and prosperous US, they just disagree on how to get there. It’s a groan-inducing cliché, I know, but it seems to hold – if there’s a Center, if there’s some Common Ground undergirding our grand American experiment, it’s this. This concern, this interest, this just frankly dogged willingness to engage and to keep on identifying oneself as American and battling over that identity’s definition despite profound issues and the country’s schizophrenic past.
Okay! you’re saying – we get it. There’s some common ground. Thanks a million, pencil. But look, here’s what we really want to know: Is that enough? Is concern for and interest in one’s country enough to bind us together? To overcome our tribalism?
So, bear with me here, I’ve got a response to this question, but it involves a little historical anecdote.
On April 4th, 1968, just a little over fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, shot in the face on the second-floor balcony of the old Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Bobby Kennedy, who would just two months later be shot and killed himself, was in Indianapolis on a presidential campaign stop when he received the news, and he quickly resolved to inform the mostly African-American crowd that had gathered to hear his stump speech. His purpose in doing so was clear and basic and urgent: he hoped to avoid a riot. In an inner-city park on the corner of 17th and Broadway, he stood on the back of a flatbed truck with some notes he’d written on the drive over and delivered one of the best speeches the US has ever heard.
But first he had to tell the crowd about King’s death. There’s some hesitation, understandably, and there’s one particularly poignant nervous tic in which Kennedy strokes his perfectly-coiffed hair, pats it actually, as if to make sure it’s not standing on end, before he finally just plunges in affectlessly with the news – “Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee” – at which point there’s a collective crescendoing wail from the unseen crowd (the camera sticks with Kennedy) that still, a dozen viewings later, gives me the chills. It’s apocalyptic and thoroughly unsettling, and lasts just briefly, maybe a second or two, before the crowd hushes again, waiting to see what Kennedy will say next.
Now let’s here just take a minute and picture the scene: RFK on the back of a flatbed truck, hemmed in by reporters and campaign staff and looking out upon a deeply shocked collection of people whose spiritual and political leader had just, hours before, been assassinated. It’s a spring night in the inner city; all around them, the folks in the crowd are reminded of their status, their sort of fundamental entrapment (redlining was still very much in effect), against which their just-assassinated leader had led a profound and still ongoing struggle, and here’s this privileged white guy with beautiful hair and a really nice suit and an old-school Boston accent that just oozes access and privilege, a guy who can go anywhere or do or buy pretty much anything he wants, and what’s more, a guy who’s been wary of King in the past, and it’s this guy giving them some of the worst news they could possibly receive in that moment. You can envision, right, the difficult task ahead of Bobby Kennedy, who also understands that it’s likely this moment will define his political career moving forward.
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States,” he tells the crowd, “it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.” We can give in to our hatred and bitterness, he says, we can polarize, concretize our tribal walls and descend into a kind of siloed existence gated with hatred and mistrust – “we can move in that direction as a country,” is how he puts it – or, he suggests, “we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
This is frankly ballsy as hell, and would have been condescending – a privileged white man seeking political office presuming to tell a majority-black crowd what to do and how to feel – were it not for what RFK says next:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
What Kennedy’s doing here, in a sort of clumsy, earnest way – he speaks haltingly, pausing every clause or two to gather his thoughts – is empathizing. He’s trying to imagine his way into how people in the crowd might be feeling, using his experience of his brother’s death as the catalyst; he’s allowing all of those raw emotions he felt when Jack was killed, that pain and hatred and fear, to function as a kind of adhesive bonding him and the crowd to each other, so that what he next suggests, that folks in the crowd head home to say a prayer for King’s family and for the country, will stick.
And by the way: this was the first time that Kennedy had addressed his brother’s death publicly in the nearly five years since it occurred.
Though riots engulfed much of the country that night – more than 100 cities nationwide saw violence – they did not touch Indianapolis. Kennedy’s words had the intended effect; he’d appealed to what Abraham Lincoln famously termed “the better angels of our nature,” and the crowd had responded accordingly. What’s more, he was right about King – the man had unflinchingly identified and decried injustice, had been and remains still the nation’s moral gadfly, but he’d never, ever pulled back the outstretched hand of brotherhood and compassion he’d extended despite the violence inflicted on him. That’s the other reason the speech is so powerful – Kennedy had said what King himself –again, a tireless builder of bridges – might have said in that moment, and made clear, by referencing his brother’s death and making himself vulnerable, that he meant it.
So what do I mean by telling this story? It’s simple: homo sapiens is among the least genetically diverse species on the planet – we’ve literally got far more in common than we do in conflict, which is why a guy like Bobby Kennedy could connect with a crowd of folks who were as unprivileged as he was privileged: he understood death, and pain, and fear, just as well as any man or woman, and he understood that transcending these things, or transmuting them, learning to use them as opportunities to showcase our goodness, is a fundamental human experience.
So one last thing. I’ve mentioned Daryl Davis before; he’s a black musician who’s spent decades having conversations with KKK members and thanks to this deceptively simple process of swallowing one’s fear and disgust and hatred and just talking to these folks, simply and humanely, folks who believe he’s a member of an inferior race and who themselves are members of a terrorist organization that’s threatened, harassed, beaten, and murdered countless fellow Americans, has gotten dozens to turn in their robes. For analogy, imagine a widow of a 9/11 victim getting 20-plus al-Qaeda terrorists to renounce their destructive purpose and ideology just through correspondence and conversation. If there’s anybody on this earth who understands, intimately and viscerally, what Rebecca West calls the “nearly mad” half of human nature, who in fact’s shared air space with it and’s shaken hands with it, it’s Daryl Davis, a man with far more moral authority than I could hope to amass in two lifetimes, and so it’s a no-brainer for me to end here on a kind of challenge, using his practical, difficult advice: “You can find something [in common with somebody] in five minutes, even with your worst enemy,” he says. “As we focus more and more and find more things in common, things we have in contrast, such as skin color, matter less and less.”
Let’s take up this challenge.
 Let’s not forget it wasn’t just Jack that Bobby had lost: his eldest brother, Joe, was killed in World War II when Bobby was just eighteen years old. His sister Rosemary had been lobotomized, and effectively lost, too, just three years before Joe’s death.
 From Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: “It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”
gif: eric fershtman
images: "robert f. kennedy," us news and world report / wikimedia commons, "martin luther king jr.," ben van meerendonk / wikimedia commons, "march for our lives," phil roeder / flickr