Former NPR Chief’s Book Reflects on a Year in ‘Trump Country’

TSD last caught up with author Ken Stern following publication of “With Charity for All,” his critical assessment of the vast American nonprofit industry.  The former National Public Radio CEO is back with another penetrating evaluation of a critical facet of our national life: the deeply-fractured state of our politics.  In “Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right,” Stern candidly reflects his experiences during a year-long journey outside of his affluent, left-leaning Washington, DC neighborhood into the conservative American heartland, an adventure that began as an effort to understand regional and cultural divisions and shockingly ended with the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.

Town Square Delaware: You grew up in Washington, DC and are a product of what would fairly be described as an “elite” background – your father was a diplomat, you attended Haverford College and Yale Law School and after working in the Clinton Administration you led NPR, a classic bete noire of the Right.   I suppose the first question is to ask you why a smart, rational, accomplished person like you, who has certainly been exposed to a lot of different people and views in your life, had to physically go out into “Trump Country” to understand these contemporary American political dynamics?  Was it simply the fact of being surrounded by so many like-minded people that in effect gave you such severe blinders?

Kenneth P. Stern: To answer that question, we need to acknowledge some fairly major changes that have taken place in this country over the last 30 years.  We have always had of course significant geographic and cultural divisions in this country, but in recent years we have begun to segregate ourselves politically.  The journalist Bill Bishop wrote about how Democrats were increasingly living in Democratic neighborhoods and Republicans living in Republican neighborhoods in a wonderful book called the Big Sort in 2007, and the trend to segregate ourselves politically has only increased since.  Layer on top the ability to find media (and social media) that support our preexisting views and it is not surprising that we have all become terribly insulated from “the other side.”  It means that most people now have to break their patterns in order to really engage with people of differing political perspective.  And for me that meant leaving my 94% Democratic ward and seeing places in the country – eastern Kentucky coal country, a Texas ranch, evangelical churches, to name a few – that I wouldn’t see otherwise.

TSD: But reporters at top papers like the New York Times and Washington Post were presumably doing this kind of on-the-ground reporting all through the last presidential campaign and by their own admission they missed the story of the depth of their anger and resentment towards the establishment – how does that happen?

KPS: I think it is very easy to believe the prevailing wisdom (and discount what you might see to the contrary) when most of the people you know share a similar world view and sense of the political landscape.  It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of people in the mainstream media expected Trump to lose and it is hard to hold a contrary view when the weight of opinion is so strong.  Even when you see enthusiasm for Trump on trips around the country, it is still easy to miss that story when the polls and others in the media are so confident in the opposite side.  It reminds me a little of the old Pauline Kael line when she expressed surprise that McGovern lost because she didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.

TSD: What is it then about elite culture or their institutions that insulates people and makes them so judgmental, if that’s an appropriate term – or perhaps it is a lack of understanding – of the vast middle class in rural, mountain and Midwestern locations and their traditional values and political views?

Author Ken Stern. Photo courtesy NPR.

KPS: I suspect that it is the failing of elite institutions generally to think that they know more than the rest of the country.  I’m not sure that I agree with the observation of William F Buckley that he would rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phone book than by 400 members of the Harvard faculty but I think his skepticism about the wisdom and insularity of elite institutions has some merit.  It does seem that our elite institutions have become increasingly tolerant of people who look different and increasingly intolerant of people who think differently.  One change is very laudable and the other is not, but I think that is in some ways the story of our country more generally.

TSD: You talk in the book about the contrasting view of guns and gun control as an example.

KPS: When you dig into the data, there are actually big pockets of agreement.  We are forced by convention to think of ourselves as gun rights or gun control advocates, and of course there are absolutists on both ends of the spectrum, but most people tend to coalesce around some set of sensible regulations.  But you would never know that by the public diction on the issue.  More and more though, we can look at common facts and reach different conclusions.  The church shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas is an interesting example where gun control advocates see the horrors of semi-automatic weapons and gun rights people see the importance of an armed citizenry.  Each can tease out a story that supports their own sense of the world.

TSD: Could it be that many of these institutions – academia, the media – form a kind of echo chamber and professional advancement society for monolithic thinking?  The diversity these organizations tout perhaps should be extended to other factors including political views and cultural backgrounds –

KPS: I have said this to my colleagues in media a lot: we would never dream of covering racial issues with only white reporters or editors, or gender issues with only men, no matter how good and earnest they are.  Likewise, it makes no sense to cover politics with reporters who are almost all progressive and who do not reflect the political diversity of the country.  There is relatively little hard data on the political make-up of mainstream news rooms, but the little that exists confirms what we already know: the newsrooms tend to be populated by people of similar, liberal bents.  That does not mean that they are out to get the right or part of some deep state conspiracy but it does mean that they are subject to the effects of group think and are at risk of not reflecting the broader political conversation on what is important and who should be heard.

TSD: You must have witnessed unhealthy behaviors on the other side as well.  That is, what kind of forces did you see at work that from the Right that are fueling growing intolerance to moderate or conciliatory views?

KPS: I have indeed seen terrible behavior from the right.  Spend too much time on the comment boards of Breitbart and you can easily lose faith in humanity.  Some of it, in my view, is misdirected anger from people who feel alienated from the political process and have seen their economic and social fortunes decline over the last 30 years.  But some of it is the result of media, like Breitbart and conservative talk radio, which fan the flames of alienation and anger.  When a conservative talk show has the mantra of “we’re right, they’re wrong, that’s the end of the story,” it doesn’t leave much room for nuance or compromise.

TSD: A few related questions: do you think the partisan divide we see is altogether a new phenomenon of American political culture?  And is it ultimately a pernicious, destabilizing force for our country or is it simply being amplified by the crazy 360 surround sound of social media, talk radio and cable television we inhabit?  Lastly, besides someone like you writing this great book, what else can be done to improve mutual understanding and heal this lack of trust on each side?

KPS: Its new in the sense that it hasn’t existed at this pitched level for the last century, though historians will tell you that in the good (or bad) old days, we had similar periods, often painful, of division and discord, often leading to the break-up or realignment of the parties.  We are in a very different era now in that our negative views of the other side – regardless of which side you’re on – are constantly being reinforced and fanned by social media and traditional media.   It is an oddity that in an era in which there are no huge issue cleavages like slavery for instance, we are as angry as we have been in a century and a half.

TSD: This book started out as a journey to learn more about the red state America, and amidst all that, Trump happened.  That’s pretty inspired timing –

KPS: I can’t decide whether it was good or bad timing.  When I started this book, I was motivated by the research that showed how angry we were at the other side, much angrier than in the past even though we don’t disagree more on the issues.  We dislike the other side so much that more and more, we don’t even want our children to marry someone of a different political stripe.  Donald Trump didn’t cause that – he wasn’t even a major political figure when I started my research – but he seems in many ways to be a perfection of the process of division and anger.  The challenge from my perspective is that a lot of people are doing quite well in an era of discord – media for sure, Trump himself, and really both political parties.  It’s the American people and our democratic institutions that both suffer.

TSD: This is your second book.  How did the process of developing your thesis and then reporting the content differ this second time around, and what similar themes if any can you draw between the two stories?

KPS: They are very different books, in terms of topics, approach and narrative, but they have a similar view that we are all suffering the consequences of these big public myths: in the case of Charity For All, how we should think about charities, and in the case of Republican Like Me, how we should think about the other political side.  Both of the books are lessons in humility for me in some ways, in that I thought I knew much more than I did.  When I dug into the topics, I found out how misplaced my assumptions were and how much I needed to learn.

TSD: What’s next for Ken Stern?

KPS: through this journey, I’ve become increasingly convinced that neither party well represents the majority, or even a healthy minority, of the country.  That is reflected in the rise of the number of independents and the decline in membership of both Democrats and Republicans.  Part of the alienation in this country comes from the widespread belief that the parties have lost their way, and I think that presages big changes in the country.  I don’t think the story has been written yet on how those changes will come and whether those changes will be constructive or destructive.

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