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Liberal in a Strange Land

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Liberal in a Strange Land

A former NPR executive explores conservative America. November 15, 2017
Politics and law

Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right, by Ken Stern (HarperCollins, 304 pp., $27.99)

Call it the “woke man’s burden”: in the year since Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency, many liberal journalists—in search of answers and disturbed by an election result that they saw as impossible, rather than merely improbable—have felt duty-bound to venture out to the parts of the country that elected the 45th president. The dilettante anthropology that has followed—memorably characterized as “decline porn” by Commentary’s Noah Rothman—has, in the main, been unimpressive. Many of the “insights” gleaned don’t require a plane ticket to suss out (coal miners, it seems, don’t enjoy losing their jobs). And the reporting usually suffers from a superficial, drive-by quality. Perhaps one can divine the secrets of the Trump phenomenon by exploring the rhythms of daily life in, say, Youngstown, Ohio—a city that has earned profiles from the Washington Post and the New York Times, despite not actually voting for Trump (though the Times report was pre-election)—but you certainly can’t do it over the course of just a few days.

Ken Stern—a man whose liberal bona fides include nearly a decade as an NPR executive and a stint with the 1996 Clinton–Gore campaign—sets out to overcome those limitations in his new book, Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right. His method? As Stern himself recently described in a New York Post column, “For an entire year, I embedded myself with the other side.” But that’s not quite true, at least under any coherent definition of “embedded.” Readers expecting a detailed tour of Trump’s America are in for a disappointment.

Stern organizes the book by topic, making a good-faith effort in each chapter to contrast how conservatives actually think about a given issue versus how liberals caricature their views. He considers gun control, religion, the problems besetting the white working class, climate change, science (in a somewhat discursive chapter that covers everything from creationism to electric vehicles), anti-poverty policy, and media bias. Stern’s fieldwork, however, comprises relatively little of the book, and makes only modest contributions to its goal of fostering a better understanding of the Right. His interviewees provide insights that will be revelatory only to the most insulated progressives: that evangelicals care about issues beyond gay marriage, for instance, or that conservatives believe that success in the war on poverty should be measured by how many beneficiaries become self-sufficient, rather than by how many dollars are spent. This is a remedial education in conservatism, though one that likely serves a worthwhile purpose in a political atmosphere where each side assumes the worst about the other.

Given the author’s claim to have immersed himself among the MAGA-hat-wearing masses, it’s surprising how narrow his travels turn out to be. Yes, there are occasional Red state set pieces: Stern visits a hunting ranch in Texas, an evangelical conference in Missouri, and a declining coal town in Kentucky. Even the ubiquitous Youngstown makes a cameo. But otherwise, Stern visits places that are not exactly hotbeds of conservatism (he makes trips to Baltimore and New York City for the poverty chapter) or stays curiously close to his Washington, D.C. home. The author is endearingly straightforward about this. At one point, he cops to attending an Assembly of God service in Fredericksburg, Virginia—50 miles from Washington—rather than in Springfield, Missouri, because of travel fatigue. Such compromises may have been unavoidable, but they hem in the book’s ethnographic ambitions.

Perhaps that’s for the best, because Republican Like Me is most valuable when it departs from the “ideological tourism” motif. In virtually every chapter, Stern has a conservative intellectual sherpa or two to lead him through the issue at hand, and here one finds insights much richer and more nuanced than the bullet points that dominate conservative talk radio and cable news. (Stern seems to grasp intuitively the point that frustrates every right-of-center think-tanker: there’s a world of difference between the conservatives who do the reading and the conservatives who do the talking). One really does think differently about gun control upon learning that nearly two-thirds of American gun deaths are suicides, with the remaining balance largely coming from urban violence related to gangs and drugs. Climate change no longer seems apocalyptic upon learning that a Yale model shows  the estimated cost of disruption to ecosystems and human health “represent[s] the difference between the world being 6.5 times wealthier [in 2100] than in 2015 or 6.7 times wealthier.” As a reader’s digest of the most thoughtful scholarship coming from conservative intellectuals, the book is invaluable.

A tension underlies this dual-track approach, however, and Stern mostly elides it: understanding the intellectual subtleties of conservative policy scholarship and understanding the cultural subtleties that brought Donald Trump to the commanding heights of American politics are two very different pursuits. In fact, much of the rancor within the Republican Party these days owes precisely to the fact that the conservative intellectual vanguard and rank-and-file voters so frequently find themselves out of sync. As a result, Stern has set for himself an unachievable goal: how do you understand a party that, at the moment, doesn’t understand itself?

To his credit, Stern’s efforts to take the Right on its own terms appear to be in earnest. Unlike many liberal journalists who have undertaken similar projects, he is not primarily looking for Republicans with an axe to grind against their own party or conservatives who can serve as easy foils. In fact, it’s easy to imagine this book struggling to gain traction with liberals because Stern seems so enamored with his subjects. To the extent that he voices progressive objections to the messages he hears, they are mostly marginal and cosmetic. It’s hard to resist the suspicion that Stern himself has become a crypto-conservative in the course of the writing—a delight to the right-leaning reader, but a threat to his ability  to influence the critics of conservatism who are the book’s ostensible audience.

In a heartfelt denouement, Stern argues that America’s civic health will improve if more effort is put into trying to understand those whose political views differ from our own. With Republican Like Me, he has made a valuable contribution to the supply side of that market. What ought to worry him—and us—is the prospect that the deficit is on the demand side.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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