'Republican Like Me'

A new book argues that tribal political affiliations are not just about the groups we cluster in but how we interpret facts and understand truth.

March 5, 2018

Add Ken Stern’s lively new book Republican Like Me to the list of must-reads on the topic of polarization in American life. As the former CEO of NPR, Stern was something of an expert on this subject even before writing this book. That’s because no other media organization outfits its partisans quite like NPR. All those tote bags, t-shirts and bumper stickers signal not just where your radio dial is set, but the worldview you believe in and the tribe you belong to.   

If contributing to partisanship makes you guilty, consider this book Stern’s penance.

Republican Like Me combines accessible summaries of social science research on polarization with reporting trips into Red America. Stern sets the stage by pointing out that the civic institutions that brought Americans with different politics together (labor unions, religious communities) have atrophied, creating a situation where political party is our dominant affiliation. He consistently returns to two important themes:

  1. A diverse democracy is in deep danger when it becomes common for average citizens to view members of the other political party not as friends to discuss differences with but as enemies to destroy;
  2. Tribal political affiliations are not just about the groups we cluster in but the way we interpret facts and understand truth.

Since the beginning of the Trump movement, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that first point, and basically concluded that even though people I disagree with are wrong, I should try to have relationships with them anyway. So it’s the convincing manner in which Stern argues his second point, about how tribal affiliation impacts worldview, that was my most profound takeaway from this book.

To illustrate, Stern cites a study done by Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril using the film of a particularly violent 1951 football game between Princeton and Dartmouth. The scholars showed students of both schools the film of the game and found that they had wildly different interpretations of the events that took place, based entirely on the college they attended. Stern points out that the populations of Dartmouth and Princeton are essentially interchangeable and goes on to make an important point about the 2016 presidential campaign: “… turn a three-hour football game into an eighteen-month, sprawling, media-soaked presidential campaign … And think about how different the encounter is when you are a laid-off factory worker from Youngstown, Ohio, versus a tech entrepreneur from Silicon Valley … how could they not see things differently from each other?” 

I’ll be interviewing Ken Stern at Washington University on Tuesday night and look forward to putting some of the following questions to him:

  • I do a lot of speaking on college campuses about the importance of building relationships across identity differences, and I’m frequently asked by students where I draw my line. In other words, who is so deplorable that I would reject a relationship? It strikes me that you take a very different approach in your book. You are looking for areas of common ground rather than looking for unbridgeable difference. Tell me what inspired you to do that.
  • On the subject of common ground, the verb we often associate with it is ‘find’. The implication is if you just glance in this direction rather than that, you’ll see some areas of agreement rather than areas of disagreement. Was that your experience in this book, that common ground is something relatively easy to find? Or is common ground something you build, something that takes a lot more work than just shifting your eyes?
  • One of the things you highlight in this book is that while our political divisions seem vast, our differences on policy matters are not actually so wide. You illustrate this powerfully by pointing to research by Fiorina and Krostnick on abortion. They discover that if you ask Americans whether they are “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, the electorate polarizes along the lines of party affiliation. But if you ask more specific questions (“Should a woman be able to get an abortion because she does not like the sex of her child?” or “Would you support an abortion to save the life of the mother?”) the views of Democrats and Republicans start to converge. What do you take from that? 
  • What would you have done differently at NPR if you had known then what you know now?
  • When you hear the coverage of, say, the #MeToo movement or the students from Parkland organizing for gun laws, from media organizations like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and NPR (which is basically my weekly news diet) what do you wish they were paying attention to that they are not?
  • John Inazu and I are teaching a course on identity in a diverse democracy to a seminar of bright undergraduate and law students here at Washington University. If you were going to use a course like this to prepare bright young people to be effective citizens in an era of polarization, what assignments (both readings and exercises) would you give them in such a course?


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