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Americans Are 'Living In Bubbles With Thicker And Thicker Walls,' Former NPR Chief Says

"Republican Like Me," by Ken Stern. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Republican Like Me," by Ken Stern. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Ken Stern, former NPR CEO, spent a year going to NASCAR races, pig hunts and evangelical churches to witness a side of the United States he thinks liberals know little about. That divide, he says, is reflected in where people live, who they associate with and the media they consume.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Stern ( @kenpstern) about his new book, “ Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.”

Interview Highlights

On how he sees the premise of the book

“My book’s really not about the media. It’s really about all of us, that we are increasingly, in this world, all living in bubbles with thicker and thicker walls. We’re choosing to live in neighborhoods with like-minded people. We’re all getting our content from self-selected media. We’re not becoming unpolarized on the issues. Our beliefs on issues haven’t really changed in the last 25 years, but our beliefs about the other side are becoming increasingly negative. My goal, really, was to leave my 94 percent Democratic ward and 100 percent Democratic household and try to see things from the other side, as Atticus Finch said in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”

On the perception of the media

“The trust ratings for the media right now ranks about at 35 percent. That’s roughly the same as Donald Trump. Half the country thinks the media does fake news. One of the things I did during my year is just listen. I wasn’t talking to people about the media, but they wanted to talk to me about it probably because of my background, and they felt treated as cartoons, they felt they were patronized. They felt their views and concerns and issues about the future were left behind.”

On accusations of “cultural tourism”

“It really isn’t about geography. If you travel the country and talk to people, they’re going to say the same things I’m about to say, which is, I think if you polled the newsroom of America — and it’s not about NPR — the newsrooms of major media organizations, I think you find a political weight on one side or the other. And I think that’s a problem because I don’t think NPR or New York Times or Washington Post — and this isn’t about any particular news organization — they wouldn’t cover race matters, for instance, with only white males, no matter how good, how willing to listen they are, and they shouldn’t. You could say that about a lot of different issues, and I think you should say that about politics, as well, and express a concern about the results of groupthink. I mean, my book really, ultimately, is the effect of groupthink, of the confirmation bias in all of us, and the fact that we really need to work harder than we are to get outside of that.”

On Trump’s base voters

“I spent a lot of time with Breitbart, and if you want to see sort of the end of Earth and go crazy, spend time on the comments section of Breitbart. So I’ve met hundreds of people, and some scared the bejesus out of me: paranoid, full of plots and conspiracies, and it really worries me. But most of the people I met fall into different categories, people who were responsible, respectable, concerned about their communities, see the hollowing out of their community, see, you know, they’re really in a 30-year losing streak. And they’ve seen that through Republican and Democratic administrations. I think you see a sense of futility, a sense of abandonment that we should all have real concerns about. You know, as a lifelong Democrat, I always thought that was the province of the Democratic Party, to worry about communities like that.

“I came back from my travels actually neither a Republican or a Democrat — as an independent, and somewhat concerned about the institutions and where they mislead us — but actually a greater faith in the sort of, the moderation of the American people and the good sense of the American people. There was actually an extraordinary poll by The Washington Post before the last election where they went to Virginians — an evenly divided state, a purple state — and said — they asked Clinton voters, ‘Do you have any close personal friends or family members who are voting for Trump?’ And they asked the question of Trump voters. And 60 percent of both said, ‘No, we’re actually segregating ourselves into communities of, like-minded communities.’ And because of that it’s so much easier to demagogue the other side.”

On the pig hunt

“I read an article in The Washington Post, and I read a quote from the head of Heritage Action who said, ‘You know, the problem with the people in the Acela corridor is they’re missing the awesomeness of America.’ I said, ‘Well, all right. How do you find that?’ So I actually called up Tucker Carlson, who I barely knew, and said, ‘Tucker, what should I do to find the awesomeness of America?’ And he said, ‘Go on a pig hunt.’ So I did. And part of this was to take me out of the comfort zone, go to places where I thought I would hate everyone, find people who thought differently, looked differently, acted differently. I went to Liberty University, I went to evangelical churches …

“In the morning I was with a three-generation family from Georgia: Paps, C.J. and Isaac. And Isaac was the same age as my son, 8 years old, and he ended up sort of taking me on as hunting mentor. In the afternoon, I was, you know, with what I said in the book is sort of a hunting equivalent of a bar joke: a Hispanic ex-soldier, a black uniform salesman, and a Croatian immigrant, and me, a Jew from Washington. We were the group going out there, and it was very much different than you might expect if you were trying to characterize what a hunt in Texas would look like.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Republican Like Me’

By Ken Stern

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” — Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Hobart Street is just a single block, but it is long enough to have three rough geographic areas: Hi-Ho, for the area at the top of the hill near Mount Pleasant Street; Lo-Ho, at the bottom of the hill bordering Irving Street; and Mid-Ho,

in between. I live in Mid-Ho.

Today, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood is tranquil and stately, populated by so many young families that it is occasionally referred to as “Mount Stroller.” But the area has had its ups and downs over the years. It was first developed about one hundred years ago and, even though the neighborhood sits only three miles north of the White House, Mount Pleasant was originally conceived and marketed as a suburb, its modest elevation offering an allegedly cool respite from the heat of the D.C. swamp. If you walk around Mount Pleasant and adjoining areas today, with its gracious row homes and stately embassies, you would be forgiven for thinking of its history as one unbroken line of financial prosperity. But that is not the case. Like many parts of the city, and like many cities in this country, Mount Pleasant experienced considerable “white flight” during the 1960s and 1970s, those whites replaced largely by lower-income blacks and Central American immigrants. The neighborhood struggled for decades, with the nadir being the Mount Pleasant riots of 1991, which consisted of three days of protesting, looting, and burning of police cars. Mount Pleasant has undergone an accelerating re-gentrification over the last twenty years, which has resulted in a cultural and economic mix that is a significant part of the neighborhood’s charm: trendy Thai restaurants abutting bodegas, big-box stores looming over Salvadoran fast-food places. There is a little something for everyone, which is why Mount Pleasant is often described as “diverse” and “eclectic,” and we like it that way.

Our commitment to diversity is pretty complete when it comes to black, white, and brown, and to the rainbow colors of the gay pride flag, but it falls a little short when it comes to red and blue. The neighborhood is astonishingly Democratic and liberal. Hillary Clinton received 92.5 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election and Jill Stein outpolled Donald Trump in my precinct by a narrow margin (74 votes to 70). During 2016, it was always very easy to spot a Bernie Sanders or a Black Lives Matter yard sign, but good luck finding one for Bush or Kasich, let alone Trump or Cruz.

In the past, I never paid much attention to the political homogeneity of Hobart Street, other than a joke here or there with my neighbors. Hobart Street and the Mount Pleasant neighborhood aren’t all that different from the wider city and, let’s face it, I fit in rather well, being a lifelong Democrat married to a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. It all seemed pretty natural, until Porchfest.

Say what you want about Hobart Street, but it has a lot of team spirit. Every Halloween the street is closed to traffic and kids from miles around come here, certainly attracted by the efficient access to candy provided by row homes and perhaps by the “dead baby house,” a neighbor who strings baby dolls in various bloody poses and drops them down on the trick-or-treaters as they approach the front porch (I said we have team spirit, not good taste). Porchfest is the other main festival of the Hobart social calendar, our annual block party held each June. Virtually every house on the block contributes something: a food stand, music, home-brewed beer, a slip-and-slide for the kids. My wife, Beth, stays up all night baking cookies, which she cuts variously into the shape of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, and a map of the District of Columbia. Some she decorates herself, but others are left unfrosted so that the kids can wield the icing tubes like junior Jackson Pollocks. They do that with uncommon enthusiasm, if not complete coordination. For days afterward, our front steps look like the victim of a food-coloring balloon prank.

The highlight of Porchfest is the annual parade, which is always led by a marching band, a fire truck from the local firehouse, the same vintage convertible that appears each Porchfest and then is not seen again on Hobart Street for the rest of the year, and all the kids on the block, some riding bikes or scooters, others tunelessly playing musical instruments, or in the case of my nine-year-old son, Nate, randomly throwing a baseball up in the air. It’s all hopelessly chaotic, like a band in which all the musicians are playing from different sheet music, and it’s all wonderful. And every year the parade starts with the children reciting the “Hobart Street Pledge.” I always loved the Pledge, at least the concept of it, that in our increasingly entropic world we share a community, an identity, a home here on Hobart Street. I loved the Pledge, that is, until I bothered to listen to the words, which I discovered one year go something like this: “I pledge allegiance to Hobart Street Northwest. . . . Gay or straight, woman or man, all are welcome on Hobart Street—except for Republicans.”

The end of the Pledge was meant to be all good fun, I suppose, except for the fact that it reflects an uncomfortable truth: as much as my neighbors on Hobart Street speak to the values of diversity and tolerance, they have no real interest in viewpoint diversity. I have tried, episodically and unsystematically, to find a Republican on Hobart Street. They must be there: our precinct is 94 percent Democratic, an astonishing number on its face, but that must mean there is still that 6 percent somewhere. It’s simple to find Democrats: Bernie banners? Yes. Hillary bumper stickers? Sure. Black Lives Matter yard signs? Plenty of them. An “Everybody SUCKS, We’re Screwed 2016” sign that pops up right after the election? You bet. But evidence of support for Bush, Kasich, Cruz, Carson, or Trump? No, no, no, no, and hell no. I posted a plea on our local message board, Nextdoor Mt. Pleasant, for information on any Republicans on Hobart Street, and was met with a stony silence. At one point I thought I would hit pay dirt with my neighbor Richard, mostly because I knew him to be entirely dismissive of liberal orthodoxy, but it turns out that Richard is just dismissive by nature. When I finally cornered him, he confessed that he hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1992. I heard tale of a Republican who used to live on Hobart Street, but that’s as close as I ever came.

Truth be told, in its political homogeneity, Hobart Street is not all that unusual. During the 2016 election, the Washington Post asked Virginia voters whether they had any family members or close friends who were supporting the opposing candidate. Fifty-four percent of Trump supporters and 60 percent of Clinton supporters reported that they had no family members and no close friends who were planning to vote for the other side. It is an extraordinary thing, if you think about it for a moment. Virginia was a closely contested state, swinging back and forth on election night, ultimately going to Hillary Clinton by just five points. But somehow a majority of Virginians had managed to arrange their friends and family to be entirely politically compatible. Amazing as it is, I must confess that it was the same for me as well, but at least I have the excuse of living in a single-party neighborhood.

The truth is that my neighbors don’t really want Republicans among them, because they fear and dislike them. Over the past two years, from time to time, I have conducted an informal and resolutely unscientific poll of neighbors and guests on our street, asking them: “Would you say the Republican Party’s policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being, or would you not go that far?” Almost uniformly, and almost always without hesitation, they have answered yes; when I have pushed harder and urged reflection, they have affirmed their strongly held belief that Republicans as a group do form a real threat to the health of the United States.

That may make the good people of Hobart Street seem parochial and perhaps a bit paranoid, and maybe they are, but it does not make them unusual. In fact, the partisanship reflected on Hobart Street is completely in tune with the rest of the country. The question I have asked of my neighbors is the same question that the Pew Research Center has used for the past twenty years to get a handle on political polarization in America. Pew carefully designed the “threat to the nation’s well-being” question to suggest that a positive answer is a substantial, maybe even daring, statement against the other party and perhaps the democratic process. Yet the number of people answering “yes” has risen at a frightful clip in recent years, nearly doubling since 2004. But it has gotten worse. More than half of Democrats (55 percent) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49 percent of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics—those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns—fully 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party. Since these figures come from polls taken in June 2016, well before the misery of the Clinton–Trump square dance, these numbers likely underrepresent partisan animosity, and perhaps significantly so. In this atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that my neighbors on Hobart Street are unwelcoming to Republicans.

Excerpted from REPUBLICAN LIKE ME by Ken Stern. Copyright © 2017 by the author and republished with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Correction: An earlier version of this post’s transcript misspelled a reference to the Acela corridor. We regret the error.

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