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Book Review: Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right (Ken Stern)

Republican Like Me belongs to a certain phenotype, which we can call the “anti-jeremiad.”  Whether on the Left or the Right, people of good will sometimes write a book after discovering what they did not earlier know about their political opponents.  They make those discoveries by exposing themselves to opposing thoughts and attempting to understand the people who hold them.  Thus enlightened, they attempt to find common ground, lamenting the polarization of today’s American society.  Probably because the educated Right necessarily is necessarily continuously exposed to the thought of the educated Left, and not vice versa, such anti-jeremiads can mostly be found by authors from the Left.  A classic of the genre is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which largely parallels Ken Stern’s book, although Hochschild offers more focus on the personal likeability of her political opponents, and Stern’s voyage of discovery offers more focus on the plausibility of their arguments.  There is always room for another, though, and this genre has rarely been as well done or as timely as in this book, written by a man who was, about ten years ago, the CEO of National Public Radio.

Although I am the mirror image of Stern, on the Right when he is on the Left, I can find very little to disagree with in this book, either in its facts or analysis.  Sure, I might quibble here and there, and Stern doesn’t cover every issue dividing America, but he hits all the main issues without flinching.  This book was just released, by a major publisher with a major author, and I am quite interested to see the public reaction.  So far, it has been ignored by the Left—it has received no reviews in any major newspaper or magazine, although it has gotten some mentions in the conservative press.  My guess is that it will continue to be ignored, which is a shame.  If it is addressed by the mainstream media, I expect it will be attacked without addressing his points—my prediction is that Stern will be attacked as a crypto-conservative.  After all, the usual mode of political discourse today is “those who are not with us are against us,” and any leftist who, like Stern, in an discussion of the moderate view of abortion rights most Americans hold, asks when a woman should be allowed to abort her “child” has not grasped the real disposition of today’s Left.  For that matter, as anyone reading the comments section of The New York Times can tell you, in the view of most of the Left, anyone who admits any truth in conservative views is, if not Antichrist, at least his catamite, and I expect that to be how Stern will be viewed, if his all-access pass to said comments section has not already been revoked.

Trump receives nods throughout the book, as must be true of any book on current politics, but he is not the focus, nor are his supporters.  Neither are we treated to mindless memes about fake news or the Russians.  This alone is refreshing.  Instead, Stern divides the book into different topical areas to examine our divisions.  He immerses himself in turn into gun culture, evangelical Christians, the white working class and their maladies, environmentalism and science, anti-poverty programs, and modern media.  He spent a year traveling around in flyover country, as well as in his own backyard, and the reader can tell he had to boil down a lot of material, not puff up a little.  Unlike a lot of similar books, this does not smack of a padded-out magazine article.  Stern’s writing has no wasted words, and is direct, to the point, and never evasive.  Only a reader determined to resist all aspects of his message would complain about the way he has chosen to write the book.  And not only is the writing crisp, it’s funny without stretching.  “The first known instance of fracking occurred in 1947 when Floyd Farris [used] 1,000 gallons of gasoline thickened with napalm to crack open a limestone formation—a horrible-sounding idea presumably first reported by the Widow Farris.” Or, “If LBJ descended back down to earth, if that is the right direction . . . .”

Stern begins by describing his own neighborhood, Hobart Street in Mount Pleasant (in Washington, D.C.).  It sounds like a great place to live, with substantial community spirit, interesting people and the various amenities that characterize Capital City (though not the rest of Panem, which directly or indirectly pays the salaries that make this lifestyle possible).  As Stern discovers, somewhat to his horror (how this could have escaped him before is unclear, but I guess that’s the point), it’s also profoundly intolerant and monocultural, chock full of people, including him, whose only thought about Republicans or conservatives is to “fear and dislike them.”  As Stern points out, this is increasingly the default mode of any given location in America—antipathy to those of opposing political views.  (He does not point out, though, that it’s primarily the locations of the rich and powerful that hate conservatives, and the locations of the poor and powerless that hate liberals, which is an important distinction for America, though not directly relevant for his thesis.)  But, as Stern also points out, gaps in our views on actual policies haven’t, for the most part, widened—so for the most part “polarization is increasing because polarization is increasingly easy.”  What’s not easy, therefore, is pushing against polarization, so that is what Stern decided to do, “set out to look at issues from a conservative perspective.”

Stern chooses his beginning wisely, with guns, which are in many ways emblematic of the invincibly ignorant closed-mindedness that caused him so much concern about his tribe.  He goes to Texas to shoot pigs; he goes to a Virginia gun show; he studies gun statistics in detail.  He even has his basic facts right, for example correctly distinguishing shotguns and rifles, which seems like a trivial thing, but even such basic knowledge is almost always missing in liberal discussions about guns.  I expect he picked this issue to lead with because it’s the easiest one to prove his point with, since literally everything the Left thinks about guns is either demonstrably totally false, or malicious, or both.  Stern concludes as much, without using those words.  He says, “I have long had settled views on gun control, despite the fact that I had only the sketchiest knowledge about guns, gun statistics, and the science of violence crimes.”  Those words accurately characterize 99.99% of those who actively push additional gun control.  To nobody’s surprise, or at least not to mine, Stern finds that everything he thought was wrong.

Thus, gun homicides are actually low and dropping, both by rate and absolutely (especially with rifles, and especially with assault rifles).  Children are not widely endangered; far more children drown in bathtubs than are killed by guns.  Past gun control had no impact and future gun control would have less.  Gun control did not change homicide rates in England or elsewhere.  It’s not that Stern buys into the idea that guns are necessary for self-defense against the government, and he thinks the evidence is mixed as to their use for self-defense against criminals.  It’s that he doesn’t think people who believe those things are the problem, or any problem at all—because they obviously aren’t, once you study the issue.  Therefore, “if we really want to reduce gun violence, we should be focusing not first upon the weapons but on a lot of things around it: poverty, drugs, race, addressing mental illness, opportunity, and gangs, to name just a few.”  He comes to conclusions that are 180 degrees from his original untutored beliefs because there is no other possible way to believe for an honest person; beliefs other than these are the equivalent of the belief in a flat earth (though the same is not true for the other issues Stern discusses, which as I say is probably why he began here).

On the other hand, Stern doesn’t sugarcoat the ragged edges of gun culture.  He sees the quirkiness in pig hunting; he notes the conspiracy theorists, who are legion among gun proponents; and he is not blind to the dubious characters that show up at, and sell at, gun shows.  I, for example, have repeatedly seen a few overtly racist signs and stickers being sold by official vendors at Indianapolis gun shows, and Stern saw similar things in Virginia.  But he openly admits what is undeniable, though you wouldn’t know it from the NYT comments section, “Like it or not, and many probably won’t, the real people’s movement around guns lies with the NRA, not with gun control advocates.”  He also notes that due to liberal gun control policies in the few areas they still control, most big cities, “The one and only group that has a hard time obtaining firearms in this country is the law-abiding [urban] poor.”  That is, gun control is racist in effect (and racist in its history, though he doesn’t discuss that).  So, while he doesn’t say it explicitly, his conclusion isn’t just that the Left should understand the Right on guns, it’s that the Right his 95% correct on the issue, or more.

Next Stern discusses evangelical Christians.  He attends nondenominational megachurches; he attends churches of the Assembly of God (Pentecostal, and pretty much the Protestant antithesis of megachurch).  Here he is a little bit less successful understanding, probably because religion and religious belief is a lot more complex than guns, but he still does a good job.  There is a little too much flavor of believing evangelicals are great when they work with, for example, the mayor of Portland to give massive help to poor communities, but only if they are strictly forbidden from, you know, evangelizing.  In this vision, “building bridges” means churchgoers backfilling the total failure of the local Democratic machine and non-churchgoers to do anything for the worst-off communities, with a nod to the fact that most charity in the United States is religious in origin.  And there is a much too strong flavor of Christians are only OK so long as they embrace the latest moral crusades of the Left, such as gay rights, as various trendy and weak evangelicals have been doing in a quisling bid to gain acceptance from the wider world (e.g., Jen Hatmaker).  But really, Stern does an overall good job trying to understand the evangelical perspective, even when visiting the “Creation Museum.”  I suppose Stern’s only real failure here is not noting that evangelical Christians are only a part of Christian belief, but given that they’re a major part, and politically active and important on the Right, focusing on them seems entirely reasonable.  So far, so not that exceptional as to evangelicals.  But Stern then again, as with guns, says that in large measure the Left has been wrong and that evangelicals were right—“the predictions they [e.g., Jerry Falwell] made about the collapse of the American family have proven to be at least partially right, with enormous negative consequences for society.”  He adduces the usual (and accurate) litany of horrors, including the terrible outcomes for children raised in single-parent families (although he bizarrely presumes to instruct us that Jesus only forbade divorce “because of the economic consequences of divorce”).  Thus, his conclusions seem to be less just “I now understand evangelicals” and more “socially, they’re largely correct.”

In the next chapter, “Basket of Deplorables,” Trump gets the most coverage, being ignored in most of the rest of the book.  Among other outreach, Stern attends a Trump rally in Virginia and talks to a variety of Trump supporters.  Here he uses what I think is the best word ever to describe Trump’s approach to the world:  “vainglory.”  I’m going to use that too.  Anyway, here Stern covers recently well-trodden ground also seen in books like Hillbilly Elegy, noting the decline of the white working class, not just economically but also in terms of addiction, suicide, massively increased premature death rates, and their entirely legitimate beefs against not only the Davoisie they blame for many of their problems, as well as the professional-management elite that holds them in contempt, but against well-heeled urban conservatives (Jeb!) and libertarians who think they should either move to where there’s economic opportunity or shut up and die, their choice.

This chapter segues neatly into, and intertwines with, the next chapter’s discussion of coal mining and global warming, where Stern, quoting Hayek, claims that conservatives frequently reject scientific evidence: “the fatal flaw in the conservative mindset is to ignore or dispute inconvenient facts.”  With some justice, Stern cites global warming as one of those facts (although he suggests no others, and I can’t think of any—this book, certainly, only shows ignoring or disputing facts by the Left).  On the other hand, on climate, Stern notes that Democrats frequently exaggerate that science and, more importantly, imagine it dictates a particular policy outcome, and, even more importantly, grossly exaggerate the immediate and long-term dangers, which Stern does not hesitate to call “alarmism.”  Citing a Yale study, Stern notes that in eighty years, “the cost of climate change [is estimated to] ‘represent the difference between the world being 6.5 times wealthier than in 2015 or 6.7 times wealthier.’ ”  Meanwhile, the same people starved by Capital City in the previous chapter are further starved by Obama’s promise to “bankrupt” all the coal companies that offer the only jobs in town, in order to address the threat of global warming, and anyway the owners of all those companies have always been absentee landlords who take the wealth to the big towns.  “I always thought it was the Democrats who were supposed to stand up for people without power, but it sure doesn’t look that way from Pikeville [Kentucky].  If there were a place where I started thinking the title of this book should be ‘Independent Like Me,’ that place would be Pikeville.”

And this chapter segues nicely into the next, on science more broadly (this is actually where Stern visits the “Creation Museum”).  He points out that young Earth creationism is believed in by 52 percent of Republicans.  And by 33 percent of Democrats.  Even more heretically, he notes that while creationism is scientific bunk, it has no deleterious consequences on broader society, unlike scientific bunk beloved by liberals, such as the belief that GMO food has any dangers at all, which belief starves people to death, or the belief fracking causes environmental harm (something he points out even Obama’s notoriously politicized EPA rejected), the banning of which would only harm the poor and hugely increase carbon dioxide emissions.

Finally, Stern covers poverty, in essence admitting that conservatives were right when they wanted to tie welfare to work, and that the War on Poverty’s $22 trillion spend has been a failure.  Not that conservative panaceas are the answer, whether block grants (susceptible to government incompetence which is just as prevalent on the local as the federal levels) or tax cutting (citing Sam Brownback’s recent dismal failure in Kansas, which I don’t know a ton about but strikes me as a powerful indictment of Heritage Foundation orthodoxy).  Here, Stern seems to be reaching toward the idea that those who today run the Republican Party are selling what nobody is buying—a keen truth, as can be seen by the mewling flailing this week of Jeff Flake, who loathes the vainglorious Trump yet can only offer emasculated zombie Reaganism to those masses left out of the American Dream.  The deeper you dig, the more Stern seems to be coming around to an educated, sophisticated form of Trumpism without Trump—not orthodox Chamber of Commerce Republicanism, not social conservatism, but not orthodox Democratic policy either, or social liberalism.

Coming full circle to his theme of division, Stern examines the media, admitting that the mainstream media is liberal.  He does claim that when he was at NPR everyone bent over backward to be fair, which any casual listen to any politically oriented issue covered by NPR over the past twenty years would disprove immediately—and which statement he immediately undermines by saying that as NPR CEO, “From time to time I would urge the NPR newsroom, which was deeply interested in fostering gender and racial diversity, to add political and geographic diversity to the agenda as well.  No one ever disagreed with that notion, but no one ever did anything, either.”  He half endorses, or at least doesn’t outright reject, Andrew Breitbart’s view of leftist domination of “schools, newspapers, network news, art, music, film, and television” as “the Complex,” which “controlled the very information and ideas available to society.”  But he (correctly) views Breitbart as a major progenitor of today’s media nastiness, and draws a strongly unfavorable personal picture of James O’Keefe, famous for his “sting” videos of various leftist wrongdoing.  Given Stern’s fairness, I’m sure his picture is accurate as to O’Keeefe’s personality—one of the tragedies of increasing polarization on the Right is the easy acceptance of dubious personalities and bad character.  In fairness, such characters have always been accepted on the Left, hewing to the ancient doctrine of “no enemies on the Left,” such that they are still supported to do their dirty work, even if sometimes not admitted to Upper East Side salons.  I bet you can’t name me a single figure ever expelled from the Left as too radical (nice to see you today, Bill Ayers!) while I can reel off twenty or thirty conservatives expelled from the Right.  Stern also interviews Steve Bannon and discusses the Gracchi, to whom Bannon introduced him; two brothers who were murdered populists of the late Roman Republic, who Stern sees as possibly relevant to today, which I agree with (although, not to cavil, but Stern incorrectly calls their followers, not the brothers, the “Gracchi,” and says it’s they were prominent in “middle epoch of the Roman Empire” in 133 B.C., which is just wrong on every level—what happened to editors who know any history?).

Naturally enough, Stern closes with complaints about the demonization of political opponents—but, perhaps inadvertently, only cites liberal demonization of conservatives, giving a variety of hair-raising examples (several tied to the comments section of the NYT).  But he doesn’t end there—he cites social science research not only on how easily we divide into “us” and “them” on the most trivial of grounds, but also how, with just a little exposure to what others think and why, we can coalesce again.  He channels (and cites) Yuval Levin on our commonalities outweighing our divisions, and sums up his book by saying “it is about the belief that no one has a monopoly on wisdom and that we would all be far better off doing a little less finger-pointing and a little more listening to the other side.”  Certainly this is true, although it glosses over various other problems, such as rise of aggressive emotivism as a substitute for reasoning, leading to a much lower level of quality of discourse than in prior periods of intense division.

Whether or not Stern’s book will accomplish his purpose, I can’t tell.  But it certainly can’t hurt.  People on the Right, especially Breitbart types, should read this so they understand that many on the Left are good people trying to build bridges, not the caricatures fed to them by the websites they choose to frequent.  People on the Left should read this to understand much the same thing, as well as to re-evaluate their position on issues they may not have truly examined.  I certainly hope that this book gets traction; America will be better for it.

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One Comment

  1. Charles – where do you find these gems…? And why are not more people reading your blog….!? 🙂

    This is yet another insightful review from you about people working to understand what ails our country (from across the political divide).

    Here’s an interesting article discussing the recent Pew survey of political divides – though since it’s in the Washington Post it of course only discusses the divides on the right!

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2017/10/26/daily-202-the-gop-civil-war-is-bigger-than-trump-a-new-study-shows-deep-fissures-on-policy/59f0eb7230fb045cba000a43/

    Keep up the great work!

    Let’s figure out how to reach more people!!!

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