Editor’s Note: Four years ago, NextTribe co-founder Jeannie Ralston sat down with a friend who voted for Trump. Even then, she believed we had to treat each other with respect and compassion if we were going to keep the country on an even keel. We’re re-running the story that explores the gap between liberal vs conservative views, as we prepare for a new era and for our own NextTribe event called Women Lead the Healing.
For the past year—maybe longer—I’ve had this annoying voice in my head. Whenever I’ve gotten outraged about politics or Trump or injustice, which is often, and wanted to throw dishes and call people names, the little voice has told me that I should be more open minded, that I should reach out to find common ground. I’ll talk back to it—always a problem!—and remind it that no one reached out to Democrats during Obama’s years. No one tried to be open minded about my views.
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But this little voice is my better self and, damn, it’s persistent. So to shut it up (and, yes, to do the right thing), I asked an articulate friend of mine, Karen Hoghaug, from the other side of the political spectrum if we could have a conversation about finding common ground in these intensely partisan times.
It’s easy to paint the other side as demons from afar; not so much when you’re across the dining room table from each other. I knew I could talk to her because she’s a good sport (she cracked up over a line in a story I wrote that made fun of one of her wacky right-winger habits—boycotting Heinz ketchup).
The mother of four, Karen has a law degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia and lives with her family in my hometown, Dripping Springs, Texas. I think (hope) she realizes I can be a good sport about politics as well; after a visit to China I brought her back a tote bag with Obama in a Mao hat and jacket above the words, “Oba-mao,” because I knew she’d like it.
I’m a liberal who was raised in a conservative family. Karen was also raised in a conservative family and says that as she’s gotten older she’s moved toward a more conservative libertarian viewpoint. Here is an edited version of our enlightening 90-minute political conversation, during which no voices were raised, no plates shattered.
Please know that we weren’t debating, so I’m sure there are arguments we each could have made to advance our side more forcefully. The point was to gain a better understanding of women who voted differently than we did in November and how to co-exist more peacefully and constructively in the days ahead. Do try this at home. Maybe our political conversation will inspire you to attempt this with someone from the other side as well. As a precaution, though, hide the knives.
Liberal Vs Conservative Views: Wrestling with Stereotypes
JR: So let’s start with stereotypes. What stereotype about conservatives do you want to shed light on?
KH: There’s a stereotype out there that conservatives are cold and heartless and don’t care about the poor. This dovetails into another question about how to find common ground, and I think we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt that as conservatives and liberals we both want what’s best. Our disagreements aren’t about wanting to help somebody or wanting clean water, they’re about the role of government in that and how do we go about doing that. I would ask you as a liberal to give me the benefit of the doubt that just because I disagree on a policy, like minimum wage, doesn’t mean I don’t care. And I’d give you the benefit of the doubt that you care just as deeply about things as I do.
I think we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt that as conservatives and liberals we both want what’s best. Our disagreements are about the role of government in that.
JR: The stereotypes about liberals that I don’t like is that we’re godless or all atheists or heathens. A lot of liberals I know are churchgoing, strong believers. I was raised Catholic and go to a Presbyterian church now. I care deeply about what the Bible says and about treating people with respect and love. It irks me no end when conservatives act as if they have a monopoly on religion.
KH: Another stereotype that bothers me is that conservatives are a bunch of dumb, redneck hicks. And I know liberals get the bubblehead accusation. We need to debunk that idea–that the other side is stupid. We both have stupid people on our side and we both have people that make our side look bad.
JR: So you’re saying if we’re going to advance our cause, maybe we should promote what we think is good about our policies or cause, not denigrate the other side.
KH: Exactly. Stop the ad hominem attacks on the other side.
The Really Sticky Stuff: Feminism and Abortion
Karen labels herself a conservative feminist, a term I had never heard before. Her definition of this is that she believes in many of the same ideas as traditional feminists: voting rights, the right to own property, equal treatment under the law, for instance. She believes that women should feel safe–not being beaten by their husbands, for example–and shouldn’t be subservient. Indeed, even in her conservative family, she was raised to be able to take care of herself and not to rely on a man.
Our talk about abortion was wide-ranging but boiled down to her fervent belief that life begins at conception.
The main—and some would say disqualifying—difference is that she is pro-life. “I think abortion is harmful to women,” she says. “As far as the psychological effects. But also if you look at the worldwide difference in the number of girls aborted every year versus the number of boys. They’re killing baby girls.” Our talk about abortion was wide-ranging but boiled down to her fervent belief that life begins at conception. After I explained my position—that abortion is awful and we should do everything we can to prevent it, such as making contraceptives more accessible, but that it is essential that women control what happens inside their bodies, with reasonable limits—she offered insight into her thinking. I was especially curious to learn how she explained what seemed like an inconsistency in her libertarian, get-the-government-off-our-back viewpoint.
“How do I rationalize regulation on abortion? I look at individual rights from a libertarian perspective,” she says. “I have the right to do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t infringe on someone else. When I look at abortion, that’s infringing on someone else—the baby. That’s the dividing line. Do people have the freedom to do drugs? Yeah. I don’t think they should. I think it’s stupid. Legally, should the government restrict that? No. And people say, ‘Oh that’s just the caveat the libertarians throw to the liberals.’ No, I genuinely believe as a libertarian that we have the rights and the responsibilities for our own lives. And my rights stop when they affect others. That includes abortion.”
The Environment and the Role of Government
JR: OK, for me the biggest issue today is the environment. What’s the biggest issue for you?
KH: It’s the overwhelming growth and intrusion of the government in my life. Of course, we want the best for people, but from the libertarian viewpoint, we think it’s not always the government’s job to do this. I mean, I want clean water and clean air, and I want to leave a world that’s nice for my kids and grandkids. But I look at it like this: Is this something that local communities and governments and churches should do?
JR: But there are things that are so big that the federal government has to get involved in. For instance, if we left environmental policy to the states or small communities, there would be certain states or communities that didn’t care as much, but nevertheless everyone else’s air and water are impacted.
What I see unfortunately is that traditionally corporations and companies want to spend as little money as possible doing good for the environment. They’ve got the profit motive.
KH: I think things start with personal responsibility, with everyone being a good steward of their property. Educating people is important, like letting them know about the huge island of trash out in the Pacific, but when you’re looking at it from a policy perspective, other things come into play. Restrictions on the coal industry, for instance. You have to balance those restrictions with the jobs that are lost. When you’re talking about it from a political standpoint, you can over-regulate it to the point that there are other unintended consequences.
That’s where I’m trying to find the common ground. If you don’t agree with my way of helping the poor versus your way of helping the poor, that’s one thing. We can disagree on the how, but we shouldn’t be accusatory about it.
JR: What I see unfortunately is that individuals might be good stewards of their property, but traditionally corporations and companies want to spend as little money as possible doing good for the environment. They’ve got the profit motive.
JR: This discussion leads to another big issue for me: income inequality. I mean if corporations would do the right thing and act like responsible citizens, I think we wouldn’t have so much trouble. It used to be that it was unseemly for CEOs to make ungodly amounts more than their average worker. I think that changed in the 80s. I think if we leave people to their own devices, a lot are going to take whatever they can for themselves and not give back to the poor. I think that’s where in my mind the government has a role in being a leader.
KH: But how do you regulate that?
JR: Maybe there are ways to regulate it. I don’t know. But that drives me, thinking about people who work two or three jobs. They can’t get ahead or they don’t have health coverage for their kids. In my mind, the way we treat our kids says so much about our country. If nothing else, let’s make sure the kids are OK. Yes, there are churches and my church does a lot. I volunteered at a food kitchen for a while. I just think there’s a limit to what churches and nonprofits can do.
To me, I think we should look to local resources, such as churches and communities, before everyone jumps to, “The government is the answer.”
KH: Ok, let’s say we have a family in Dripping Springs that’s not making it. Where does the responsibility of helping to lift them up start? To me, I think we should look to local resources, such as churches and communities, before everyone jumps to, “The government is the answer.” There are certain spheres we know the government needs to handle. Like defense. Air traffic control. The interstate system. In other areas, we the people can address problems and not yield our personal sovereignty to someone else. You’ve got a company that you think doesn’t treat its employees well, then you organize a boycott until it treats its employees better.
JR: How do we make corporations better citizens? I wish there was more of a feeling of holding them accountable. I think companies used to be integral parts of the community.
KH: You go into any town and you’ve got your Walmart, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Target. We have culturally shifted to having such big national entities as opposed to smaller mom-and-pop businesses in the past. The bigger you get the more you lose touch with the local community. I don’t know how you change that or regulate that. It has to be a cultural shift. But I do believe that more regulation doesn’t help—it actually creates an environment that hurts small businesses because only the big guys can keep up with all the regulations, and that leads to more crony capitalism, which I think we all dislike.
JR: OK, now we have to talk about Trump. You told me you supported Cruz in the primaries, so what do you think of Trump?
KH: Let’s see. Should I start with the positive or the negative? Here’s what I like about him: He holds his ground on issues. One of my disappointments in the Republican party in the past 20 to 30 years is people not having the hutzpah to stand up and say, “No this is where the line is and we’re not going to cave on this.”
I’m an absolutist when it comes to the first amendment. And as a proponent of free speech, I think we should not get so easily offended.
Trump campaigned that he was going to repeal and replace Obamacare and he’s actually in the first 100 days taking steps to do that. Sometimes I think politicians pander—of course, everyone panders; I like that he doesn’t sugarcoat stuff. Sometimes I go, “Whoa, that’s a little too much.” So, what I don’t like about him? Did he make some ugly comments about women? Yeah. Do I think he can act like a 2-year-old spoiled kid sometimes? Yeah. I agree with that personal criticism. Politically, I’m concerned about the whole trade thing. Proceed with caution. I’m a big free trade person.
JR: One thing that really freaks me out is his having the nuclear codes. You have two sons; I have two sons. I worry about what kind of weird wars we could be drawn into when he’s acting so crazy. That goes to my scariest place.
KH: But as he’s transitioned from Trump the candidate into Trump the president, I’ve seen him level out a little. On the campaign trail, you’re supposed to be fired up: ”We’re against the establishment,” and all that. But what I’ve seen of his demeanor in the last two to three months, there’s been a mellowing of that somewhat.
JR: As a journalist, what also freaks me out is the fake news and alternative facts. Everyone says you shouldn’t go right to a Hitler comparison, but really that’s how authoritarians work. They start obscuring the truth and undermining who you can trust.
KH: Yes, we’ve all seen that. We’ve watched the Hunger Games and read 1984. We understand that controlling the message is important. He’s got a certain amount of frustration with the media, and I understand that to some degree, being that most everyone in the media is liberal.
JR: But wait, no. I know people say the media lies. And I’ll be the first to say that the media has a lot of sins. Journalists like to go after bright, shiny things. They go for the drama and the horse race. I will not defend TV news, but as far as print journalism—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal—those publications are trying really hard to get to the truth and be objective. Is there any true objectivity? No. We all bring our biases. But I think those journalists are doing a good job. If there’s a lie or mistake in a story, they’ll correct it. But now there’s such confusion about what’s real news and what’s not. That could take us into scary places.
KH: Oh yeah. To me, the best antidote to fake news is getting the truth out there. I’m an absolutist when it comes to the first amendment. Absolutely freedom of speech. If someone is putting something out there that’s not true, the best way to counter it is by offering up evidence. And as a proponent of free speech, I think we should not get so easily offended. Things get blown out of proportion. The immediate response is anger. I would rather we think: You care about this and I care about this and even if we don’t get the government involved, what can we do?
My suggestion to people on the other side is to not take advances for granted, such as the opportunities women have, our beautiful environment.
JR: As far as finding common ground, my suggestion to people on the other side is to not take advances for granted, such as the opportunities women have, our clean beautiful environment. I’d say please realize that there was a time when we didn’t have all this.
A lot of advantages women have now—more access to education, the freedom to rise in their careers to the very top. Those have come from the women’s movement, the Democratic party. It’s liberals who have pushed for women’s rights, civil rights, environmental protection. Let’s look at the progress that’s been made and not immediately think that Democrats are trying to take the country into heathen territory. There are times when pushing needs to be done to get things accomplished, to get things changed, to make the country more fair for everyone.