Union: A Democrat, A Republican, and a Search for Common Ground

A Conversation with Co-Authors Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh

In late April 2020, I sat down (over Zoom, of course) with co-authors Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh to discuss their forthcoming book Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground. Written over a period of three years, Union showcases the power of bridging across divides, as Chris and Jordan wrestle with their friendship despite their political differences.

Chris and Jordan first met at Yale Law School in the fall of 2015. Although they both originally hail from California, they took very different paths to get to New Haven. Jordan is a Republican and former Marine infantry officer, who served five years with two combat tours overseas; Chris is a Democrat and speechwriter, who worked as an intern in the Obama White House, before joining the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff.

Union is a story about their differences, but also the deeper commonalities that transcend those differences. During the 2016 election, the unlikely pair set out in Jordan’s banged-up Volvo to see the country from a fresh perspective, through each other’s eyes. Along the way, Jordan and Chris debated issues that are typically fueled by partisan rancor, tackling everything from climate change and the environment to the opioid crisis and criminal justice, law enforcement, faith, even the southern border. Yet, they also learned powerful lessons about friendship, humility, grace, and common ground.

From the outset of reading Union, the overlap with Ditchley, its mission and its work, was clear. Part of Ditchley’s approach is to build common ground to help move towards solutions to complex problems. We believe that change is driven by personal relationships, not reports or declarations. We are dedicated to creating space and time for deep reflection, sharing ideas and making new connections across divides at a time where our systems find this difficult and our challenges are interconnected.

It was therefore a welcome surprise when we first learned about this new book. The lessons and stories in the book are valuable and timely reminders as we reflect on the experiences that can either connect or separate people as we all work through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is the first in a series of podcasts that we will be leading with outstanding individuals whose work focuses on various aspects of the renewal of democracies.

The text that follows is a condensed version of my interview with Jordan and Chris.

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Emerson: There could be no better start than a discussion between two individuals who have recently written a book called Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground.

Having read the book, it’s rich and nuanced in its storytelling. It has a journalistic, reporting feel. But it’s also entertaining and reads very much like a novel. The heartfelt nature of the writing, as well as the importance of bridging divides, is even more important right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is quite a timely book.

I would like to discuss a number of points in the book – on friendship, the significance of work in our lives, solitude, and the language of common ground. As a first question though, when thinking about the pandemic and Western societies, how would you say the pandemic has impacted the way you think about divides?

Jordan: The pandemic has caused a bimodal reaction. On the one hand, we now face a common enemy and, as we have in the past, we are united in the fight again that common enemy. On the other hand, we are also seeing polarization and political divides seep into the discourse about how to respond to the coronavirus.

We’re all susceptible to biases and tribalism, and we can see how political views shape what we think should happen. In the US, we have a fierce debate breaking out about whether we should end lockdowns because jobs are at stake, or we should keep the lockdowns because the risk is too high to older populations. Ill-intentions are imputed on the other side; we don’t trust each other’s motivations.

In the end though, we all share the same values around protecting lives and protecting livelihoods. Watching this debate, I find myself drawn back to the themes in our book – that we have to find a way to trust the other side if we hope to figure out what is right, what is true.

Chris: I think one of the most essential things is our ability to understand one another. Writing this book, we had to be able to spend time together, which allowed us to learn from the other’s perspective. I fear that a lot of the partisanship, a lot of the worst we are seeing in the country and around the globe, is largely due to the fact that we’re stuck at home and we can’t exchange in the same ways as we could before.

Emerson: On the topic of friendship – throughout your road trip, there were times when you each wounded each other through different arguments. Each time you managed to recover, and your friendship grew stronger as a result. How has the writing of Union impacted your definition of friendship?

Jordan: Writing Union taught me that the most powerful friendships are ones where you can be fully yourself. There is no need to hold back your views, because you know the person on the other side understands at a very deep level your core values and understands the best of who you are.

A lot of the journey in the book is getting to that point. It didn’t happen right away; we were new friends when the book started, so it took years in the car together, having long conversations and working through those disagreements to build that solid foundation.

We still don’t agree on most political issues. Yet we have such faith in each other’s deepest core convictions. To me, it’s the most heartening, comforting thing in the world to have a friend to turn to in that sense. No matter what happens, that underlying bond is unshakable.

Chris:  I would say that through the writing of Union, I realized how strong friendships are, but also how much maintenance they require. On the road, we found so much deeper connection that we created a bond which could transcend even our worst political battles.

At the same time, when you have a friendship like this, it requires maintenance. It’s a fun kind of maintenance. The book helped us do that by giving us an excuse to carve out time in our busy professional lives to say: “How are you doing? I miss you. What are you thinking? What is inspiring you these days? What is angering you?” That process of continually coming back to the table enriches those bonds and keeps them strong.

Emerson: How do people overcome labels? Whether it is Left or Right, socioeconomic or geographical? How are we best able to overcome perceived differences?

Jordan: The answer that we came to is, first, that it’s hard. We are tribal by nature, so those feelings are always going to come up. At the same time, we came to believe that whatever label we use to identify someone is probably not how that person self-identifies – or at least it’s not the most important part of their identity.

I’m a Republican, but it’s maybe twentieth on the list of things that I would point to that identify who I am at the most core level. I know the same is true about Chris. So, the first step is to have some humility about judging people based on labels or groups they are a part of.

One anecdote that really drove this home for us was when we spent a week in a long-haul truck with a man named Peter Mylen. When we first met Pete, he was wearing a red “Make American Great, Again” t-shirt. We assumed he must identify with the MAGA movement. Yet, if we had kept that assumption, we would have missed the most important aspects of Pete, which only came out later as we spent days on the road together learning about what his values.

It turned out, Pete held complex, nuanced views on politics. More importantly, he was a family man who cared deeply about providing for his loved ones, doing his job well, and serving society. These were the things that we came to identify with him. The MAGA label was very low on the list of things we would say really defined this person.

Emerson: After arguments you had on the road, some that could have torn you apart, there were simple words of “I love you” that seemed to be help get you through it. What would you say are the roles of love and grace in friendship?

Chris: We found that they’re critical. Those words were totems that allowed us to heal after we may have hurt one another. When it comes to finding common ground, love comes from the deeper, shared values that go beyond how someone votes, or what job they might have.

Grace is something we also thought a lot about throughout our journey, especially toward the end of the book as we got to Tulsa and Detroit. These cities in the United States are dealing with really violent, inequal histories. Speaking with people who were working on and mending those wounds, the word “grace” always came up. The ones who seemed most committed to the project of healing exhibited a deep sense of grace.

Grace is a largeness of spirit that was so important to us, especially when we were fighting about a political or policy issue. It was those magic words of “I love you man,” or “You still mean so much to me, but I might need a minute.” We tried to exhibit even a small amount of the grace that we saw around the country amongst the people who are doing such amazing work.

Emerson: On the topic of work, you mentioned the story of Pete earlier. Describing his work as truck driver, you wrote: “It requires finesse, a good team of labour and experience, know-how is the tried and true method of fitting a tricycle in snugly beside a toaster oven.”

What Pete teach you about how society values a person’s work?

Jordan: I think that we don’t always take full measure of a certain occupation’s worth to the country because it’s not as visible, or it’s not as lucrative. At its worst, this overlooks the contribution that certain professions have to society.

Our takeaway from being on the road was that most people just want to have a sense of dignity. They want to be respected for the work they do and feel that their contributions to society are valued. I think Pete really drove that home to us.

Truck drivers make our economy hum, and without them commerce would grind to a halt. I think they have been heroes in the coronavirus situation as they bring critical goods to cities that are under siege, as Chris put it. New York is a hot-spot and yet truckers are continuously bringing us goods that are needed to survive. It’s a hard job.

The dominant narrative about truck driving today is about AI taking away jobs. And yet, when we were out on the road, we could see how important the human side of it is. Pete packs up people’s homes and moves their belongings across the country. It’s a very delicate thing. You have to give people trust that their most prized possessions will be transported with care, and Pete thrives on that human connection.

Yet, that skill is discounted when people say, “Well, it’s easy for AI to drive trucks, so truck-driving jobs are going to go away.” It makes it feel like this role, and the expertise that Pete has built up over forty years on the road, is dispensable.

Chris: I would add that one of our only ways of remedying this dignity deficit is telling the story of someone like Pete. There is a dignity deficit in this country over ‘low-skilled’ labour. If we learned anything from Pete, it was how impressive he is, and how hard that job was. We learned the same thing about all kinds of different employment, and what I found most surprising is that discounting of that kind of work was coming from all kinds of places.

Yet, everywhere we went we saw intellect, we saw deep caring, we saw moral people. One of the most thoughtful conversations we heard was at Parnall prison outside of Detroit, where a group of inmates were doing scene analysis on King Lear. I can tell you that that conversation rivalled any conversation I had in an English class at Berkeley, in a microeconomics class at Oxford. Despite not having formal education, these men were getting to the bottom of really complicated issues. Everywhere we went, we saw people like this with hidden talents and hidden wells of ability that deserve dignity.

Emerson: How can we better tell these kinds of stories, particularly around work?

Chris: The book has convinced me that journalists owe the modern world a tripling-down on their professional ethic. I think that over the centuries, journalists have been developing a code of conduct that too many of us stray from, but that in this day and age we need more than ever.

We tried very hard to allow the voices of the people who we met along the way take precedence over any prior that we brought to the conversation. We wanted to make sure that those priors were explicit, and that you knew who we were and where we were coming from. But you know that when Pete is talking, or Mimi who runs a prison diversion program in Tulsa, or Nelson who is in Tijuana on his way to cross the US-Mexican border into California – that these people, their voices, took centre stage. We were listeners, we were witnesses, but they were the true protagonists of these tales.

Emerson: One of the stories in the book that really resonated with me was one in Mexico, with Nelson, who you describe as “a short Salvadoran with a goatee, and a grey Dodgers hat worn backwards.”

At one point, Nelson says: “So many things have happened to me. But I don’t want to forget any of it. That keeps me going. That reminds me of why I’m doing this, why I keep going, why I’m fighting. My mom – she’s why I keep going. That’s why I don’t go to the club, or drink; I don’t want to lose these thoughts. I don’t want to forget my family. I can’t forget them.” Family does come up over the course of the book in your discussions and there is a portion that talks about the American Dream.

How has the writing of the book and your own travels across the United States, impacted how you both think about aspiration and the American Dream?

Jordan: The American Dream is a through line in the book, in part because we found it coming up again and again with everyone we talked to.

Whether it was with military veterans who were searching for community; or Nelson in Tijuana who wanted to get to the US; or Pete, who wanted the freedom to pursue his dreams; or inmates in Detroit who wanted to make themselves better to re-enter society. In one way or another, all of them touched on the American Dream.

One takeaway I had was that no matter who we talked to, each person had a different view on the American Dream. We couldn’t find a unifying definition of it. And that’s okay. It is a complex mosaic that takes the aspirations of all of us and brings it together in this beautiful sense that over time, each generation gets to pursue its own version of the American Dream. And while it will always look different, both across generations and across people, there is something intangible that still drives us to aspire to something more for our lives, for our family. I think we saw that in everyone.

Emerson: What would you say is the role of solitude, silence, and patience in building common ground between people? Just as you talked about words of love throughout the book, silence always seemed to play a role in the bridging of divides.

Chris: Silence was essential to our pursuit of common ground. Silence usually came after our biggest, most heated arguments. It was an essential reset moment. It was when we were able to expedite the process of going from anger to self-righteousness to maybe a bit of guilt, wondering whether this person sitting next to me in this car deserved a little better. The silence was when we were able to be with our thoughts and go through a period of self-analysis, rediscovering empathy and love.

Emerson: What would you hope others are thinking about right now in terms of bridging divides, so that we can come out of this pandemic stronger than we are right now?

Jordan: I would hope that people do two things. One is to question their priors. I think this is a moment to reconsider with humility some of our deeply held beliefs. We might learn that there is insight or a bit of truth on the other side.

And second, it’s just a great time to remember that we are all human. We all share the same fears, we all want to get out of this. Whatever other value differences we have, we all want to get through this with as little loss of life and as much economic recovery as possible. It’s a great moment to recognize that, in a hard time, the big things can still unite us.

Emerson: What would you guys say you have taken from the experience that you have taken into your professional careers?

Chris: I had a mentor in grad school who told me as a journalist, “You have to go to the source, you have to go to the scene and see it for yourself.” And out of reporting in Union, I really realized how essential that is. I mean, a lot of journalists, myself included, will write stories from their desk. They might make a few phone calls, and those are good stories, often. But if you want to get to the heart of the matter you have to get there. I think that this will be more relevant than ever in the post coronavirus world.

Emerson: Jordan?

Jordan: I think Chris and I were able to find areas of common ground or agreement that turned out to be really rich areas of opportunity for action.

One specific example is around criminal justice. We found that it was one area that united us powerfully. We were seeing that across both sides of the aisle there was agreement that something is wrong, that people didn’t really have a second chance coming out of prison.

Seeing that there was a huge opportunity for alignment around a specific issue, I went to my team and my boss and said, “You know, I think this is a moment where we can make a huge change in the criminal justice system,” and after doing some initial work we ended up creating an initiative that put money behind this open data platform for the criminal justice system that was able to attract bipartisan funding. In the end, we raised millions of dollars and are now operating in over twenty-five states. The real insight was that was this nascent common ground on an issue, and that meant there was a massive opportunity for change.

Abstracted to the country at large, we spend so much time fixated on the things where we disagree and all of our effort is put into those battles. We are locked into this hyper-polarized state. And yet there are these issues that we do all agree on, that are high-opportunity if people just focused and concentrated their efforts there. That is a lesson I will take going forward, to always find those areas of opportunity because we both agree.

Emerson: So, to finish up, last question – what are the next steps on the book between now and publication?

Chris: The book comes out July 21st. We are pushing hard to get its message out there. The more people who order the book, the larger the megaphone we have for this message of hope and understanding that we not only think is important – but is something that we believe America is ready for coming out of this moment.

Emerson: Thank you both very much for the excellent conversation.