Out in the Open

What a lifelong Democrat learned from a year trying to live like a Republican

From pig hunting to Tea Party meetings, for one year former NPR CEO Ken Stern immersed himself in the conservative culture he and his Democratic circles mocked. By the end of his undercover operation, he had left the Democratic Party.

From pig hunting to Tea Party meetings, former NPR CEO Ken Stern immersed himself in conservative culture

Ken Stern burst his liberal bubble and took a deep dive into Republican culture. (Griffin Greenberg)
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Ken Stern did not expect to enjoy pig hunting in Texas.

As the former head of NPR, he did not expect to find common ground with the people of evangelical churches or eastern Kentucky coal mines. And he did not expect to renounce his Democratic membership.  

But after a year immersed in Republican culture, Stern learned life on the other side of the political divide is far from how it's depicted — a problem he pins on a polarized media landscape, and the very institutions he formerly called home.

'Virtually everyone in the mainstream media is on one side of the political landscape and not the other.' - Ken Stern

'Hobart Street Pledge'

Ken Stern's neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, in Washington, D.C., is overwhelmingly Democratic. 

"Everyone I knew within that bubble in my little neighborhood of Mount Pleasant agreed with each other," he told Out in The Open's Piya Chattopadhyay.

But Stern became increasingly suspicious that this civility was not extended to his Republican neighbours.

A mean joke at Mount Pleasant's annual summertime street festival was evidence of a double standard.

Before the parade, community members were asked to take the "Hobart Street Pledge". It promises to welcome all on Hobart Street — man or woman, gay or straight, white or black — "everyone, except Republicans," said Stern.

​"We don't want our kids to marry someone of the other political stripe. It's the new Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Researching further, Stern found political affiliation to be a defining source of division in America.

"In the United States, it really divides who we think we are and who we think 'the others' are."

Inspired to bridge the gap, Stern embarked on a year-long quest to immerse himself in the conservative culture about which he had strong opinions, yet knew little about. 

Stern met an outpouring of kindness at URBANA, the evangelical youth conference. (Paul M. Walsh/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

Preconceived notions

A gathering of 15,000 evangelical youths was quite a culture shock for Stern. So was pit-level NASCAR, Tea Party meetings and sitting in on Steve Bannon's radio show.

"I did a lot of different things which I hoped cumulatively over the course of the year would amount to really trying to see things from the other side. And some of that was just changing my media mix. A lot of time with Fox News, National Review, Brietbart."

Amid all that change, Stern's main challenge was leaving his biases behind. He wanted to be open minded and welcome viewpoints that opposed his own.

He did that by listening.

"It was … a lesson in what you can learn if you listen rather than talk … I learned a lot that made me question my beliefs."

People wanted to tell me how they felt locked out of the national mainstream media.

Not that Stern didn't enjoy the conversation. He took great pleasure in getting to know Republican voters personally. Until then, he knew them mostly as statistics, figures and sound bites.

"They're talking about their story and their narrative and what they care about. And when you hear where they're coming from, it's often easy to relate to them in ways that it's impossible do when it's just an abstraction."

And the conservatives Stern met certainly wanted to talk to him, particularly about the media. As a former public radio executive, he offered direct access to a system they had come to hate.

"People wanted to tell me how they felt locked out of the national mainstream media conversation … when they were reported on, they felt like they were specimens in a psychological study — not partners in the exercise."

More than 65 per cent of American voters think there is "a lot" of fake news in the mainstream media, according to a poll released last year. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

After speaking to enough conservatives, Stern began to see a problem of liberal leanings in the newsroom.

At the evangelical youth rally, Stern was immersed in intense discussion on racial equity and refugees — how to help them, not how to kick them out.

Why hadn't the mainstream captured the generosity and progressive ideas of this community?

Why was an open mind denied to all those affiliated with America's right-wing party?

There was one glaring structural issue that seemed to explain it.  

Divided media

In an article he wrote for the New York Post, Stern cited a Pew Research Center Poll that shows liberals in the media outnumber conservatives five to one.

In the controversial article, he argued this imbalance contributes to "groupthink" in mainstream organizations, with liberals giving preference to stories that reaffirm their beliefs. 

"Virtually everyone in the mainstream media is on one side of the political landscape and not the other," he told Chattopadhyay.

Stern was criticized for failing to recognize the community reporting done by journalists who actively engage with Republican communities. Critics felt that Stern's Democratic bubble and executive status divided him from this world.

Yet Stern said he was misunderstood. His issue is not with individual reporters, but the numbers on the whole. A lack of conservative voices makes for one-sided discussion.

"We would never think about covering race issues with only whites, no matter how good a journalist we are. Or gender issues with only men, no matter how committed to the craft of journalism they are. We can't really be covering politics with people from one side no matter how dedicated, how honest, they are."

Hillary Clinton characterized Trump supporters as "deplorables" in the run up to the 2016 election. Media on both the right and the left amplified the divisive comment. (Reuters)

Stern maintains that both conservative and liberal news outlets contribute to the increasing divisiveness in American politics.

Whether hearing about "deplorables" on MSNBC, or "American traitors" on Fox News, both sides have a habit of portraying the other as the enemy.

"We're right, they're wrong. And that's the end of the story — which is actually a tagline for a conservative radio show that I listened to for a while," said Stern. 

"We are artificially divided. Media divides us. Politics divides us."

Ken Stern's book "Republican Like Me" documents his time living as a Republican. (Harper Collins)

A third way

By the end of his foray in conservative life, Stern discovered one thing supporters of both Republicans and Democrats can agree on: neither group is properly represented in the political system.

He believes the rise of Donald Trump is a symptomatic of the nation-wide feeling of being left out of the conversation.

"Neither parties are big-tent parties; they are narrow, and leave a lot of people searching for answers. And I identify with that now."

When Stern started his experiment, he dropped his Democratic membership and joined the Republican Party. He didn't know where his allegiances would be at the end of it, but he kept an open mind.

At the end of that year — after considerable research, debate and conversation — Stern landed somewhere in the middle.

"I didn't actually expect this. I went out a Democrat, spent a year as a Republican, and when I came back I re-registered as an Independent — which by the way is the most worthless vote in America, in Washington, D.C., which is a single-party city — but to me it said, 'wait a minute, there's a third way out there.' I want to be part of that."

This story originally aired on March 4, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Crossing Divides".