Former NPR CEO Ken Stern: 2016 Election Was About ‘Real Anger and Sense of Abandonment’ from Middle America

Former National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on Friday’s Breitbart News Daily to talk about his new book Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.

Stern described himself as a “lifelong Democrat” who “spent time in Democratic politics, ran NPR,” and “lived in a 93 percent Democratic ward in a 100 percent Democratic household.” Concern for the increasing political polarization of the country led him on a journey into red-state America to take a clear look at the other side of the political divide.

He said his “a-ha!” moment was the latest version of a pledge recited annually by children at a block party in his D.C. neighborhood: “All are welcome here on Hobart Street, man or woman, gay or straight, white or black – everyone but Republicans.”

“It was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke,” he said. “It really signified, I think, how people are starting to feel about side. For me it said, you know what, something’s got to change, at least for me. I live in a Democratic bubble. I need to get out there and meet the other half of America and see if they are ‘deplorables,’ or if they are Americans like me. That’s really what this year is about.”

Stern said NPR is “different from other media organizations” because its staff lives across the entire country, rather than being concentrated in a few media and political hubs.

“The New York Times, based in New York, 90 percent of their staff will be in New York. NPR is actually a membership organization with stations across the country. So it is actually unusual in the sense that it does have representation across the country,” he explained.

“I think the challenge, and I sort of challenged this week in the New York Post, is that even though they are geographically distributed, they – like most mainstream journalist organizations – draw from a pool of largely liberal people,” he continued. “When that happens you risk groupthink, you risk thinking about what stories are important that really don’t represent the rest of the country as a whole.”

Stern contended that “bubbling” has become a bipartisan phenomenon, “because we are so politically vulcanized – Democrats hang out with Democrats, Republicans hang out with Republicans – it is easy to engage in the most vicious stick-figure cartoonish depiction of the other side.”

“The Washington Post did a poll last year, I think, where they asked Democrats, ‘give me one word to describe Republicans,’ and they did the same for Republicans. The words that came out from both sides were ridiculous. I mean, if you’re a Republican you’re a ‘bigot,’ if you’re a Democrat you’re a ‘traitor.’ I forget the exact words, but all of the words that came out were really cartoons of the other side,” he recalled.

“I think when Hillary Clinton said that she thought half the people that supported Trump were from the ‘basket of deplorables,’ and then apologized for it, I think it does reflect how many people think about conservatives,” he said. “Truthfully, I think it goes both ways. That’s a shame because we don’t know the other side.”

Stern’s journey to the flip side of politics took him “pig hunting in Texas” and “going to small Assembly of God churches” to meet people with different viewpoints.

“It meant hanging out in Pikeville, Kentucky, sort of a declining coal mining community. It meant going to Youngstown, Ohio. It meant tons of things,” he said. “The subtitle of the book is ‘How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.’ It didn’t mean that I agreed with everyone I met, but it meant I met hundreds of people who I admired, and were doing great things in their community, and who in no way reflected the cartoon figure of what Middle America looks like.”

Stern said he took issues he was positive he was right about – including “climate change, poverty programs, and guns” – and challenged himself by talking with people like gun-control skeptic John Lott. Jr.

“I went hunting. I went to gun shows. I talked to experts. I did my own research. And I really came away with a very different perspective, because I tried to look at it from other people’s points of view. When you do that, you’re going to change,” he said.

He recalled pig hunting in George as an especially memorable experience for someone from an urban gun-control political environment, as he was tutored in gun safety by an eight-year-old, and found himself hunting with a diverse group that bore little resemblance to coastal caricatures of rural white men.

“I’m an agnostic Jew from Washington, DC. I don’t have a lot of experiences with evangelicals, so what I knew was from ‘Footloose’ and from Jerry Falwell, who had been dead for ten years by the time I did this,” Stern said of his foray into church life, culminating in a visit to the Urbana Conference with some 15,000 evangelical youths.

“I thought they would be like you see in the movies. But these kids were there, they were talking about refugees – how to help them, not how to turn them away. They were talking about diversity on campus. They were talking about how to dedicate their lives to feeding the poor and housing the homeless. It was a really admirable group of people I saw. It taught me that, look, there are 50 million evangelicals, which means there are 50 million stories. You just can’t bucket everyone in simple ways,” he said.

Stern said that media people tend to “cluster in groups and reinforce their own stereotypes, their own confirmation bias, their own groupthink.”

“That’s a challenge that’s really hard to acknowledge, but hard to deal with. And that’s, I think, a fundamental challenge for the CNNs and others of the world,” he said. “But I think in the age of Trump they’ve also found, if we can be direct about it, conflict is good for business. President Trump – it’s actually sort of a self-reinforcing circle – challenges the ‘failing New York Times’ and the New York Times responds, and it’s great for business for both of them. And that’s a problem.”

Stern said he gained a new appreciation for the opioid crisis by traveling outside his comfort zone.

“This is sort of a gross generalization to use these terms, but the white working class is on a 30-year losing streak,” he said. “Income is down, life expectancy is down, opioid addiction is up. I think a lot of people look out and say, ‘How come the country isn’t treating us as a crisis? How come governments, both Republican and Democrat, have offered us lip service but no real solutions?’ I think a lot of the election of 2016 was about that anger, that real anger, a sense of abandonment, a sense of being patronized by the elites and looking for someone who’s not like anyone else.”

From a personal standpoint, Stern said he has grown “skeptical towards both parties,” while also seeing “good ideas from both sides,” so after completing his year as a Republican he became a registered independent.

“I actually feel like both of them have lost their roots,” he said of the major parties.

“I’ll be direct with you: I’m not a fan of the president,” he added. “I didn’t become a fan of the president. But I understand the appeal of the president. I think the lesson that the Democrats didn’t learn is why people supported President Trump and responding to that.”

“I’ve always thought the Democrats should be the party of the working class, working people. And they used to be. They lionized the working class and supported the working class. Today, by and large, they look at them and think of them as ‘deplorables,’” he said.

Stern reported seeing “a lot of anger toward the elite, and how the media would characterize people in Middle America,” and said “it doesn’t really do any good after the election to go out and say, ‘You’re angry, you feel patronized, but you’re wrong, and you’re a bunch of deplorables or white supremacists.”

“It really is sort of the worst thing to do in the situation that we’re in,” he advised Democrats.

Stern proposed that “we don’t actually disagree on the issues any more than we did 25 years ago – when you talk about issue polarization, it hasn’t changed.”

“What has changed is, we’ve sorted ourselves out in ways that we don’t know the other side. It becomes really easy to demonize the other side, to look down upon them, when you don’t know them,” he said.

He hoped that his neighbors in the liberal circles Washington, DC will read his book and come away with the notion that “we’re actually essentially a moderate country.”

“We agree on more than we think we agree on. We actually have a lot more in common across geographic lines than we give it credit for. Be open to the idea that there’s sensibleness, there’s wisdom, there is good values on the other side. Let’s actually not think of ourselves as the Red America and Blue America. Let’s think of ourselves as America. If we can’t do that, I worry about the future of the country,” said Stern.

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