Changing the Conversation
A Westside liberal heads into conservative territory and discovers a better way to talk about politics
By Stephanie Case
As a self-described “bleeding heart liberal,” Venice-based actor Joe McGovern has boldly gone where few Democrats have gone before.
He’s stood beside Confederate flag wavers in the heart of South Carolina, crashed College Republicans meetings and hunted squirrels alongside Second Amendment advocates, wearing head-to-toe camouflage.
For his first documentary, “The Other Side: A Liberal Democrat Explores Conservative America,” McGovern and his dog Charlie spent five months zigzagging the country in an old Chevy, interviewing 80 different conservatives along the way.
It’s a premise that seems destined for conflict — a battle between left and right that could easily boil into on-camera shouting matches — but McGovern, who starred in the Pacific Resident Theatre’s acclaimed production of “Henry V,” wasn’t looking to win an argument.
“I was looking for a way to have a positive political conversation with someone I disagree with,” he says. “I realized: I don’t have to lash out at this person. I could get curious instead of trying to get even.”
Two years ago, McGovern realized his steady diet of “The Daily Show” was leaving him with a negative characterization of “the other side” that seemed out of sync with reality.
A few channels away, Fox News was doing the same: showcasing his side in extremes. In one segment, McGovern remembers, a vagabond surfer from La Jolla bragged about getting “free money” from the welfare system and gorging on lobster dinners with his EBT cards.
“Most people aren’t dealing with a real enemy,” McGovern says. “They’re dealing with a caricature of conservatives or a caricature of liberals. They’re fighting against the hyperbole and not the value system underneath.”
On his cross-country trip, McGovern met people more nuanced — and more interesting — than their caricature.
There was Bill, a Zen Buddhist priest with strong pro-life beliefs; Brent, a Tennessee teen who admires the Confederate flag as an emblem of his Southern roots, but stands for marriage equality; and Al and Renee, a Minnesotan couple with a burgeoning business, who felt weighed down by the complicated EPA paperwork necessary to keep with regulations.
“At first,” McGovern says, “I shot [Renee and Al] the typical liberal response: ‘What, you don’t care about clean water?’” But his jab acted as a launchpad for a deeper conversation that followed — one about finding middle ground, where governmental agencies can be beneficial without being expensive and inefficient.
“Something cracked open in that moment — a new way to talk politics, where you get into the nuances and complexities of an issue.”
McGovern wrapped up his road trip in March 2015 — months before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had even announced their bids for the presidency.
While he labored over the film, paring down 200 hours of footage, the 2016 election exploded into unprecedented divisiveness: one candidate categorizing conservatives as “deplorable” and “irredeemable;” another bemoaning that the race is rigged to liberal advantage, and hinting he may not accept a peaceful transition of power.
Through the vitriol and discord, McGovern kept working on the film, his small slice of political hope.
“The election hasn’t changed my thesis at all. If anything, I feel like it’s strengthened it,” McGovern says. “You know how an addict has to hit rock bottom? I feel like our country has hit division bottom. I can feel people hungering, thirsting for some other way to start talking to each other.”
That conversation, McGovern believes, starts on a small scale.
“We the people need to start listening to each other and getting along first — and then, maybe, our politicians will do the same,” he says.
“The Other Side: A Liberal Democrat Explores Conservative America” is now streaming online at theothersidedocumentary.com. It’s free to watch, but a McGovern asks for a pay-what-you-can donation to help cover production costs.