Making Peace with ‘The Other Side’

Posted May 11, 2016 by The Argonaut in Columns

A liberal’s cross-country listening tour teaches him that conservatives aren’t necessarily crazy

By Joe McGovern

McGovern and his dog Charlie hit the road for a five-month, 35-state journey into conservative America

McGovern and his dog Charlie hit the road for a five-month, 35-state journey into conservative America

I’m not that into politics. But I’m into it enough to get really mad at the other side, which for me is conservatives.

See, I’m your typical bleeding heart liberal. I’m pro-choice, pro-welfare, pro-immigration, pro-gay marriage, pro-environment, pro-high taxes on the rich and anti-war.

But one day I had a thought. There are a lot of conservatives in the U.S. Can they all be as crazy, racist, sexist and selfish as me and my side says they are?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that no, they can’t be, and I started to get curious about the real story behind conservatives and their politics. And since I like a good adventure, I figured I’d go find out for myself.

I took a break from pursuing the acting thing here in Los Angeles, sold my car and bought an old van, threw my stuff in the back, put my dog Charlie in the passenger seat and headed across the country to see what I could learn about the other side.

Five months, 35 states, 20,000 miles and 80 interviews with conservatives later, I’m editing the footage into the documentary “The Other Side: a Liberal Democrat Explores Conservative America.”

The first thing I learned on my trip was how much common ground there is — way more than I expected. For example, most of the 80 conservatives I interviewed were for gay marriage, and a surprising number were pro-choice. That seems to be the hot new thing — being fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

But as fun as it was finding common ground, what was far more exciting was what I discovered by listening to conservatives talk about the areas where there was no common ground and we just flat-out disagreed.

It wasn’t easy. Listening to conservatives say things I disagreed with made me angry. Very angry. But I tried to continue listening even when I was angry. I tried to stay curious. And, when I was able to do that, when I was able to stay curious and listen — even when I felt mad — I discovered a layer of complexity and nuance in the issues that I didn’t know was there before.

For example, Shawn, an African-American conservative from the projects in Pittsburgh, said that the main reason he was conservative was because of all the welfare fraud and abuse he had witnessed as a kid.

Usually when I hear conservatives talk about welfare fraud and abuse I whip out the theoretical 70-year-old grandma with nine grandkids to take care of. You want to take away her benefits? I think most of us liberals have this theoretical grandma in our pocket — she’s very useful when it comes to arguing welfare with conservatives.

But since I’m trying to really listen to Shawn and consider what he’s saying, I have to admit that, yeah, welfare abuse isn’t helping anyone. And when I ask Shawn how he was able to get out of the projects and he tells me he studied and worked hard, again, I listen and consider. And then I have an idea.

Back in the ‘60s, this guy Nevitt Sanford developed a theory of human development — that for humans to develop to their full potential they need a good balance of challenge and support. It occurred to me while talking with Shawn that conservatives tend to emphasize the challenge part of that equation, talking about hard work and discipline, while liberals tend to emphasize the support part, talking about government programs that help poor people.

If that’s true, then conservatives don’t hate poor people, they just have a different idea of how best to help them. If Sanford’s theory is accurate, and I think it is, then we need the right balance of conservative and liberal ideas in our welfare system because poor people, like all of us, need the right balance of challenge and support.

And if it’s true that we need a good balance of conservative and liberal ideas in our welfare policies, then maybe we need a good balance of conservative and liberal ideas in all areas. Maybe we need a secure border and a humane immigration policy. Maybe we need high-quality and affordable healthcare. Maybe we need effective education and teachers’ unions.

What if the whole question of who’s right, conservatives or liberals, is the wrong question? What if the right question is: “What’s the right combination of conservative and liberal ideas for each area and each issue?” Like, maybe this issue needs a little more conservatism in our approach, and that issue needs a little more liberalism.

Now, this isn’t a popular way to think, especially right now as we’re choosing our next president. This isn’t the time for listening. This is the time to hunker down and get ready to do battle with the evil other side.

Then again, maybe this is the perfect time for listening to the other side. Maybe this is the perfect time to heal some division. I don’t know. I’m no expert. But I do know that it felt really good, and was well worth all of my efforts, when I heard conservatives tell me: “You know, you’re the first liberal that I feel actually listened to me.”

Joe McGovern is a former teacher, school administrator, social worker, pro soccer player and wilderness therapy guide who now makes his living acting and teaching in Los Angeles. He’s appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and the award-winning play “Henry V” at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.

For more information about the film, visit and follow the project at


    William Hicks

    Well said, Joe!

    David Smith

    Let’s hope this film helps start a more constructive conversation in this country. Lord knows we need it. Can’t wait to see the finished product!

      Joe McGovern

      Thanks, David! I agree. I think there are a lot of us who are ready for a change in the conversation.


    Joe, I appreciate you going out on a limb and talking (listening, really) to us crazies on the other side.


    really good stuff, Joe!

    Kenia Milloy

    I really like what you say and feel balance is the answer, but how do we get there? How do we sit down and talk without wanting to call each other names? I really do feel it’s always the right time to listen to each other, but knowing how to dialogue is not easy. Keep up the good work, and I’ll try to start listening more/better to my conservative friends.

      Joe McGovern

      Kenia – I think the key is that we may not be able to avoid “wanting to call each other names.” That feeling might always be there. But if we can deal with that feeling and instead of actually following through with that impulse to call the other side names – if we instead try to get curious about them and where they’re coming from then great conversations are possible. If we replace the goal of “winning the argument” with “trying to understand others” again, great conversations are possible.


    Looking forward to the film – wonder if we’ll hear some of the issues that are now fueling Donald Trump’s popularity, or do our opinions change based on what’s hot in the news?

      Joe McGovern

      Tara, Trump’s popularity makes total sense given what I heard from the conservatives I spoke to, most notably their frustration with political correctness. They feel that we on the left have started to use political correctness irresponsibly – and Trump not only is politically incorrect, but he gets more popular the more politically incorrect he becomes. I think they have a point – that sometimes we are using political correctness irresponsibly. I think Trump’s response to that is inappropriate and bad for the country, but I get the frustration and why he’s become so popular.

    Kara Davis

    Love the idea of balancing challenge and support. I’ll be thinking about ways to apply that… Look forward to seeing the finished documentary!

    John Henning

    Joe, your film could not be coming out at a mo better time than during this crazy election.


    Joe – Yes – it’s all about staying curious! Watching the nightly news, I often think about you and the film and wonder how what’s going on right now with our 2 parties is affecting your views, your editing, your thoughts. What I do know is that now – more than ever – we need this on a screen near everyone so truly can’t wait!

    And just so ya know, I love this, “What if the whole question of who’s right, conservatives or liberals, is the wrong question? What if the right question is: “What’s the right combination of conservative and liberal ideas for each area and each issue?” Like, maybe this issue needs a little more conservatism in our approach, and that issue needs a little more liberalism.”

      Joe McGovern

      Thanks, Heather! Yes, it’s been interesting editing all of the footage while all the craziness is happening in the presidential race. I’ve got so much to say – it’s been tough figuring out what to leave on the proverbial cutting room floor!

    Shoshana E Rosenbaum

    Really proud of the work you’re doing, Joe — our country needs more people like you!


    Really looking forward to the film. As one who lives in a very liberal bubble, I identify with you!!


    “What’s the right combination of conservative and liberal ideas for each area and each issue?” ..YES! I thank you for having these conversations & I look forward to seeing the film.

    p.s. With the current campaign I think there is enough material in the US for a sequel.

    Richard Fancy

    I used to work out with a couple of black firemen who talked the way Shawn did. They laughed at my bringing up the seventy year old grandma. i was shocked but then I realized they must be conservative Republicans. When I offered THAT theory they laughed even harder. Try as I did, I couldn’t fit them into a mold. Confirmation bias: it’s hard not to shoehorn people. I’m so looking foreword to this documentary, Joe.

      Joe McGovern

      Totally agree, Richard. That confirmation bias is sneaky and hard to spot. Have you heard of “the backfire effect” where people get more entrenched in their views if you present evidence that contradicts them? Silly humans…

    lee de broux

    i’m in support of an open dialogue….perhaps we can use a “talking stick” the person with the sticks talks and we listen…..respect,dignity,and the practice of patience…
    really looking forward to the completed film.
    all my best doc

    Matt G.

    Interesting article and work. Curious as to whether you still think of yourself as a “bleeding heart liberal” after concluding that the best question for policy makers and citizens is: “What’s the right combination of conservative and liberal ideas for each area and each issue?”

      Joe McGovern

      Good question, Matt. I’m still a liberal/progressive and in some ways I’m just as liberal as ever – I support Bernie over Hillary, for example. But in other ways I’ve moved much closer to the center – in my opinion of welfare programs, for example. And I’ve become a huge fan of complexity and nuance. If you allow complexity and nuance to enter into the political conversation, all of a sudden the differences between the sides decreases, the dialogue becomes constructive and everyone leaves the conversation having gained something.

      One other thing… It’s now tough for me not to hear the hyperbole, over-generalization and exaggeration in politi-speak so it’s hard to cheer 100% for the liberal team. I find myself yearning for people who speak about politics with specificity and precision – a rare breed.

    Cybil Kendrick

    Well, said Joe!! Stay curious my friend and keep listening. I find so often we all have preconceived notions and ideas about most things and people we encounter and if we can just stop and listen, really listen to them and not what we “hear” them saying we learn so much. I agree with those above – love the balance of challenge and support. I can’t wait to see your finished product!!
    All my best,

      Joe McGovern

      Thanks, Cybil! Yeah, listening can be tough – especially when what you’re hearing makes you mad. But it’s worth it – lots of things to discover on the other side.

    Wendy Bailey

    Thank you for allowing people who ordinarily are not listened to nor accepted for their opinions, hopes, and dreams which do not differ too greatly from the drumbeat of opposition!

    Michael Hanson

    Proud of you, man. This kind of thinking is the only way forward.

    John McGovern

    Having watched previews/excerpts of Joe’s movie The Other Side, I am impressed by the integrity and quality of the people who share their views with us. Joe and those he interviews increase their awareness and understanding.

      Joe McGovern

      Thanks, John. Integrity and quality were what I was struck by as well. As some folks in Houston put it, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”


    I admire you, Joe, for hittin’ the road and creating this cool project! It takes a lot of patience and forbearance to listen to folks who are so far on the other end of the political spectrum. Worthwhile, though. (Another Venice progressive & pacifist here.)

      Joe McGovern

      Thanks, Hal! I did a little research to find you – looks like you’re up to cool things too! I like your blog, but it took me a minute to get the last word…

    Christin Stevens

    I am thankful that you got in that van and hit the road and I am excited to follow your example of listening more than I speak and validating the points made by those I don’t agree with! Sooo looking forward to the finished result and am hopeful there will be a balance of ideas that stem from this good conversation beginning.

    brian mcgovern

    Really admire how you’ve taken the mature approach of thoughtfully listening. we need more discussion and understanding today, especially since the gaps are often more nuanced in the purple parts of the country (on some issues at least). its an important distinction vs the national election and its preference for soundbites and name-calling. I can’t wait to see your film. and the soundbites that will circulate on social media

    Terry Davis

    It is indeed about BALANCE!! Especially on the tightrope! Standing O!

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