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 theothersidedocumentary.com and follow the project at facebook.com/theothersidedocumentary/.