Tired of dead-end arguments, a liberal leaves Venice to explore conservative America and ends up finding common ground

By Joe McGovern

Joe McGovern and his dog Charlie are touring the country to learn what makes conservatives tick

Joe McGovern and his dog Charlie are touring the country to learn what makes conservatives tick

Yesterday I was sad because I didn’t talk to a Republican. Today I’m happy because I get to talk to three of them. These are not emotions I would have felt five months ago. That’s when I left Venice to drive around the country filming my documentary “The Other Side: a Liberal Democrat Explores Conservative America.”

I never used to like talking politics with conservatives and/or Republicans. In fact, I’m not sure I can name many things that I liked less. Every political conversation would devolve into a nasty argument and we’d both leave the conversation almost hating one another. But where I’m at now — about two-thirds of the way through my journey around the United States, that’s all changed.

What’s the point? Well, I just got tired of being angry at people on the other side of the aisle. I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped arguing and started listening. Plus, looking at it logically, my assumptions about conservatives couldn’t possibly be true. If I say that conservatives are racist, selfish, ignorant or (here’s my favorite) crazy, then that would mean that approximately half of the people in the U.S. are racist, selfish, ignorant or crazy. There’s a pretty high statistical probability that they aren’t. That was intriguing to me. So I figured I’d go find out the real story.

Now, to make this work I figured I needed to make two promises. First, I would not try to convince people that I was right and they were wrong. This would be a fact-finding mission, not an evangelizing mission. Second, if someone made a good point, then I would say so. I would actually say the words, “That’s a good point.” We never do that when we’re arguing. If an ideological opponent makes a good point, then we need to make a bigger, better point that squashes their point into the ground, obliterating it and them in the process. I figured that’d be a little counter-productive to my mission.

So, armed with my commitment to not argue and to acknowledge good points from the other side, I packed my stuff into my brand new (to me) 2000 Chevy Astro van, slapped my film logo on the side, threw my dog Charlie into the passenger seat and off we went.

It’s been, in a word, epic.

I’m finding that conservatives are thoughtful, intelligent, generous people, and I’m finding that I’m having to say, “That’s a good point,” a lot. And I’m having little mini-epiphanies in almost every conversation.

One time I was interviewing Bill, a Zen Buddhist conservative (There’s an epiphany right there — that there are Zen Buddhist conservatives). After the interview he was showing me his house and he had a picture on his wall of a Marine carrying a child who had been injured by a suicide bomber. Bill was really moved by the Marine in the photo, but all I felt was anger at George W. and Rumsfeld et al. for starting the Iraq War. I was very much struck by that. I couldn’t feel connected to this Marine because of my views of the war he represented.

That seemed like a problem to me — like an inconsistency or hypocrisy — and it raised a question: Can I be anti-war and pro-soldier? Not just in my logic, but in my experience. Can I allow myself to be moved by a picture of a soldier and stay true to my beliefs? I think I can, and I think I should.

Staying on the subject of the military, there was also Cory, head of the College Republicans at the University of Wyoming. He was in the U.S. Army and had done a tour in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan. We got to talking about gay marriage, and he was 100% in favor of legalizing it. Surprising.

I asked him how he came to that opinion, especially given that he is (a) from Wyoming, (b) conservative/Republican and (c) was in the Army. He gave me a sort of confused look and replied that the Army is where he learned tolerance. He was taught that every American deserved to be defended, regardless of whether you thought yourself similar or different to them. Cory said soldiers knew there were gay guys serving with them but didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that people do the job they were asked to do. Furthermore, he also thought women should be allowed to serve in combat.

This blew my mind. I had always thought of the military as a “good old boy” club, masculine and prejudiced — especially against gay guys and women. Now maybe Cory’s experience wasn’t typical, but at the very least it exists. He’s out there. There’s at least one guy who learned about tolerance from the Army. My head jumped off my neck, did a 360 and plopped back down.

Now, it hasn’t all been rosy. I’ve broken my “no arguing” rule many times, even getting into screaming matches about George W.’s war in Iraq. That’s a major sticking point for me. I have really strong opinions — make that really strong anger — toward conservatives for causing that war. And my interviews can get a bit repetitive. If I had a nickel for every time someone criticized welfare or said, “no free handouts,” I’d be driving a brand new van instead of a 15-year-old jalopy with 185,000 miles on it.

But I have been able to learn something new in every one of my 57 interviews so far. Every single one. I don’t know that it gets much better than that. Sometimes I find common ground where I didn’t expect it. Sometimes I understand better the things I think are crazy — like the denial of climate change, or opposition to gay marriage. It leaves me feeling connected and, dare I say, patriotic. I had always felt a weird combination of uneasiness and jealousy about the uber-patriotism I saw in conservatives. But I gotta hand it to them. I’m feeling more connected to my country and more proud to be American than I ever have been before.

Can’t wait to see what I’ll discover in the last third of the trip.

Joe McGovern is a Venice-based actor who recently starred in last year’s production of “Henry V” at Pacific Resident Theatre. Learn more about the film at theothersidedocumentary.com.