WASHINGTON - It was an uncharacteristically cool September morning in the nation’s capital city. Tourists milled about, crisscrossing the National Mall as they visited monuments and museums. In the sky above, ominous gray clouds promised rain. On the southern end of the Mall, a crowd of people gathered around a small band stage flanked by a colorfully decorated flatbed truck and a handful of booths. Beyond the stage, the United States Capitol Building loomed.
It was September 8th, 2018 and the Mother of All Rallies (M.O.A.R), an annual gathering of Republicans in Washington D.C was about to begin. The event, billed as a “America First” rally for the celebration of American values, liberty, and culture had brought Conservatives from across country to the U.S Capital.
Following an underwhelming 2017 attendance, organizers this year had redoubled their efforts, offering hours of back to back speakers and music, setting an ambitious turnout goal of over 6,000 participants. Unfortunately, only a modest crowd of only a few hundred had assembled as the first speaker of the day prepared to take the stage.
I’d come to the M.O.A.R, accompanied by my friend and colleague Mason Peeples, to conduct interviews of everyday conservatives. As natives of Minnesota and California respectively, we’d both come from states with a rich political culture and wide diversity of political beliefs and values. Thus, as we’d both felt frustrated with our assigned freshmen book Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Rothschild. The assigned novel, which details the attempt of Rothschild, a UC Berkeley Professor, to overcome her political biases as she attempts to understand the voting habits of members of the Tea Party movement in Louisiana, was meant to challenge the predominantly Democratic incoming freshman class to reflect on their own preconceptions of Republicans and conservatives. Unfortunately, the novel largely missed the mark. Despite Rothschild’s awareness to her own biases in her attempts to present an accurate view of conservatism, the novel largely reinforce stereotypical views of the American right. The Tea Party members and Republican communities featured in the book are presented as under-educated and overly-religious, victims of their own ignorance and fear, desperate to return to a bygone era. This characterization in many ways conflicted with our experiences of Republicans back home.
It was a desire to challenge this stereotype and achieve a more objective understanding of conservatives that led two center-left democrats to the National Mall that morning. As we approached the gathering, the first speaker of the day, Joe Arpaio took stage. The controversial former Arizona Sheriff and recently unsuccessful candidate for the Senate led attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance. Solemnly, with bowed heads and hands on hearts, we recited the pledge. As the pledge ended and the rally began, we started to collect interviews.
Our goals for our research at the M.O.A.R were two-fold. First, gain a better understanding of the everyday Republican, and second, use that understanding to develop strategies that would help left-leaning students have a political dialogue that emphasizes inter party cooperation and minimized partisan confrontation.
We spoke to people from across the political spectrum. They came from vastly different walks of life, held different jobs and different political beliefs, supported different policies and different politicians. As they spoke with us, trends began to emerge.
When asked what they wanted liberals to better understand about Conservatives, the Republicans we spoke with often pointed to what they viewed as an ideological contradiction within the left. In the words of Daniel, an “over 50” unemployed male resident of New York City, liberals fail to “practice what they preach” by encouraging tolerance and equality while simultaneously refusing to listen to those that may challenge their viewpoints. Nearly every person we approached reacted with suspicion when we told them we were from AU, hesitant to believe that all we wanted was to listen and report, and convinced, albeit to varying degrees, that universities where themselves intolerant of conservatism.
Time and time again those interviewed, when asked about the most important contemporary political issues cited the need for law and order along the US-Mexico border. Nearly all believed that immigration improved the country, so long as those who wished to come to the United States did so through the proper legal channels. When choosing politicians, many sought candidates that were unafraid to speak candidly and directly about their beliefs. They wanted conservatives who would stand up for their civil liberties and defend the constitution. They wanted someone who was honest, who would stick up for America and her people, and who didn't care what the other people said about them.
Often during our conversations, I was personally challenged to reevaluate my understanding of conservatism. Despite my own belief that Republicans primarily concerned themselves with protecting their own communities, many that we spoke their emphasized their concern for the wellbeing of America’s as a whole. Dana Robinson, a 43-year-old nurses’ aid from Pittsburgh put it best, “We believe in all Americans...We want everyone to succeed.” Her quote reminded me of a similar statement from the legendary Minnesota Senator and Democratic icon, Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better”. In fact, while some struggled when asked where they found common ground with the Democratic Party, others gave answers that left me wondering whether or not the two parties were truly so different after all. Denise, a 67-year-old retired former accountant from Detroit, Michigan expressed to me her to desire to help those in disadvantaged communities, support of LGBTQ rights, and improve public education.
For all we understand about Republican leaders and history, we routinely fail to understand Republicans.
Before I move onto my interpretation of the interviews and information we collected at the rally, it's important to offer a disclaimer. I by no means intend for this piece to glamorize or ignore the negative elements within the Republican Party and Republican doctrine. In some interviews, the xenophobia and Islamophobia that has found a home within sectors of the Republican Party was on full display. In one particularly memorable interview, Islam was decreed as a “government system disguised as a cult” with the Prophet Muhammad explained as a “sadistic mass murderer”. In another, I was asked why I wasn’t concerned that my home state of Minnesota was letting in so many “dangerous radical immigrants.” Minnesota is home to a prominent Somali immigrant community.
Among the concerning beliefs shared with us, particularly unsettling was the all too common view that the greatest threats to American society were liberals and liberalism itself. Also worrisome were Confederate flags adorned t-shirts, hats, and backpacks worn by many of the rally goers. Many of the speakers propagated false claims or conspiracy theories. Finally, the almost ecstatic devotion to “American values and traditions” expressed by some of the participants invoked an atmosphere more closely resembling fanaticism than patriotism. Let me be clear: fearmongering, fervent nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia threaten American democracy. They must be thoroughly and aggressively refuted whenever they appear and must never be trivialized or ignored in the name of bipartisanship, compromise, or moderation.
However, most of the people we spoke with did not share these characteristics. Instead, we found people proud of their country, passionate in their beliefs, and determined to see their fellow citizens succeed. In fact, many of them were quick to decry and criticize the more extreme elements within their party. It should also be noted that each person we approached agreed to speak with us, and while those we spoke to were enthusiastic and fiercely passionate, we were never yelled at our threatened. In fact, we were often treated with remarkable kindness. During our last interview of the day, a hard rainfall began. Denise, our interviewee, offered us two of her own ponchos to keep us dry on our way home, and insisted that we not say goodbye until we had put them on.
Many of us Democrats at American University may feel that we understand the capital-r “Republican-ism” that defines the GOP. We’ve studied Republican policies, learned about Republican leaders, and know Republican history. Yet for all that we understand about this Republicanism, we routinely fail to understand Republicans. It’s why we lose elections, why we fail to succeed in debates, and why an increasing number of people are leaving our party altogether. We can reverse these trends, but to begin we must fundamentally change the way we engage in political conversations.
I was struck when Denise mentioned in her interview the effect of being judged before a conversation even began. She challenged me to imagine what it would be like if I had to start every political debate by attempting to prove that I wasn’t a racist or a bigot simply because I identified as a Republican. The question provoked me to think of better ways to have political conversations. First, it can be all too easy to for those on the left and right judge a person by the color of their skin or the hats they wear, but as Democrats especially, we should be mindful of our commitment to the equal treatment of all people, especially in political discourse.
Furthermore, we should begin our conversations from a place of good faith, mutual respect, and open mindedness. It bears repeating that not every Republican believes the same things or supports the same politicians. All too often conversations end because we assume to know what the other person thinks or begin to argue before we’ve had a chance to listen to them.
Perhaps most importantly, remember that no party can be one hundred percent correct one hundred percent of the time. To demand that the other side reevaluates their beliefs while simultaneously refusing to do with the same with our own denies us the possibility of compromise. Acknowledging your own biases to the other side isn't admitting weakness, but rather it allows for learning and greater empathy. Every citizen of the United States wants what's best for their country, as such the purpose of every political debate should not be to embarrass or attack our fellow Americans, but rather to find solutions that make life better for all of us.
Photo credit Kelly Bell, Creative Commons