Seeing the Whole Picture
by Yvonne Palmer
Americans in Their Own Words:
This project has its origins in the 2016 election season. Like many Americans, I found myself frustrated and appalled at much of what I was seeing on both social media and mass media. I was living my own life split between an academic-urban bubble (where I make my home) and a working-class rural bubble (where my family and many friends still live). Within both of those realms, I had had many nuanced and thoughtful conversations that defied the stereotypes that each side had of the other. I also struggled through many awful conversations in which otherwise reasonable, thoughtful people parroted the worst characterizations of "those people," – people they perceived as being on the opposite side of the political divide. On every occasion, regardless of whether I was among my more liberal or more conservative leaning friends, I heard attacks on people whom I held dear without the space for dialogue.
As an anthropologist of the United States whose work is grounded in history, I leaned into my training to think about how culture changes and how schisms happen and why. I spent a fair bit of time looking for comparable moments in US history, less for proof that they existed than for hints of how we worked through them. Along the way, I found myself rereading the works of Studs Terkel. Studs Terkel collected oral histories over decades, assembling collections thematized around ideas like Working (1974), American Dreams (1980), The Great Divide (1988), Race (1992), and Coming of Age (1995). He seemed to be able to get anyone to talk to him, and the stories he elicited showed the raw human experience that informed people’s lives. Terkel died in 2008, but as I read his work, I thought, “We need Terkel now.”
From this came an inkling: while I could not hope to do justice to Terkel’s skill as an interviewer, maybe I could build something on the model that he left. But how? This was one of the ideas that was bouncing around in my mind when I hired a research assistant, Jackie Zamudio, then a senior at Lake Forest College, where I teach. I only had Jackie’s time for about 5 hours a week over a school year, and while I initially imagined getting her assistance on another project, I found myself describing my Terkel-derived idea. “What if,” I said to her, “people could read each other’s stories before they knew what their politics were and found out they agreed with people on the other side of the political divide?” Jackie understood what I was after and encouraged me: she could help me figure out how to make the project in my head work.
So I sent Jackie on research missions. What kinds of interview protocols were out in the world that would help us elicit stories? How could we describe political orientations and affiliations? Each week, Jackie would come back with a half dozen internet representations of political views or new strategies for collecting interviews that she had found in various methods books and collections of interviews. I remember her excitement when she brought me the interview protocol we eventually modified for our use. “This one is so good!” she exclaimed, pulling out a copy of James Holstein and Jaber Grubium's book, The Active Interview, and flipping to page 38. She was right, and that became the basis of the all our interviews. This project is as much Jackie’s as it is mine, and I am honored to have her as a collaborator and co-author.
Once we had an interview protocol, the “political project” turned from a loosely defined idea to a concrete plan. Jackie and I worked through multiple drafts of potential political affiliations we might ask people to choose among, carefully avoiding the terms “Democrat” and “Republican.” We did practice interviews on each other and on various friends and colleagues willing to participate in a pilot. Recognizing the anxieties people were expressing around politics, we crafted a clear multi-step consent strategy and got human subjects approval to move ahead with the project. In February, 2018, we went live and began soliciting our first interviews. We started from our own social circles, identifying people we knew who had expressed very different political opinions. From there we used what is called snowball sampling: we asked each interviewee to identify other people who they thought might be interested in participating. It wasn’t long, though, before we hit our biggest snag.
People were put off by the idea of a project linked to politics. They were anxious about sharing their stories. They were concerned about the possibilities that someone would uncover their politics. We had built three concrete opportunities for people to withdraw from the project, and many potential respondents pulled out at the first opportunity. Even late into the project, after we had learned how to more carefully present our project and goals, a respondent declined to participate in our project in terms that captured perfectly what we had been hearing for a year:
I choose to keep mum about my political leanings for a few reasons: how I vote has always been between me, God and the ballot box; I tend to vote for the person or issue, regardless of their party; as a professional, I have to be very careful about any perceptions about political bias as even knowing my party or sentiments on certain issues can be perceived as creating a hostile environment by people who have opposing views; and it has been my experience that revealing one's party affiliation can lead friends, family and colleagues down a path of irreconcilable differences where people label and judge, in spite of long-standing positive relationships. My experience has been that once people know how you lean, it changes things. I realize the goal of the project is to upend and reverse that situation and truly hope it can (Ariana Carpenter*, personal communication)
I share this response particularly for the message of hope at the end and for its clear articulation of what was at stake for this respondent. I regard it as further evidence that our project is answering a need of the 2010s and 2020s.
The fact remains, though, that our pool of respondents was running dry, Jackie was graduating and starting a new job, and I was resuming my duties as chair of my department. For six months, we put our project on a back burner. Then Jackie emailed me; she still believed in the project, and she wanted to think about how we could revive it. Her timing was perfect; I had an opportunity to mentor a small team of rising sophomores from the college for summer research, and I could choose what they would work on.
I pitched “Beyond the Political Divide” to a group of 30+ students who were seeking summer research placements and interviewed almost a dozen who expressed interest. The interviews were revitalizing; the 18- and 19-year olds who talked to me about the project were captivated, immediately seeing the potential to challenge a political divide that had defined their adolescence and was shaping their early adulthood. The enthusiasm of two in particular, Emily McCusker and Cassidy Herberth, prompted me to hire them on, and I added a third student researcher from among the first years I had taught during 2018-19, Amya Quillin. With this new team, we recruited new participants and developed new strategies to persuade people to do interviews, and within four weeks, we had attained the 20-interview threshold we had sought (only 18 are here because we were unable to secure final publishing permission from the final two).
Collecting interviews with young people under 20 years old enhanced this book in ways I don’t know that I could have anticipated. Despite teaching traditional-aged undergraduates for 18 years (almost as long as my research assistants had been alive!), I forget sometimes that being young also means not carrying the same history that I carry. Each day we had a team meeting, I was greeted with delight and thoughtful questions about the stories students had collected. While my own past research had taught me that every person has a story with profound power, my research assistants were learning it in real time and realizing how the political landscape that they knew was far more complicated and interesting than they had credited. There are few things that can fuel a research project as successfully as the wide-eyed and credulous faith of young people who embrace the idea that their work might just change the world.
What you hold in your hands is a labor of love and hope. It captures a cross-section of the United States, including interviewees as young as 18 and as old as 82. It includes people who identify as straight and as homosexual, as religious and as atheistic, as black and as white. It includes people who voted for and continue to support Donald Trump, and people for whom Bernie Sanders was not socialist enough. There are Black Panthers and Knights of Columbus rubbing elbows here, and while they might be politically divergent, I have reason to suspect they would break bread happily together around the theme of love and family. There are gangbangers and honor role students in this mix who show surprising similarities in their experience of childhood isolation and loneliness. There are stories of real suffering and of overcoming. I find myself wishing I could have a dinner party for all the participants and feeling that, united by this project, they would together find the common ground that seems so difficult for us to find in this political moment.
I hope in getting to know the people in this book, that you, too, will find space to reach out to someone who you think might be your political enemy. You might not agree on much, but I feel confident that if you can listen to one another’s stories, you will find things you share. I hope you are inspired to do that. I hope that you can step out of the us-them of contemporary US politics, that reading these stories will remind you of the neighbor you stopped speaking to in 2016, and persuade you to reach out. Ignore media, ignore the twitter feed and the facebook updates, and remind yourselves that at the end of the day, you all want your families and friends to be safe and well. Remind each other of what you share, and then begin a slow effort to figure out where you diverge and why. Be generous with one another. We hold more in common than we realize, if only we are willing to listen to each other. We can reclaim the power of community. But we have to do some work to get there. I hope you will join me and Jackie and my cadre of research assistants in finding a path toward connection, respect, and hope for a brighter tomorrow.