Since January, I’ve been sitting at kitchen tables listening to life stories. I’ve been asking probing questions about people’s beliefs and what led them there. And I’ve been writing about those conversations in a series of columns I called “What They Don’t Know About Us.”
“They” are all the people who have made a sport of talking about the middle of the country since Trump was elected, using broad, lazy strokes to define thoughts and motives. And “Us” was anyone willing to sit down with me. I didn’t seek anyone out, because I didn’t want my own personal bias or misconceptions to lead me down the same path as those writers I hoped to counteract. The series began on Feb. 5 with John Shaw, whose union membership made him a loyal, lifelong Democrat, and ended on May 14 with Bill Wohlford, a fiscal conservative retired engineer and artist who was a fan of Ted Cruz. In all, I published 12 interviews.
Here’s what I learned:
1. No one falls perfectly along party lines. If you only watched the national political stage, you could be led to believe that there are two Americas, defined cleanly by the Republicans and Democrats. You would be wrong. Everyone I interviewed crossed party lines somewhere, fiscal conservatives who were social liberals; Democrats who voted for Richard Nixon and Republicans who voted for Jimmy Carter; military veterans who saw room for defense cuts; someone who caucused for Bill Richardson in 2008 and Jeb Bush in 2016; labor union loyalists who are social conservatives.
2. People are political that never have been before. I heard these words in almost every conversation: frustrated, stressed, confused, helpless. People are paying attention more than ever – on both sides of the political fence -- but they aren’t talking to each other about it for fear of losing friends or alienating family members.
3. Almost everyone I interviewed had a seminal moment that changed their opinion about the world, and that’s the view they carried for the rest of their life, even though they continued to have a nostalgic connection to the beliefs they were raised in. I noticed this trend as I started to look back on the interviews. The seminal moment usually took place when people were in their 20s – fighting in a war, losing a job, a child or a spouse, moving from the farm to the city, leaving the country for the first time.
4. Being from the Midwest is at the core of people’s identity. I spent a lot of hours during this project hearing the phrase “Midwestern values” and asking what that meant. For the most part, I was told it has to do with being a good neighbor and sharing what you have. Staying connected to family. It has to do with being pragmatic and moderate, personally and politically.
5. Retirement released for many a sense of political self they didn’t feel free to explore during their working life. It was the reason almost everyone I interviewed was retired and the people who I interviewed who were still working, followed up with things they said with “maybe you shouldn’t print that.”
6. Midwesterners stereotype people from elsewhere, just as much as elsewhere stereotypes the Midwest. I heard a lot about New Yorkers and people from the coast. And since I started this series because people from the coast were making blanket statements about the Midwest, I think categorizing and stereotyping is more about being human and less about where you live.
7. It’s more telling to talk about who you caucused for than who you voted for in the general election. I interviewed an even mix of people who voted for Trump and Clinton. I didn’t meet many people who were excited about either candidate. But I did hear long explanations about why Jeb Bush or John Kasich or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have been a good president, and those conversations were as complex as people’s wide-ranging political views.
8. All sides feel under attack and there isn’t much trust to go around. I got a call mid-way through this process from an old man who said he wanted people to know that conservative Christians are patriotic, too, after I wrote about a left-leaning veteran. But he was hesitant to talk about it and eventually cancelled the interview. Most interviews began that way, “I want people to know …”
9. Everyone in the Quad-Cities is connected. I felt like my net was cast wide, as I drove from Moline to Muscatine to Bettendorf, but I was surprised and interested to find that networks of large families, long careers and compounding generations meant that everyone seemed to know each other. It was one of the things that made the series fun to publish, because one interview almost seemed to lead into the next like dominos. “I read about so and so. I went to school with their dad” or “I used to live across the alley” or “That was my babysitter.”
10. Listening to people talk freely about their beliefs is good for your mental health. I read an interview with Ohio Gov. John Kasich this week in The Columbus Dispatch where he said, “Everybody needs to absorb 10 minutes of something they don’t agree with. Every day.” I agree. It's more nuanced than that. The loudest amongst us are not the most interesting and not representative. You can’t sum up anyone’s America in a sound bite or a party platform. I started seeing that it’s more nuanced than that and most people just want to sit and talk and hash through their always shifting worldview.