Jordan Blashek ’09 and his co-author, Chris Haugh, met while in law school together at Yale. Blashek, a Republican, served for five years as an infantry officer with the United States Marines and is now part of a new company that works on public-interest projects. Chris, a Democrat, has served as a speechwriter for the State Department and is a journalist. For their book, ”Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground,” they took a series of road trips over four years to work at finding common ground in their political differences.
CARRIE COMPTON: Hi, and welcome to this month’s PAWcast. My name is Carrie Compton. Today, we’re speaking with the authors of a new book called Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground. Jordan Blashek is from the Class of 2009, and his co-author, Chris Haugh, is a UC, Berkley graduate; the pair met while in law school together at Yale. Blashek served for five years as an infantry officer with the United States Marines, deploying twice to the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan. He is now part of a new company called Schmidt Futures, founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Class of 1976, which works on a wide array of public-interest projects. Chris has served as a speechwriter for the State Department and is a journalist who has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Atlantic. In their new book, Jordan, a Republican, and Chris, a Democrat, describe a series of road trips they took throughout the last four years, arguably some of our country’s most politically divisive. During these cross-country journeys, the two friends worked at finding common ground in their political differences while also meeting with people from all over the nation — and even in Mexico — who are the most impacted by United States policies and its politics.
CC: Jordan and Chris, welcome. So, your book sort of starts off with what feels like a utilitarian road trip. Two California boys who go to school together out east are driving home for the summer. And it seems like in the course of that trip, you realize there’s something more meaningful to be gained, not only from your own conversations coming from opposite sides of the political divide, but also from the characters and the parts of the country you encounter along the way. Tell me about when you figured out there’s a book here. Jordan?
JORDAN BLASHEK: That’s a great question. So, we had met only nine months earlier. We were both students at Yale Law School, and we had this great early friendship where we bonded over books in our histories, our love for California, and that first nine months started off terrific, and then all the sudden, the 2016 presidential election hit. And these once great conversations turned into pitched political battles where we often left conversations red in the face. And I asked Chris if he would go on a road trip with me. And on the road, we just found that the noise turned down, and we were able to get away from politics. And on that first road trip, we had a few experiences that for us, really told us that there was something special on the road. There was a story here that we had to go find. And we didn’t have a book in mind yet, but we did believe that there was something we would learn from being out on the road. And so we decided to do another road trip about six months later, and that was after the 2016 election. So now, we’re sort of in this new world where Donald Trump is president, the country seems like it’s convulsing. Charlottesville had happened one week before. And we get out on the road, and it was just one experience after another that taught us something about the country, taught us something about ourselves and our friendship, and we knew that we wanted to tell this story. And so, it was after that second road trip, we believed there was a book, and really that there was something that the country had to see about itself from the road.
CHRIS HAUGH: We thought about a few different ideas. At first, our first thought was, let’s make a documentary. But of course, the two of us are more writer than director, so it took a little while, but we ended up discovering that you know, hey, maybe there’s a book here. Maybe not a documentary and not just two idiots on the road.
CC: (laughs) Okay. So after you start doing these road trips with a book in mind, how did you choose where to go? And did the politics of the time dictate some of that for you?
JB: We chose where we wanted to go usually through some combination of whim and deliberate planning. So on that first road trip, we decided to go north because the northern route just seemed beautiful, and we wanted to go see some national parks. On the second road trip, we started with the idea that we might go — we started in Los Angeles — we thought we might go to Colorado, and then Chris saw on his phone that Donald Trump was giving a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, and so we decided to head that way. And the trip from there just became one sort of serendipitous stop after another. And we were led just by whatever seemed interesting to us. And every trip after that was similar. It was some combination of — there was a story we wanted to tell or something interesting we wanted to see and then serendipity takes over, and we end up heading in a totally different direction than we thought, which always turned out to be equally as good.
CH: Yeah it’s not every day in an odd couple friendship that the liberal says, “Hey, Trump’s giving a rally nearby, do you want to go check it out?” But it works out for us. We were trying to see as much of the country as possible, and we ended up getting to 44 states and covered nearly 20,000 miles. We even added Canada and Mexico to our log list.
CC: You meet a lot of characters along the way. You meet Trump die-hards, you meet community activists, you meet prison inmates. So, I’m curious, after all the time that’s passed, which character for each of you sticks the most?
CH: That’s a really good question. It’s really hard to choose. Someone who’s been on my mind lately is Gabriel, who was a poet we met at Parnall Prison outside Detroit. We had a chance to sit in on a rehearsal of King Lear that a Shakespeare troupe entirely made up on inmates was about to put on for the entire prison population. And they were remarkable actors, remarkable in their sort of analysis of the text. They were also just remarkable humans who were very self aware and very clearly kind of grappling with what had put them in that position. Whether it was forces outside of their own control or their own culpability for ending up where they were. And Gabriel was sort of a de facto leader of the group. What he said was so soulful; he was a poet. He actually sent us some poetry afterward, and I think we were very touched. We sort of expected to be moved, but we didn’t know to what extent. Of course, the sad sort of coda to our time there is that COVID has really ravaged Parnall Prison. And so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how these men are doing, where they are now, and thinking long and hard about the sort of lessons that we gleaned having spent some time with them. Definitely made us more humble and empathic and thoughtful about sort of the day-to-day experience of what it is to be in prison and the sort of forces they face coming out. And so yeah, Gabriel’s been on both of our minds quite a bit lately, and I think our plan is when we get back out on the road, when that’s OK, we’re going to go try to find not just Gabriel, but as many people as we can from the book and talk to them about how the world has changed. It does feel like history has really sped up lately.
JB: I think one person that really sticks out to me is Mimi Tarrasch who you read about in the Tulsa chapter. Mimi runs a drug diversion program for women struggling with addiction and often women who have children. And one of the things Mimi said to us — she ended up having a big impact on Chris and my view of the country. We came to see her as somewhat of a mother figure. She kind of welcomed us into her life and there was just something about the combination of warmth and empathy she had with this firm resolve and sternness that we found very appealing. And I remember at one point she said to us, after hearing all these stories about women who are suffering and struggling and fighting against kind of the injustice of a system that seemed to over-penalize women in addiction, Chris said, “How do you hear these stories and keep going?” And Mimi said to us, “I want it to be hard. I want people to hear the pain because that’s the only way you motivate them to change their actions and change the system.” And that’s really stuck with us. And I think every step of the book, every bit of writing we did in our hopes for how it could help change the country, are largely motivated by Mimi’s point — that we want people to feel and hear those stories, they need to see what it’s like to live that way. And as we go forward and try to publicize the book, I think that sticks in our mind that we want Mimi to be proud of us. We want the book to be something that she’s proud of and can see her imprint on.
CC: A lot of the book is about your disparate political identities. In the end, through a lot of stumbling blocks, the two of you almost gained an innate sense of how to talk about difficult things with each other. How does that scale? What are broader lessons that you can share with the rest of us about how you start those conversations and try to see them through successfully?
JB: Yeah so, the question of scale is hard, and there’s no silver bullet. I think there are a few takeaways that we have from the road that we think can help though. The first is that whenever you enter a conversation with the intent to win or to score points, it’s not going to end well. And Chris and I discovered this over time, that, you know, our early conversations always felt like political combat, like we were looking to win or score points and in the end, it just dissolved into a tit for tat where we’re just waiting for the other person to finish their point so we can leap in with ours. And those aren’t a dialogue. They’re not an opportunity to hear or learn, it is simply an effort in winning, and that never convinces anyone. And so, our first takeaway was, get away from political point scoring and only engage in political conversations if you actually have the intent of learning from the other side. So that was first. The second was, being able to recognize that people are more complex than the labels we assign to them. So we really learned this lesson with Pete Mylen, the truck driver. Peter wore a Make America Great shirt when we first met him, but after we got into discussions about political issues, we found that his views were not what you’d expect from someone who identified with Donald Trump or MAGA. He railed against the president for rejecting climate change, he believed in gay marriage, he thought everyone should have universal healthcare. And these were things, if you had just seen a picture of him, you wouldn’t have understood. And so, we took the lesson there that everybody’s more complex, and it’s worth trying to understand why they view things the way they do as opposed to just assuming you think you know what they believe based on party identification or labels that they might hold. And then lastly, we realized that we were able to have much better conversations when we identified as something other than our political party. When I heard Chris express an opinion as a Democrat, I would naturally respond as a Republican. But if I listened to him as a journalist and tried to understand why he was approaching an issue the way he did, it made it might easier for me to accept. Because that’s not an identity that’s loaded with political baggage or steeped in kind of tribal line drawing that political parties tend to be dominated by. And the same was true in reverse. If Chris saw me as a Republican, we were more prone to fight than if he saw me as a Marine and tried to understand why, based on my experience leading troops overseas or seeing people give their life for their country, why I might feel a certain way about America or charges of racism or structural bias. And I would have a visceral reaction against that kind of language. And so in the end, to us, we believe that most people don’t identify by political party, at least as their most important identity. Everyone has something deeper that they care about, and if you can find that, and try to understand from that perspective why they view things the way they do, you’re more likely to understand and accept and have empathy as opposed to a more political combat reaction.
CH: Yeah, I don’t always get to say this, but I completely agree with Jordan. All of that is absolutely correct and is something that we learned on the road. I mean, scale is the million dollar question, or you know, with inflation, the billion dollar question now, and look, I would only add — we were very fortunate that when you’re on the road, especially when you’re in a strange state, or in a stretch of the road that doesn’t have a lot of turn offs for many, many miles. If you’re in a conversation, if you disagree, if you fight, you have to keep coming back to the table because you still have a ways to go. And coming back to the table, I think, is really important. We’re never going to solve our political issues in one conversation. You’re never going to persuade someone of the rightness of your argument if you give it one day or a week even. So coming back to the table, being humble, searching for the right answer versus, I mean as Jordan says, scoring points — I think that’s all crucial. But the scale question is something that we struggle with sometimes because we were fortunate enough to be on the road for three years — parts of three years — going over 20,000 miles. And so a lot of our dialogue was built over that trust, you know.
CC: Did either of your politics change as a result of your friendship? Jordan, have any of your views gone to the left or Chris, have any of your views gone to the right?
JB: It’s a great question. I think our political views have largely stayed the same — I’m still a Republican, Chris is still a Democrat. But on certain issues, we’ve moved each other. Some of the early political fights we had were around things like climate change, police brutality — Chris, what were some of the other ones we had early on?
CH: Oh, man. Voting —
JB: Voting rights.
CH: — rights. A lot about climate change.
JB: And I think on those issues, we certainly moved. So early on, I remember I would have these very aggressive reactions to the climate change debate where I would accuse Chris of manipulating facts and numbers and trying to belittle or suppress legitimate dissent. And over time, I think I’ve developed an understanding for why it’s important to motivate action now. And sometimes, to motivate action, you have to raise the stakes a little bit. I think that’s similarly reflected in my general view on activism. When we first started as friends, I was very opposed to political activism that I thought verged on violence. And I would make the point over and over and over again that I thought it was often hurting the communities it was meant to help more than advancing the issue. And over time, I think Chris has helped me understand that activism has a role to play in a multifaceted political environment where sometimes you need to get something on the agenda, the only way to do is through more aggressive activism. And that’s a position on which I’ve moved, even if I’m not going to go hold up signs myself. And similarly, I think Chris has moved on some issues as well.
CH: Absolutely. You know, recently with the killing of George Floyd, of course, it is a terrible tragedy in so many ways, but what added to how terrible it was to watch that video was that I have a higher expectation for police officers than that. And I gained that sort of appreciation for how hard the job is and how there are very good police officers in certain circumstances from Jordan. You know, I grew up in Berkley, not that far from where the Black Panthers were founded. I grew up reading about Huey Newton — he was killed the same day I was born. I had a very, sort of negative perception of police officers. And while I think both of us would agree that a lot needs to be done, a lot of reform needs to go on, there’s an open debate about how best to get to where we need to be which is far from where we are right now. I did start to understand the sort of nuances of that debate in a new way from talking to Jordan. I will also add that my favorite sort of arguments with Jordan are when we get really heated, we’re almost yelling at each other and then it almost ends with, “I guess we agree.” Because we’ve come all the way around to a perspective where we’ve actually kind of argued our way into a space of common ground. And it happens more often than you might think, especially because I think both of us believe that in an open society, it takes all types. And it takes a lot of different voices. And if we’re going to get things right, we need to gather as many different opinions and as many different sort of data points as we can because there’s just too much out there to understand it all on our own.
CC: So, are you guys still in regular contact even though you’re done writing the book? Are you still having these conversations, and if so, I’m curious what you’re fighting about these days?
CH: Well, we talk daily. And sometimes more than daily. I look forward to seeing Jordan’s face pop up on my phone. The book is an excuse to call one another and say, “Hey we should really talk.” As for arguments — I don’t know, we’ve been pretty civil recently.
JB: Which I try to break, I’m the rabble rouser —
CH: He really is.
JB: — I often try to poke Chris and see how he’ll react. But over time, he’s developed almost a Zen-like calm when I needle him. But we still talk about the issues of the day. I’ll see something on TV and note it to Chris. I think one area we’re — we’ve been discussing a lot lately is just the state of the media and the news and journalism industry. As a Republican, I think I come at the mainstream media aggressively and constantly feel that the right and Republicans are being slighted. And so I’ll kind of push Chris on it. And we’ll have debates about what objective journalism is like and how we might reform the industry. And so that’s been a recurring, I wouldn’t say argument, but a recurring conversation we’ve had recently.
CH: We also have an ongoing lament that too many issues have become division points based on party instead of based on just sort of freethinking. For example, I think a lot of our thinking on coronavirus and the response to it is actually pretty well lined up, and it’s something that we kind of lament the fact that both parties can’t come together around to talk and to figure out the best way forward. And there’s a lot of incoming information as we go — how does it affect people, you know, what works, what doesn’t — and we’re able to have that conversation on our phone calls. And we kind of wish that our national political establishment could do the same.
CC: In the book, you talk about the American Dream and how you came to realize it means different things to different people. I’m curious if over the course of researching and writing the book, if your own conceptions of that changed as well.
JB: Yeah, my thought going into the road trip was that there was something spiritual about the idea of the American Dream for our country that so much of who we are is captured by this aspiration that here more than anywhere else in the world, you can achieve something more with your life. That there’s some aspiration that we hold — individually and collectively — that is possible here. And that the United States is always at the forefront of what that might be for a given era. So the American Dream looked different in 1789 than it does today, and yet, every generation as the Dream evolves, we believe that America still is at the forefront of making that possible for everyone. And it became this animating question for our road trips on whether the American Dream was still alive or whether it was now just a memory or a fiction. And as we explored that idea, I think we heard it articulated by a number of different people. And came to the view that it’s the way individuals talk about the American Dream and what it means to them that forms that collective aspiration and that means, it belongs to everybody. It belongs to Nelson who we met in Tijuana who’s from El Salvador and trying to get to the U.S. to get a better life economically for himself and his mom. As much as it is for Pete Mylen, the truck driver, who believed that his American Dream was living his life free from government intervention, as it was for Willis who lives on a lobster boat and all he wants to do is leave the next generation with something better than he received. And those all kind of formed a mosaic of the American Dream. And so while we’re left without this sort of clear, crisp definition of what the American Dream is, to me, it still captures that collective aspiration, that here more than anywhere, we can pursue something more and better for our lives.
CH: Yeah, I’ll just say I used to think that the American Dream was something that you could put your finger on if you thought about it long and hard enough and talked to the right people. And I think was Jordan just said about it being a mosaic is the most — is where we’ve landed, is where I’ve landed since. And I think that’s what makes it so enduring. I mean, at the heart of it is a vision of progress, whether that’s personally or whether that’s for your children or whether that’s for the nation, there’s this ability, there’s this opportunity to it. And I think that’s what makes it so enduring is that you can fill it up with whatever it is that you’re facing. Whatever it ends up being, you can sort of fill it up with whatever your situation is and reach for that progress.
CC: So, we’re in the middle of another presidential season here, presidential election season. What is your message to people who are listening to this about how to tackle that proverbial Thanksgiving dinner we’re all coming up against in November?
JB: I think our first message is, try not to talk about politics all the time. We found that our friendship was healthier, we were happier when we got away from politics. And as you read in the book, the whole second part — or the middle and last part of the book were all this effort by us to get away from politics and to try to meet Americans in the parts of their lives that matter more to them. Their work, their family, their values — all those things mean more to us than politics. And while it dominates the media, it’s actually the thing I think makes us unhappy and is not the most important things in our lives. So, lesson one is just get away from it. I think the second thing we want to leave people with is in the political season, it’s got to be a fight. That’s what politics is. And hopefully we can make it a noble fight, where we’re not assuming the worst of the people on the other side, but we’re going to advance our side’s priorities as much as we can because we believe in them. But, we have to remember that at the end of it, we need to come back together. And at the end of the day, we are one country, we’re one people. To the extent we can work together on a shared vision for what we want to be, we will be much better off. And we can’t lose sight of that fact — that at the end of this, we’re still together. For Chris and I, we knew on some level, that it helped to stay together, that we couldn’t walk away. We were in a car, there was no way for us to pull apart, so we could have these fights, but at the end of the day, we were stuck together. And so we had to reconcile, and come back over a meal or over a drink. And I hope Americans recognize that as well — that for all the talk about leaving the country if Donald Trump wins again, or moving to Canada if Joe Biden wins, we’re in this together and so on Nov. 3, or the day after the election, we need to find a way to unify and that starts by not assuming the worst of the other side.
CH: I would hope that people, especially people who get a chance to read Union will come away with the impression that, despite our imperfections, despite our blemishes of which there our many in our history, there’s this deep civic pride in what it means to be American. And there’s a lot of people who still want to opt in and keep fighting to create a more perfect union, to live up to the ideals that were laid out all those years ago that formed the sort of founding values of this country. And that, no matter how dark the clouds get these days and all we face when there’s coronavirus, or this election, and the language of our politics, that there’s going to be a new day and Americans still want to fight for what it means to be an American. And that each generation has a chance to sort of put their mark on what that definition is. And so every day we have a chance to improve; every day we have a chance to not be our history and to hold on to what is good about our history. And that’s an ongoing project, and to keep with it, to keep fighting for it.
CC: How does social media complicate that?
CH: I think it complicates it enormously. Neither Jordan or I are big social media guys; I think we have a collective like 500 followers on Twitter, and even that might be an exaggeration. And I actually do think that that contributes to our ability to communicate. I find that Twitter, while — Twitter and any of these social media platforms — can be great places to gather information, to hear diverse viewpoints, I do think the way they work currently leads us down our partisan paths and divides us further. At least, that’s been my experience of it. Jordan and I, in the writing of Union, abided by this principle that you have to go to the scene, you have to go see it for yourself, and I think the further we got away from the internet and the more we dove into going to that next stage, talking to that next person, talking about something we disagree about, then we came closer to understanding one another and where we are as a country.
JB: Yeah I agree with that. I think anger is the most powerful emotion; it kind of overwhelms everything, and we’re quick to anger. And social media is great for triggering that, and it’s no surprise that as people read social media they get more and more agitated because grace, humility, love, these are deeper emotions that take time and cultivation, and you’re not going to get that. I actually have one friend who purposefully designed his Instagram and Twitter to only feed him soothing messages, and he’s a much happier person. And to me, it kind of speaks to the fact that, as Chris said, social media is not good or bad, but unrestrained I think it is going to lead to more anger and agitation. And so while I don’t think people should stop using it, I think they should be very intentional about how they use it.
CC: So Chris, you sort of alluded to this earlier — is there another addition to this story? Does the story continue, whether it be more road trips?
CH: Absolutely. Fingers crossed it continues July 21st when this book comes out. We really want to hit the road, and we want to talk to as many people as we can about this project. We want to return like I was saying earlier about Gabriel and Mimi and others, we want to return to our sources and our friends and talk to them about how their lives have changed. Jordan and I have been toying with other grander ambitions, but we’ve had to sideline them for shelter in place, for coronavirus. I think the two of us are happiest when we have the chance to get out on the road, see new things, and chat. There’s nothing quite like it, and it can be an addiction.
JB: The only thing to add is, I think someday we want to do another book in Mexico. One of our chapters is on Mexico, and I’m obsessed with it. It’s my favorite country, I love everything about the food, the music, the people, the culture, and I think it’s a fascinating, beautiful place. So we want to extend our idea of the union down to our neighbor to the south. And I think there’s something really deep and special about the relationship that the U.S. and Mexico have, and so I think Chris and I, at some point want to explore that. So maybe one day in the future we’ll do Union Two.
CC: Very nice. Well I want to thank you both for joining me today.
JB: Well thank you. This was really wonderful and we’re very grateful and hope that the Princeton community, which I love, enjoys the book.