One of my primary goals in taking this trip was to meet people who were different than me. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the bubble of your own opinions, especially in a solidly blue city like Seattle. In my everyday life, conservatives are more of a concept than a real life group of people. I can try to go online or watch TV, but I know it’s no use. There’s no way to accurately judge the slant I’m getting, no way to verify the authenticity of the opinions. Not to mention we’re all inclined to click on things that interest us, so the internet will always point you to the places in which you will find like-minded friends. I figured as long as I stayed in Seattle I was guaranteed to get constant reinforcement of my own ideals. If I wanted to be challenged, I’d have to hit the road.
Unfortunately, even when seeking out The Other I couldn’t help but constantly find The Same. I didn’t have any republican CouchSurfing hosts because nearly everyone on CouchSurfing is a variation on the hippie/liberal spectrum. When I stayed with family and friends I was often among liberals, because we are all inclined to grow up believing the same things as our family members and making friends with people who agree with us. I knew my own bias was getting in the way of my desire to meet my idealogical opposites, but I had no idea how to fix it.
When I expressed my dismay to my host in Wisconsin, she recommend I spend some time with her neighbor Tim. She’d had more than one political debate with him over the years, and assured me he was firmly in the Republican camp. I wasn’t sure how exactly to ask a complete stranger if he wouldn’t mind talking with me for several hours, but this problem solved itself when I went to return the bike we’d borrowed the day before, and he offered to take me on a tour of the local college campus.
Madison had been over-taken by the Ironman Triathlon that day, and Tim and I ended up in his car for most of the tour as we searched for campus roads that weren’t closed. While driving we talked about capitalism and economics and I related a few stories about international manufacturing that I’d recently learned from Planet Money. He told me he thought the people still singing in the capitol building were just whining because they lost the recall election, and I explained how in Seattle, photos of the Madison protestors were shown adjacent to the Arab Spring.
Tim told me about how he and his wife live in Florida for six months of the year. When they drive down they do so without stopping to sleep. It’s 27 hours to get from Madison to their home in Florida, and they do it with a dog and two cats. He said he and his wife prefer it this way; they don’t like to stop. Plus, it means they can time their drive to take advantage to low-traffic periods. They never get stuck in Atlanta traffic because they drive through the city at two o’clock in the morning.
After giving up on the college and finding all his preferred dining establishments closed on Sundays, Tim and I grabbed some pizza at a local chain restaurant. Back at the house his wife handed me some homemade cookies for the road, and Tim recommended I stop in La Crosse on my way to Minneapolis.
And that was my day with a conservative.
I was afraid that living in a bubble of my own values was going to force me to see opposing viewpoints as crazy, and the people who held them as monsters. I wanted to go out into the world and meet these people first hand, and remind myself that they are no different than the rest of us. I wanted to hear their views straight from their mouths and gain a better understanding of where the thinking was rooted.
What a moron I was.
If traveling around the United States has taught me nothing else, it taught me that we are all inclined to believe that the majority of people we encounter agree with us. It is universal. It happens during casual party conversation and at the fast food counter. We carry our bias with us everywhere, and we don’t notice it because it usually doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I assume the woman making my hot chocolate at the coffee shop is a democrat, because it’s probably not going to come up. It doesn’t matter if I assume she recycles regularly and would also love to visit New Zealand. It doesn’t matter because it’s unlikely any of these things will come up. I can keep believing them, and she can believe the complete opposite, and there will be no evidence of either if all we talk about is hot chocolate. Believe it or not, Libertarians and Socialists are capable of having incredibly non-confrontational conversations regarding cocoa.
The real bias that I was guilty of and needing to fix was my belief that I wasn’t already surrounded by opposing views. I was afraid of turning the opposing side into a faceless other, when that’s exactly what I’d done. I didn’t need to drive 15,000 miles to meet conservatives, I meet them all the time. Most of the time I don’t notice because when not discussing politics, liberals and conservatives are (surprise) pretty much the same. I know plenty of ideologically conservative people. I just don’t talk about politics with them. Why? Because I don’t want every casual conversation to turn into a debate. And I understand that I probably won’t be able to change their mind, since I know they won’t change mine. So we don’t bring it up.
During my travels I had so many polite conversations with so many people that probably didn’t know how different I was from them. We all assume other people are just like us. My conversation with Tim was very cordial, very polite. We spent most of it finding all the ways in which we agree. Because that’s what people do. When face to face we’d rather agree with each other, because it reinforces the notion that we were both right all along. All sides do it. It’s yet another way in which we are alike. And I suppose that’s the thing I drove around the country to learn.
I didn’t have to go to Wisconsin to meet a conservative. Of course, I didn’t know that until I got there.
Of course a very large portion of Washington is conservative. You would just need to step out of Seattle. But you are right – most of the time, we will never know, because it won’t come up.