Third Way’s researchers are far from the only Americans inspired to undertake anthropological journeys in the past year. Nearly a year after Donald Trump’s election shocked the prognosticators, ivory-tower types are still sifting through the wreckage. Group after group of befuddled elites has crisscrossed America to poke and prod and try to figure out what they missed—“Margaret Meads among the Samoans,” one prominent strategist remarked to me.
HuffPo embarked on a 23-city bus tour to get to know places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Odessa, Texas. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg undertook a series of carefully choreographed interactions with factory workers and people on tractors. The liberal pollster Stan Greenberg appeared at the National Press Club to discuss his findings from a series of focus groups with “Obama-Trump” voters in Macomb County, Michigan. A new group of Democratic elected officials hosted a “Winning Back the Heartland” strategy conference in Des Moines this month. The title of yet another research project, a bipartisan study underwritten by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, encapsulates the sentiment: “Stranger in My Own Country.”…
The other groups of anthropologists roaming Middle America face the same quandary. Having gotten the country drastically wrong, they have set out on well-meaning missions to bring the country together by increasing mutual understanding. They share Third Way’s basic assumption that mutual understanding is something Americans can agree to find desirable. But as hard as they try to open their minds to new perspectives, are they ready to have that basic assumption challenged?
The researchers I rode with had dived into the heart of America with the best of intentions and the openest of minds. They believed that their only goal was to emerge with a better understanding of their country. And yet the conclusions they drew from what they heard corresponded only roughly to what I heard. Instead, they seemed to revert to their preconceptions, squeezing their findings into the same old mold. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the other delegations of earnest listeners are returning with similarly comforting, selective lessons. If the aim of such tours is to find new ways to bring the country together, or new political messages for a changed electorate, the chances of success seem remote as long as even the sharpest researchers are only capable of seeing what they want to see.
Theoretically, academic ethnographic fieldwork should be different than some of the approaches described here which primarily seem to be concerned with finding support or reassurance that liberal perspectives or approaches resonate to some degree throughout the United States. An academic approach could better disentangle personal political views from those of the group who is being studied, or at least clearly demarcate when the personal subjectivity of the researcher influences the interpretation of the group under study. Such academic studies already exist – such as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in a Strange Land which she summarizes here – and surely more are to come. What will the academic consensus be within ten or twenty years and how will it sit beside more partisan interpretations of the 2016 elections?
In related matters, Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans holding a combination of conservative and liberal viewpoints has decreased. Thus, the growing need for the two sides to embark on safaris to interact with and try to understand fellow citizens (who do not even necessarily live that far away if we look at Democrat-Republican splits between big cities and outer suburbs).