Changed My Mind: a Republican’s journey to backing criminal justice reform
How America's broken prison system brought a staunch Democrat and Republican together.
Jordan Blashek, a Republican former marine and Chris Haugh, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, criss-crossed the country searching for ways to rebuild a divided nation for their book ‘Union: a Democrat, a Republic and a Search for Common Ground’.
They discuss how their four years of road trips revealed failings in the criminal justice system and why they believe it's still possible to get people on either side of the political spectrum to agree with one another.
Changed My Mind is a podcast from The Depolarization Project. Each week, we talk to someone who has undergone a serious shift of opinion about something that matters deeply to them. It's hosted by chief executive Ali Goldsworthy together with behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield and director of campaigns and communications at London First, Laura Osborne.
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Jordan [00:00:00] I had a general view that, yes, we potentially over incarcerate too many people in the United States, but for the most part we have a fair justice system that is working and that good law enforcement is the pillar of a secure and free society. And on our journeys, we spend some time in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Detroit trying to better understand the criminal justice system and seeing it firsthand. That leads to these spirals and in cycles of incarceration that really defy the American value of redemption and second chances. And so coming out of these trips, I changed my perspective on criminal justice.
Ali [00:00:45] Welcome to Changed My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders what they've changed their mind on and why. I'm Ali Goldsworthy, the Chief Executive of the Depolarization Project. You've just heard from one of our two guests today, Jordan Blashek, on how exposure to America's criminal justice system made him realize how broken it was. Jordan is the coauthor with Christopher Haugh of Union: a Democrat or Republican and a Search for Common Ground.
[00:01:14] But before we get to that interview, I'd like to invite you to sign up for our email newsletter at depolarizationproject.com. We promote the show with Open Democracy to the eight million regular monthly visitors. You can find the back catalogue to our shows are more information on this episode of opendemocracy.net/depolarizationproject. I'm joined for today's episode by my co-hosts, communicator and business thinker Laura Osborne.
Laura [00:01:42] Hi, Ali.
Ali [00:01:43] And our behavioural insight expert, Alex Chesterfield. Hi, Alex.
Alex [00:01:47] Hi Ali, hi Laura.
Ali [00:01:48] So what really stood out for you from this interview with Jordan and Chris, Alex?
Alex [00:01:54] So for me, one really striking thing was what Jordan had changed his mind on, so the criminal justice system and how effective or ineffective it is at reducing crime. As a fellow conservative albeit in the UK, I've been on a kind of similar journey. So I think my own views was to be much, much more hard line. But like him over time and actually studying human behavior has made me much more paternalistic and I've really begun to reflect on them.
Ali [00:02:23] And what about you, Laura? What should listeners look out for?
Laura [00:02:26] It was really interesting for us to hear Jordan's experience in the military. I think it gave us a really fresh perspective and one we haven't really had on the podcast before. And obviously, political conflicts and violence in the field of war are very different things. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned from the two considered together. His candidness about a time when someone he'd trained in Afghanistan shot a colleague was a reminder about just how high the stakes, the encounters he dealt with were it is something very different for our listeners to reflect on. What chimed with you, Ali?
Ali [00:02:59] Well, for me, sort of with a more political background, it was Chris who's a former speechwriter in the Obama administration, and he talks about the power of storytelling to both polarize and build common ground. The incentive for, in so many ways, for how our brains like to think and engage with stories involves identifying an us and a them. So Star Wars fans, or even if you're not, it's hard to avoid it, think about the dark side and the rebellion and how it's framed there. But it can make it really difficult for us to live in the gray and to embrace nuance. How he explores that, to me, that's really interesting.
Alex [00:03:34] I can't wait to hear him talk about that.
Ali [00:03:36] Well, let's give Jordan and Chris, who are both based in the States, a call.
Ali [00:03:48] Jordan and Chris, welcome to Changed My Mind.
Jordan [00:03:50] Thank you so much for having us.
Chris [00:03:51] It's good to be here.
Ali [00:03:53] Yeah, it's lovely to have you.
Laura [00:03:54] So your book, Union: a Democrat and a Republican and a Search for Common Ground is a story of both your a friendship and a road trip across America, and really America's story as well. Why did you write it and what did you find?
Jordan [00:04:09] Yeah. So we wrote this book after taking six road trips across the United States covering about twenty thousand miles and forty four states. And when we first started, these road trips were a lark. We had no book in mind. We just wanted to see the country and to deepen our friendship. And this was taking place right before and then after the 2016 election when we found that Americans just seemed to be driving further and further apart from one another. And the same is true for us. We found that a lot of our conversations were breaking down over politics. And so we wanted to kind of understand what was happening across the country and over the course of these road trips, we found that we were meeting all of these people who were showing us something deep about American life and Americans. And we were also having these much better conversations out on the road. There was something about the setting, the natural beauty and the time and space to have deep conversations that was allowing us to get past the partisan divide that we found ourselves kind of stumbling into and to get to something deeper that bound us together. And so ultimately, we decided that there was an uplifting story here that we wanted to tell. We wanted to share what we were seeing and learning about people across the country with a broader audience. And that's when the book was created.
Ali [00:05:26] I'll come back to the book in a minute. Jordan, I know you anyway, we went to college or for our British listeners, university together and you do bill this book as a story of an unlikely friendship. And unfortunately, because I know Jordan, I that he's really lovely and kind and thoughtful to people at the other end of the political spectrum. So I guess what I want to ask is if you really thought it was that unlikely that a Democrat and a liberal would get on so well with someone who was a Republican, particularly with Jordan?
[00:05:54] Yeah, I mean, absolutely. He is, you know, he's a wonderful guy and he's easy to talk to, although I do wonder if you guys have really gotten into it because he can be pretty good at a partizan battle if he wants to be. But what I think a big, big point of this book is that there are thousands of Jordans out there and that it may not seem like it, if not millions, you know. And maybe not as talented in so many other ways, but in the end.
Jordan [00:06:19] Aw, thanks Chris.
Chris [00:06:21] I gotcha, buddy. The simple fact that, you know, there are people who want a dialogue and there's people who are kind and there are people who are welcoming and interested and understanding and are complex thinkers. Another point here, though, is that we were lucky in that we were able to sort of isolate a variable. You know, Jordan is open to conversation. I'd like to think I am, too. We're both from California. We both we have a similar educational history and that we met at law school. But we are different across this partisan line. And that enough that one variable was enough to nearly break us apart a few times. And the simple fact is that just that one variable was what made this book difficult and and amazing and enriching. But I can't imagine how hard it would be if there were other sort of important differences that we couldn't have, say, addressed right away because we almost walked away as is. Jordan is kind and wonderful, but that's kind of the point.
Ali [00:07:21] Jordan I wanted to get your take on that. Chris talked about the partizan divides, at points they really did nearly rip you apart. Is there an example of one of those for you? Did you feel the same way?
Jordan [00:07:30] Yes. And first, thank you all. You're being so sweet to me. This is a great boost to my ego. Yeah, I think we. There's this study that was done after the 2016 election that found that almost a fifth of the country lost a close friend over the election. And there's something about politics that has its way of creating divides among even people who shared these deep bonds of friendship or family. And Chris and I found ourselves kind of stumbling into that over and over again. And I remember one fight in particular around undocumented immigration. We were driving through the middle of nowhere in Nevada and somehow stumbled into this conversation about the president's rhetoric and the issue of the border wall and undocumented immigration that just spiraled out of control. And we started leveling these very intense accusations at one another. And it led to this question of in both our minds of why are we doing this? Why would I engage with this person? I don't even know or trust this person anymore. And we didn't talk for a few hours. And it took time for us to to heal coming out of that fight and to reconcile.
Ali [00:08:41] And do you think, I'm struck that I presume you were still in the car at this point when you were going for a couple of hours afterwards? Do you think it actually helped that neither of you could physically get away from the other one?
Chris [00:08:52] Hundred percent. That's literally the only reason I think that we were able to come back to the table is we are hundreds of miles away from the nearest town. And I didn't know neither of us really like the idea of walking across a desert in Nevada. And that was really informative for us, you know, and that we were we were forced to go through the process of, my God, I'm so mad at him. How can he say that? Well, you know, maybe I didn't say that right, or maybe I got a little too hot. Oh, I wish I had said that differently. And I guess I could hear what he's saying on that point. And then maybe I should say something and then eventually come back to that moment of grace where we say, I love you, man, or, you know, I'm sorry, I'm still upset. But like, I love you. And let's try this again. We were forced to go through that process and thank God we were. Otherwise we wouldn't have a book right now.
Ali [00:09:43] Yeah. And it sounds like it was very formative. And I'm just wondering about in the broader context, in terms of what's been going on in America since 2016, whether you think that how you guys found common ground then is replicable for other people. You know, because getting stuck in a car in the middle of a desert in Nevada feels like quite an extreme place. And you two already knew each other and liked each other, right?
Jordan [00:10:09] Yes, that's right. We did like each other. We had this great early friendship going into this. And not everyone has the opportunity to get in a car and travel for all those miles. I think Chris and I were very lucky and we feel so grateful for the time we had and the ability to do that. But we do think there's some lessons that we learned on the road that anybody can adopt. And I think this is most important for people in their most valued relationships. So with your friends and family and the people you love and figuring out if there are differences, how to overcome them, and the three things we learned that were very helpful for us were, first, that when you enter these kind of conversations, that if your intention is to win or to change the other person's mind, it's probably not going to go that well. We found that when we enter conversations with those intentions, it often turn into these tit for tat political arguments where we weren't actually listening to the other side. We were just waiting for our chance to score the next point or bring our own facts or data to bear. And those usually spiraled out of control. So instead, we started having conversations where we entered with the intention just to learn from the other side. And we found that in doing so, it made our own positions better, and our own views stronger, more reasoned and nuanced. And it led to better conversations. Second, we realized that a lot of our assumptions about the other side turned out to be wrong. And usually when we looked at someone as a Democrat or Republican and assumed that we knew what they would think on a given issue, our assumptions misled us and led us into arguments that we shouldn't have been having because we were defending our party as opposed to articulating our own genuine beliefs on the issue. And so having that humility to say, you know, I don't know what this person believes deep down and I want to take the time to understand. So I'm gonna ask questions and really learn how it is they see an issue led to much better conversations. And then third and finally, we stripped away the labels. We learned to identify each other not as Democrats or Republicans with beliefs motivated by partizan ideology, but instead as the deeper identities that we both carried that matter to us. So for me, it was as a Marine and I wanted Chris to understand my perspective, having served this country overseas and doing it through those eyes. And similarly, I learned to see Chris as a journalist and someone who grew up in Berkeley and grew up around activists his whole life. And it gave me a much deeper appreciation for why he approached issues the way he did. And taking those three lessons, we were able to have much better conversations and we think everyone can do that.
Laura [00:12:34] That's very interesting. Before I pick up on your time as a Marine, Jordan, I just wanted to ask you both when you were writing the book, I was really struck at the start that you made quite deliberate decisions about how you were going to write it and writing it very much as a story. Did you do that so that people could take more from it without, you know, immediately trying to disagree or pick a side? Was that quite deliberate and conscious decision?
[00:12:59] Yes. I believe that story is one of the most powerful mechanisms for imparting lessons. You know, I was a speechwriter before I went to law school, before I met Jordan. I guess I still am recovering speechwriter some might say. And everyone in that profession agrees that if you really want to get something across, make sure you got a story to tell. Make sure you've got an anecdote. Make sure you're able to abide by the principles of great literature or good film. You've got beginning middles and ends. You've got characters they develop that they have to get around obstacles because that's just how human brains work. You know, we desire story, we desire narratives. And the other truth of the matter, too, is that we really wanted to write a raw book that shows the ways in which we made mistakes, the ways in which we tried to correct those mistakes. Because I think it's really important that people understand that the pursuit of common ground or any pursuit really is messy, that you're gonna fall down and you're gonna have to correct mistakes and you've got to learn from them. And that's that's human, too. It's as human as wanting to be told a good story. And so, you know, often I think when you're out promoting a book you have these lessons and these lessons are really, really powerful. But I think it's important to know the process by which we got to those lessons, because if you show your work, you can understand how hard won they were or the ways in which that there is nuance to them. So yeah, absolutely, I think the story is the most, I hope it's that the most compelling part of Union.
Laura [00:14:43] That makes sense. And also, when you get to the conclusion of that book, I think telling it that way helps you share some quite profound observations about what we're like as humans. You know, you've seen people in 44 and I know you were trying to get to forty five states. But some quite interesting points there about how destructive we can be, but also how hopeful, and I think you bring that to life very, very much in the way you tell it. So, Jordan, going back to your time as a Marine and doing tours in Afghanistan. I wanted to understand a bit from you on what you learn from that period of your life and how that informs how you engage and find common ground and indeed, whether there are lessons from that that could be applied more broadly?
Jordan [00:15:29] I think there were two major lessons I learned from my experience overseas. The first informed my view going into these road trips, which was that we were going to find hopeful signs for America wherever we went. I had this deep faith in the American people and I was excited to show Chris what we would find. And a lot of that was from my experience as a Marine, where we would take these 18 year olds from all across the country, from every different background, socio economic class, race, religion, and we would bring them together. And it was never pretty. They had fights with each other. They had conflicts. They were normal, disruptive 18 year olds. But then you brought them overseas and put them into life-and-death situations. And I was always in awe of what these these young men and women could achieve and how they would come together to accomplish the incredible. And they did that and risked their lives for people they didn't know. They would go out of their way to protect men and women, Afghans who they didn't know. And seeing Americans do that, you can't help but have this deep faith in the American people that there is something special about who we are, that our young men and women would be willing to do that overseas. And I expected to find that across the country. And so the Marine experience really shaped my view going into these trips. And as we get into in the book, I started out as an optimist. And Chris started out more skeptical. But at the end, we kind of reconcile to this point where we acknowledged that there are these deep structural issues we face as a country and they're challenging. And yet there's amazing people on the ground who are working every day to make their communities better. And that left us both hopeful. And so I think that was really informed by my military experience. The second lesson I learned, I was an adviser to the Afghan army. And so my job was to embed with Afghan units and to get them to a better place through persuasion. And that had to happen through forging these intimate bonds with the Afghan army soldiers and leaders. And we spent months doing that. And what I learned from that experience was, first, that you can connect with anybody. It's just a matter of being open to it and making the effort. And second, that especially breaking bread with people. So sitting down together over a meal, a meal or tea has a way of bringing down all barriers and getting to the human side of each other. And Chris and I took that on the road and we tried to meet people where they were and forge these instant connections by just being open to it. And often they invited us into their lives. And we had meals together. And we formed these really deep connections with people we otherwise had nothing in common with. And so I think that lesson from Marines also translated it really well.
Ali [00:18:32] That's really interesting. I've noticed that both of you that you're quite like, look for the light in the dark sort of people. And I agree with you. And that's an important part of storytelling as well. I'm sure we'll come back to that. Occasionally, I think it's it's really important to look at the dark as well, and I wondered Jordan if there was a time where that approach in Afghanistan actually when it didn't work and if that was the case, why it didn't work on those occasions.
Jordan [00:18:56] Yes. Well, that's that's certainly true. The biggest threat to American soldiers and Marines that year in Afghanistan were green on blue attacks, which is when an Afghan soldier turns and shoots at one of the Marines. And that year I was in Afghanistan. I think there were there are somewhere around 60 American deaths from green on blue attacks. And the unit I was training when I left Afghanistan a week later, the Marine who replaced me was shot at by one of the Afghan soldiers I was training. And so that was that was a near miss in my life that could have ended very differently. And, you know, I think that the takeaway from that is, you know, you could get along with 99 percent of people through that method, but there might be one percent who you don't. And that is dangerous. And there is dark and Chris and I left these road trips, I think humbled about the fact that there are these really dark spots in America at the moment and deep problems to be wrestled with. And yet, I think coming out of it, we wanted to focus on the light because too few people in the media and on social media are doing that. And so this book is really pointing to the fact that the vast majority of Americans are good, decent, warm people who really just want what's best for each other, for their communities and for the country. And that's what we wanted to point to.
Ali [00:20:22] Thanks.
Chris [00:20:22] Boy, you guys are good, I've spent hours in the car with Jordan and I've never heard that story before.
Ali [00:20:28] Chris, because I wanted to come back to where you talked about storytelling, because we've done quite a bit of thinking about that and how that might contribute to polarization. And particularly one of the most common narratives is around a hero's journey and making people the hero and how that actually makes it quite divisive as a storytelling piece of rhetoric, because it's really hard once you lionize someone to spot their faults or for them to admit that they got anything wrong. And I just wondered, given your experience, if you had any reflections on that.
Chris [00:23:12] Oh absolutely, I love these questions. Yeah, I think the heroes' journey is a, this might not be the right way to put it, but it's played out. I think it's a narrative that has been propagated for a long time and what's difficult about it in this day and age is that we all know how complicated we are. It's no surprise that our favourite heroes on TV or on film or in books now are anti heroes, they have tragic flaws. It's because the world is compled and it's because telling the story of a hero is inauthentic if that hero doesn't have to in some way overcome a shortcoming of their own or a tragic flaw. That goes to our philosophy of this book, we decided to write it with our internal dialogues and also with the ugly things to one another for that very reason. We're not experts in common ground other than that we took these trips to try and uncover lessons about it. We made mistakes. And I think it plays into our politics which is you have to authentic to break through today. Everywhere we went on the road people who ended up taling about politics felt really uncomfortable with Washington and our leaders in Washtington because they sense this tinniness, this inauthenticity that they did feel in people like Donald Trump in certain circumstances, or Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders, these sort of outsider perspectives that aren't, that don't sound like talking points or that they were forged by people like me. And so I think that plays into the falling apart of the hero's journey. We need a different paradigm if we're going to capture the stories of the 21st century. And I think you're starting to see that if you look around our media stories are getting more complex, there's more voices, there's different kinds of stories and that's really encouraging.
Ali [00:23:12] Is there an example of one of those stories that's really stuck out for you?
Chris [00:23:15] A specific story, I've been reading about, I just love that there are new voices in the media for example like Wesley Lowery, for example, or all the writers behind the 1610 project. Those voices were not in our media not that long ago. So that's one example. I come back to Barack Obama my political hero, who told a very different story about America from a very different perspective, I know that's kind of old hat now, we've known about him since 2007, most of us, but that's a story about America that is extremely complex, has its twists and turns, isn't linear in the traditional JFK political sense, and I think yo'ure just seeing it more and more in how we tell our stories and how the media tries to tell the story of America.
Ali [00:24:06] And I suppose my final question for you about your time in politics, is clearly you worked quite up close and personal with people when you're a speechwriter, was there any times when you saw a politician change their mind about something that left a mark on you? What was it?
Chris [00:24:20] Yeah, I mean, I should be honest. I was a grunt. I was a happy grunt. But I will say that part of my job was keeping the secretary's history because he wouldn't always have a chance to sit down with us for two hours next to a fire, you know, pour a drink and talk about what brought him to that moment. And so I spent a lot of time living as much as I could in his shoes, trying to understand what experiences were formative to him. And one that came to mind that comes to mind just now when you're talking is his time with John McCain in trying to reopen and forge a lasting peace with Vietnam in the 90s under Clinton and how formative that was for Kerry watching McCain go from a man who was a POW who refused to go to be released, you know, to be the last one out to harboring all these feelings about that war to being one of the leaders of with Kerry and Clinton of the movement to put a stop to the simmering hostilities over decades and how powerful that was as a lesson to Kerry, who had fought in the same war and had come out of it on the opposite side, feeling very differently about what were the right ways to handle that issue. But both of them came together, talked for hours. I mean, that's a really important part of that story, that they had these long flights together where they're able to talk about their experience and how they came to what they believed. And they both decided that there was one solution to this, which was getting together and working to find a lasting peace that worked for all sides. And McCain took some took some fire for it. You know, he stepped out and said, I believe in this in this mission at a time when that was unpopular. And, you know, Kerry tried to do his best at his back and and they worked together. And, you know, to me, that was a really formative story, not just in how I look at the secretary who I have a lot of admiration for, but also how I talk with Jordan. I mean, I think there's something to hearing those stories. I mean, Jordan just told me a story about his service I'd never heard before. And listening and trying to figure out where someone's coming from. I think that's so powerful.
Laura [00:26:47] And so now I'd like to ask both of you the question that we ask everyone who joins us, and perhaps if I ask you first, Jordan, about the time you've changed your mind on a substantive issue and what it was and why.
Jordan [00:27:00] Yeah, that's a great question. I think the issue that comes to mind for me that came out of this book was my position on criminal justice reform. I think going into these trips, coming from the military and law enforcement background, I had a general view that, yes, we potentially over incarcerate too many people in the United States. But for the most part, we have a fair justice system that is working and that good law enforcement is the pillar of a secure and free society. And on our journeys, we spend some time in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Detroit trying to better understand the criminal justice system. And seeing it firsthand, I got a much better and deeper understanding of how difficult it is to actually have a second chance coming out of prison and the set of tripwires that are laid for people as they exit that leads to these spirals and cycles of of incarceration that really defy the American value of redemption and second chances. And so coming out of these trips, I change my perspective on criminal justice. And I've actually made it a big part of my day job. Now I work for a foundation that that tries to use technology and talent to solve big societal and global challenges. And I convinced our founder to make criminal justice reform a big pillar of what we're doing, given my experience, because I do think it is one of the main areas that I saw in American life where the practice on the ground is so far from the ideals we have as a country that it's time for a lot of reform. And that would be the big shift I had in the last few years.
Laura [00:28:51] And in the work you're doing now, how much have those stories, firsthand experiences change your perspective had an impact on how you approach what the solutions might be?
Jordan [00:29:02] So I think I think the way it's affected it is. First in interest humanizing the issue, I think in until it's humanized, it's very hard to have a sense for the policies and the technology that actually impacts people's lives. And it's easy to abstract to this sort of higher policy level discussion without understanding how difficult and complex it is at the ground level and therefore what empathy is needed as we go about to reform it. I think more importantly, from a practical perspective, so often the policy discussions or the efforts around criminal justice reform occur with the solution in mind from the beginning. And to take for an example, there's an organization that is trying to use better data to promote criminal justice reform. And they did so without actually going to talk to the people who day to day actually have to manipulate the data and figure out what what measures to track. And in doing so, they spent tens of millions of dollars with almost no result, because at the end of the day, the data they did have wasn't actually useful in any meaningful way. And I think that that's similar story happens all the time when reform efforts or non-profits get involved on various things. And so it has led us to take a much more user centric perspective. And whether that's the frontline person in the criminal justice system who is day to day responsible for decisions or it's the person coming out of the system who is faced with these complex array of challenges in front of them. And it doesn't know how to navigate them. All of our solutions try to begin with that user perspective in mind and then figure out what technology or policies can be developed in order to add to alleviate some of the problems.
Laura [00:31:04] Thank you.
Ali [00:31:05] Jordan, you've been extremely modest there about the person whose mind that you changed, which was Eric Schmidt.
Chris [00:31:11] I'm glad I'm not the only one who has to call that out.
Ali [00:31:14] I was just like, come on. I know you're really, like, humble. And I can sense you blushing, so I'm going to keep going. You changed the mind of the guy who founded Google about how he was gonna spend his money on criminal justice reform. And I think that it's deserving of a little bit more praise than you might just given yourself.
Jordan [00:31:32] So to be fair, Eric was was very open to it already. I think it was something that he kind of knew he cared a bit about. And once I kind of laid out the strategy we could take, he was immediately on board, so I didn't really do that much.
Chris [00:31:50] Jordan, do Marines blush? I can't remember.
Jordan [00:31:54] You can't see the blushing underneath all the camouflage paint we usually have on.
Laura [00:31:58] So, Chris, I'll come back and ask you the same question. Perhaps you could tell us about a time you've changed your mind on a big issue and why you changed it and what happened.
Chris [00:32:11] Yeah. I'm going to talk about one that's a little bit new for me. So, you know, maybe you guys can help me think through it. But, you know, I started my journeys with Jordan, a huge believer in the power of journalism. I was the kid who was reading All the President's Men over and over again and had Bob Woodward on as background, his phone for years. All I wanted to do was was be part of a newspaper and do the work that I thought was sort of uncomplicated in that it was objectively good. And while I still feel that way, to a large extent, Jordan and I have had these long conversations about the ways in which the media is sort of unaware of its own bias, of the ways in which it's kind of falling down on the job. And, you know, I was quick to dismiss it as, you know, oh, you're you're talking about, you know, Fox News or, you know, some far left organizations or, you know, that's just conservative talking points. Or, you know, I had my dismissals, but through time and with Jordan's very, very powerful arguments, I'm starting to see the ways in which the principles of quote unquote, objective journalism, are not as sacrosanct as they may have once been. And I hope they will be again. You know, I'm seeing the breakdown of what we call church and state. You know, the difference between opinion and reportage. You know, it's now a critique that's that's being carried forward, albeit in a very different way, by young minority reporters who are pointing out the flaws in the system and the ways in which there's been mission creep at at places, these legacy institutions. And I'm seeing that crisis in the media now. And while I think the solution is a doubling or tripling or quadrupling down on these these hard won lessons of great reporting, whether it's going to the scene, talking to as many people as possible, setting aside your personal biases as much as you can, even in the context of unconscious bias and all we now know about it, I think it's still a beautiful mission and then abiding by fact checking and these hard principles. That said, I am starting to see the ways in which journalism has to adapt and journalism has to change in this new world in which information is democratized. And pretty much everyone can be that sort of old school journalists with their notebook going out and talking to the source. There has to be a reckoning. And I've gone from very sort of heels, dug in, no there's nothing wrong, just look at these reporters and that's the heart of the movement, to really understanding that all journalists, including myself and I'm sort of a unique journalist, having been in government and now writing this book with Jordan. But I still believe in it. And I think that there needs to be some soul searching done. And Jordan really helped me sort of eventually see that.
Laura [00:35:16] And you talked about a reckoning there. I wonder how do you think that can move forward? How do you think you can find a set of principles that work for the world as it is now? That still has the integrity that you would have associated with the original rules, if you like?
Chris [00:35:35] That's a really good question. I mean, I would point to the conditions under which that sort of solution can be found. And that is a wild, diverse press, free press where there's so many different voices. I mean, that's the beauty of our system. The First Amendment and the way we've kind of designed this free wheeling marketplace of ideas where you can go to the Times or you can go to Breitbart and you get to choose. And I think that you quickly sort of start to see in those sorts of conditions new voices popping up to the front, whether it's through like blogging or having your own Substack or whether it's a big legacy institution has as sort of seen the importance of this new voice and bring it in. And I think the natural conditions for finding it are there. It's gonna be bumpy. But I think the most important part is making sure that all those voices are in the conversation. And what I fear is that we are becoming myopic in our understanding of journalism. And who should be on an oped page or who should be reporting. And I think the louder our conversation is, the better. And I mean, maybe not louder, but the larger the chorus, the better is really where we're gonna find a solution. And that actually might not be all that popular an opinion right now. But that's where I think we'll come to the solutions. Do I know those solutions? I don't think so. And I think that's the lesson of Union that Jordan and I gathered, which is listening first is really powerful. There's so much information out there. There's so many different perspectives. It's impossible as like a sole hero to to take it all in and to understand it and say, I know what's right. And the more you're listening to Jordan or the more you're listening to, you know, Wesley Lowery or, you know, all of these really powerful voices out there, the better chance you have of coming to the best solution, because it's an impossible question for one person to ask and answer, excuse me. Everyone can ask it. It's hard to answer. The more voices you have, the better.
Ali [00:37:36] And just to pick up on that, you talked a lot about listening to Jordan and to other people, what did Jordan say that changed your mind on this?
Chris [00:37:46] I mean another one of our lessons is keep going back to the table — that there's not one conversation or one place that you're going to solve a problem or convince someone, especially something that they hold so, so dearly, like I do. This is something that formed my first perspective on my career philosophy. So, you know, it was a series of of events. Introducing me to his quiver of podcasts that he listens to. It's sending me articles. It's listening. Letting me, like, argue my way through a problem and asking probing questions. It's hard for me to pinpoint a single moment. But we've had I'd say, man, Jordan, what do you think? I mean, hundreds of conversations about media and the role of media in a functioning democracy. I mean, it's it is a long process.
Ali [00:38:40] Yeah. And we haven't talked too much about the people that you write about in your book, who you met when you were on the road. Were there any of those who changed your mind about anything that had left a particularly profound impact on you?
Jordan [00:38:54] You know, I think we met so many people who each impacted us in various ways and changed our minds on various things. I think one that's coming up for me right now is this musician in New Orleans we met. Who Chris had met on a plane years earlier and they had somehow stayed in touch. And we decided to go to New Orleans because we thought there was something special about music and art that brings people together in a way that no other facet of life can do. And so if we are going to explore that, New Orleans seems the best place to do it. And I remember sitting down with his name is John Michael. And we sat down with him and sort of explained our idea to him. And he just started riffing about it. And he said, you know, the reason music is so beautiful is that there's nothing dualistic about it. You could come that a tune from any direction and love it for your own reason. There's no right way to love a tune. And I think he said it. I can't remember. But the lesson we took from that is one of the challenges we face right now as a country is everybody has this very dualistic sense of who we are as Americans. So you either believe our history is good or you don't. You either believe that black lives matter or you don't. You think Trump is a racist or you don't. And it's so dualistic. And yet when we look at the country, having spent years on the road trying to understand the American people and to understand each other, I think what we came to was exactly what John Michael said about music, which is you can come at this country from an infinite number of directions and it doesn't really matter why you love it or don't love it. All that matters is that you engage as part of the American project. That's sort of the beauty of this country, is that it is an ongoing project that we all get to be a part of. And everybody has their role to play in moving it forward and moving it towards more perfect union. And I think John Michael just perfectly captured that idea and changed I think how Chris and I looked at the country as well.
Ali [00:41:16] Thank you. The final question from us is I'd love to hear from you Chris, I'll start with you this time about someone you love to hear from by the time they changed their mind on an issue.
Chris [00:41:27] Yeah. So I was thinking about this a lot over the last 24 hours. And I think initially my thoughts went to people like George W. Bush and and Barack Obama and that sort of thing. And as I thought about it more, I think the one person I would be really interested to hear how they've changed their their mind on something is Clarence Thomas. Clarence Thomas is a Supreme Court justice who probably has the most consistent record in terms of how he approaches the Constitution and looks at issues. He's a textualist and an originalist, and he never deviates from it. And he's also very tight lipped on the court. So it's very rare that we get to kind of see inside his mind and how he's looking at an issue. And so given that sort of almost three, four decades of consistent consistency, I would love to know if he's changed his mind on something and what it was.
Ali [00:42:22] That's a fantastic answer. And you're right. Like, if you are someone who's super consistent and thoughtful and have a strong philosophical rut, then is it does that make it easier or less easy to change your mind? And Jordan, same question to you. Who would you like to hear from about time they changed their mind and why?
Jordan [00:42:38] Oh, yeah. So I wasn't sure that we were going to talk so much about artists. And this actually works works pretty well, I think, with the themes of what we've been talking about. But what I'm you know, I think there's a long tradition of political courage and, you know, stepping out and doing doing the hard thing. I mean, whether it's, you know, Kennedy's profiles in courage or, you know, various works of art about, you know, that sort of theme, I think it's out there. I'm really curious how other disciplines come at an issue like that. Like, I'm very interested in how the artist changes their mind. I mean, I think one of you said I can remember who was something about how it's it's so hard to live in uncertainty and to tell a good story. I think that's the work of the great artist is how to how to say something within all this uncertainty, all these unknowable answers. So my answer would be, as someone, you know, like a modern artist of great renown, like someone like Paul Thomas Anderson. I would love to hear how someone you created There Will Be Blood thinks about issues and gets to the point where they're convinced that they were wrong or that they need to change their mind on something. I think it looks very different than, say, a politician going out and saying I was wrong. I need to change. So, yeah, that'll be my answer.
Ali [00:43:58] Thank you. Laura, do you have any final question?
Laura [00:44:01] I just wanted to thank you both very much for sharing such thoughtful answers with us all the way through.
Jordan [00:44:06] Well, thank you so much for having us.
Ali [00:44:15] Before we discuss, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.
Mary [00:44:21] Hello, I'm Mary Fitzgerald, editor in chief at Open Democracy. We exist to bring you the latest reporting and analysis on social and political issues around the world. We're here to educate citizens, challenge power and encourage democratic debate just as this podcast does. To find out more about us and to make a contribution to our work, visit opendemocracy.net.
Ali [00:44:44] So now we've heard the full interview. Was there anything you wanted to reflect on, Laura?
Laura [00:44:48] Yeah, there was so much, I think, Jordan's modesty in how he influenced his boss, Eric Schmidt of Google's fame mind really stood out to me. You know, when business leaders reached that level of success, it can be even more difficult to talk truth to power and to give clear advice on how they should use their power and influence in a way that really makes a difference. So, you know, I thought Jordan's real skill, which he undersold himself, actually was a cogency with which he put his case. And I wonder if that's something that his military training would have helped to prepare him for. Yeah, it was really refreshing also to me as a Brit, to hear his voice as a Republican come across so thoughtfully. You know, I'm always struck by the enthusiasm of Americans, the American nation. You know, it's not really a tone you hear from us weary Brits this side of the pond.
Ali [00:45:34] Yes. I think when you'd be managing gentle decline for many decades, it's sort of refreshing and slightly jarring, isn't it? But having been here for four years now, I have to say I find it slightly endearing. I wanted to touch on Chris's reflections on the role of the press and media and polarization. He made reference to the 1619 initiative by The New York Times, which I really hard recommend to listeners and will include a link in the show notes. It documents the history of American since the first slave ship arrived in 1619 and features wonderful writers of color telling stories and perspectives that really should be better known. To me, it's obviously a good thing that diverse voices telling a more complicated and painful history and the role of the media is to help the powerless hold the powerful to account in exactly that way. However, the project's experienced quite significant backlash. And I'm not totally sure the press has got round to working out how to facilitate discussions from marginalized groups and the reckonings that come as a consequence. It's really, really difficult.
Alex [00:46:39] I was struck by that, too. When people's worldview gets challenged and their natural automatic response is to try and protect our own views. So I think a lot of the time. It's not just me that thinks that evidence suggests that we find all the flaws and counterarguments in the information we read it that goes against our own beliefs, which means actually at the end we will see a backfire effect. It ends up strengthening our own initial beliefs rather than moderating or changing our minds. Listeners may be familiar with the backfire effect, but there is more recent research showing that even though people can sometimes update their facts, they find it harder to update their beliefs. As this wonderful study done by US academic called Gaines and his colleagues using panel data collected over the duration of the Iraq war. And so in the study that Democrats and Republicans updated their factual beliefs as conditions changed in the war. But they interpreted the same factual beliefs quite differently, meaning that both Democrats and Republicans maintain that quite polarized opinions throughout time. Say, for example, whereas nearly all Democrats interpreted the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as evidence that they never existed. Republicans, on the other hand, inferred Iraq had either moved, destroyed or hidden the weapons. So the key message was that although people may update the facts like objective, reality doesn't mean they update their fundamental beliefs. So I think coming back to Chris and Jordan, this is one of the challenges to projects like the 1619 work. So though there are really important. And they must happen. They're not likely to be clear sailing.
Ali [00:48:16] And we'll put some links to the show notes for some of the studies that Alex just talked about and details of how you can buy Jordan and Chris's book. Have Jordan and Chris inspired you to think for time you changed your mind and why? Our next episode will be a special listeners edition of the podcast. Email [email protected] and tell us about the time you have changed your mind. The best response will get a copy of Chris and Jordan's book.
[00:48:44] That's all from us today. Thank you very much for listening to this episode of Changed My Mind, if you like what you heard. Don't forget, we have a full back catalogue of fascinating interviews with leaders. You can find them all by searching Changed My Mind in your podcast app. Thank you to Open Democracy for the support of the show, to Caroline Crampton for editing and to Kevin McCloud, whose Dreams Become Real is our theme music.
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