Last year, a group of liberal Jewish New Yorkers flew to Michigan to meet a group of conservative Christian corrections officers. It was an improbable experiment in bridging the political divide, arranged by a labor organizer from New York who happened to know both groups. I came along to see what would happen.
For three days, the mostly male, all-white, conservative Michigan Christians hosted the mostly female, all-white (and mostly older) New York liberal Jews in their homes.
Going into the trip, the participants had all kinds of ideas about one another. “When I first heard of it, I thought, ‘Why would I want to do this?’” says New Yorker Martha Ackelsberg.
In some ways, Ackelsberg fits the stereotype that Republicans have about liberals. Before retiring, she was a professor at Smith College, where she helped create the women’s studies program. She is a lesbian with short hair who wears sensible shoes and a faded, pale-blue backpack.
Caleb Follett signed up to host Ackelsberg. To liberals, he’s a prototypical conservative: a white Christian who supported Trump and endorses the idea of a border wall. He has a small arsenal of weaponry in his rural Michigan home, including an AR-15.
Americans on each side imagine that almost twice as many people on the other side hold extreme views than actually do, scholars Daniel Yudkin, Stephen Hawkins and Tim Dixon explain in a new report, “The Perception Gap.”
Real and consequential differences separate Americans, but the more divided we get, the more mistakes we make.
For example, Democrats estimate that about half of Republicans would admit that racism is still a problem in the United States, when in reality 79% of Republicans say so. Republicans, meanwhile, think fully half of Democrats would say that “most police are bad people.” The actual percentage is 15%.
Some amount of the time, we are fighting ghosts, not real people. And the more inaccurate our perceptions, the more likely we are to describe our opponents as “hateful” and “brainwashed,” the study found.
Ackelsberg was a good shot, to her surprise. Follett gave her a short lesson at the firing range. At the prison museum, he told her stories about what it is like to be a corrections officer in an overcrowded, understaffed prison system.
She found it hard to hold it all in her head. She could not help but want to change his mind on gun control, even though she knew how unlikely it was. Still, she discovered there was value in hearing him.
She learned that he held complicated views on immigration. He would also learn that she did not want an open border, as he’d assumed.
That summer, to complete the exchange, the Michigan conservatives flew to New York City and stayed in the apartments of the Jewish liberals.
Most had never been to New York before. They visited the 9/11 Memorial, attended Shabbat services and ate kosher fried rice in Chinatown. They all talked about how close they felt to one another, something they struggled to explain.
Follett found himself feeling unusually emotional around the New Yorkers. “This had a very therapeutic aspect to it,” he said, “because we were being heard, genuinely heard, by those that we felt misunderstood us.”
In New York, Follett stayed with Ackelsberg and her partner in their Washington Heights apartment. They had their first long conversation about gay rights. He was opposed to gay marriage, and he did not change his mind.
Nor did she, of course. She felt saddened by that distance but also grateful to know him. “It’s still really interesting to me — and hard to describe to people — that it matters so much that I have these people who feel like friends. Who are so different from me. I’ve never been in relationships like this before.”
It feels disorienting, she says, but also freeing — the way it feels when you look at one of those drawings that appears to be an old lady but then morphs into a young one right before your eyes. It’s a kind of awakening, one that makes life richer but also more complicated.
Amanda Ripley is an Emerson Collective senior fellow and a contributor to the Atlantic.