This week, Divided We Fall sat down with Jordan Blashek, former Marine Corps Infantry Officer, graduate of Stanford Graduate Business School and Yale Law School, and author of Union: A Democrat, A Republican, and a Search for Common Ground.
Joe Schuman: Thanks for joining us today, Jordan. In Union, you and your law school classmate, Chris Haugh, embark on a series of cross-country road trips through 44 states to explore America. But it was actually a journey in many parts, with several small trips during school vacations and breaks from work. I would like to know what caused you and Chris to embark on this journey not only once, but to decide to reembark over and over again.
Jordan Blashek: Chris and I met in law school and would frequently discuss politics. As the 2016 election got closer and closer, our once great conversations just kept breaking down over politics. But it was actually just for fun that he and I decided to do that first road trip across the country. I had to be in LA for my sister’s wedding and we thought it was just a great chance to go see the country. We felt we were following in the footsteps of others like Willian Zinsser in “American Places” and even de Tocqueville who have done similar journeys. It felt like an America rite of passage.
Once we were on the road, we found that we could have longer, deeper conversations. We also couldn’t walk away from each other if we got angry over politics. In a car, we had to keep coming back to these conversations and to find a way to reconcile our differences. We also met some people on the road who were very inspiring and showed us a different side of the country. Having had that experience, we decided we wanted to do it again. Every time we got on the road, there was something new we were learning. After our second road trip, we decided there was a story here. Seeing the country from the road gave us hope, and we wanted to share it with other people. That’s how the project was born.
Joe: You ended up travelling to 44 states. I have to mention that it is sort of my family’s claim to fame that we have been to all 50 states. And I can say from my own experience that travelling to every part of our vast country helps you see and feel the great diversity of our nation, but also the socioeconomic and political bubbles that we live in on a daily basis. I wonder if you saw that on your trip as well.
Jordan: That’s the interesting thing about the country. Everywhere you go is so diverse, so different, with unique cultures and ways of doing things. Yet there is also remarkable similarity. City to city, state to state, there is also a surprising amount of continuity. Even if you can’t do a trip like Chris and I did, I think you can still get a sense of the experience we had by taking a small road trip across a region of the country or something smaller.
Joe: That brings me to my next question. Your journey and the conclusions that you came to on it seem very experiential. It seems like you “had to be there.” How can you share the experience that you had with other people so they can experience something similar?
Jordan: That’s the power of stories. What we learned at the Trump rally in Arizona is that the dominant media narrative about two sides irreconcilably opposed was a gross oversimplification. There’s this simplistic narrative about protesters on one side and Trump’s supporters on the other. The reality on the ground is much more complex. There were many sides. And that is something we tried to communicate by letting the readers meet some of the individuals that we met through our story. I think similarly, what we learned was that when the spotlight is on, when the camera lights are on, people perform to certain character types. But when you get them in a quieter space and away from the camera lights, they are much more nuanced. We tried to tell that side of the story.
Joe: As I read Union, it was clear to me that your pre-existing friendship with Chris was what allowed you to overcome your political divides. In the rare instances where the two of you would get in a fight, the first thing you would say to one another was about how much your friendship mattered and how much you cared. I was curious if you would be able to speak to that.
Jordan: One of the things that Chris and I found–which was as important as finding the right way to talk to each other–was finding the right way to reconcile after we fought. When we both got angry or heated it was important to figure out the right way to come back afterwards and repair the relationship. The way we found we could do that was by reinforcing every time how much the relationship meant to us. So, having that as foundation allowed us to have these harder arguments and then recover from them.
Ultimately, it’s what we’re trying to do with the book. We’re hoping to remind Americans about this singular identity that we all share. Because having that belief and faith that there is something deep that binds us together allows us to have these political fights without fear of falling apart in the end. If we lose that sense that there is something deeper worth preserving, then it becomes hard to keep going when you do have these conversations about differences in values and priorities, which is reflected in what’s going on in the country at the moment. For the two of us, being able to reinforce every time that the relationship really mattered that much to us and nothing had changed was our way of keeping the bond strong.
Joe: Something that comes through strongly in Union is the influence of your military experience on both your worldview in general and your perspective on the road trip and discussions with Chris in particular. I was wondering if you could talk to us about that.
Jordan: Back when I first joined the Marines and got to my first unit, my Company Commander said to me that the Marine Corps brings in people from all over the country and from all diverse backgrounds. They don’t always get along, and they cause lots of trouble, like any 18 year-old would. But then you get over seas and watch them do the impossible. They run through gunfire to pull wounded comrades out of harms way, they sacrifice themselves for civilians they’ve never met, and they do that over and over again for months. That understanding of the American people has never left me. It has shaped my worldview. It’s why I believe that America is a great country with a beautiful set of national ideals and aspirations. I wanted Chris to believe that too. So part of how I entered these trips was to convince Chris that this country was good. When we were on the road, we did see a lot of the deep structural problems we face—but we also saw great Americans trying to solve them and to do right by their neighbors, communities, and country in the process. That is the source of our strength—a combination of ideals and values as well as people who are willing to sacrifice for them. That is the perspective I gained from the military.
Joe: From my own—albeit much more brief and less impressive—military experience, I have started to see that perspective that you are talking about. But I also can’t help thinking about a key difference between military and civilian life, which is that the military has a “mission.” Members of a unit have a job at hand, a task to do, and that is what allows them to put aside their differences and come together. So, if we try to extrapolate to the civilian world, we run into some difficulty because many, perhaps even most, Americans would not agree that we have a mission as a country or a citizenry.
Jordan: Over past few decades, we have had a conversation about what “rights” we have as American citizens. But something that has been lost is a sense of what corresponding duties do we have as well. The rights that we enjoy come with obligations. One thing that is needed is to remind people of this. It does give you that sense of mission and belonging. That is so important.
Joe: Another part of your identity referenced in Union is your Judaism. Could you talk to us about if and how you faith shapes your worldview?
Jordan: My Jewish faith plays a very big role in this project as well as how I think about the country. One of the central ideas of the Jewish faith is the idea of “Covenant.” In the Torah, the Jewish people make a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai, which represents a binding together of the various tribes into one nation, one community to serve a higher purpose. The US Constitution in my view, is a similar type of covenant—a group of disparate people coming together and enshrining a new nation under the idea of “We The People.”
Joe: Last question. I want to know about something or sometime that Chris convinced you that you were wrong? As well as something that you convinced Chris about.
Jordan: When we started this trip, Chris was very skeptical – I would even call it pessimistic – about what we were going to find on the road. He thought we would see evidence of America coming apart everywhere we went. In the end, my worldview won. He was much more hopeful than when we started. He came to see what I had seen from my time in the military, and I know he would agree with that.
But on specific issues, we expanded each other’s views. I think Chris helped me see some of the deeper structural problems we have throughout the country. Things I theoretically knew about but had never seen first-hand. We spent a lot of time exploring the criminal justice system in Detroit and drug addiction in Tulsa. It is hard to see these problems firsthand and not recognize there is something broken with the current system. So he has influenced my view on criminal justice reform, which I have actually made a large part of my work with Schmidt Futures and impact investing.
Joe: Any closing thoughts?
Jordan: I hope everyone picks up a copy of the book. We’re trying to tell an uplifting story of who we are as a country in the hopes of reminding people that there is something deep that still unites us. I hope more people engage in efforts like yours, helping bring people together to have difficult but necessary conversations.
Joe: Thank you, Jordan.
If you enjoyed this interview, you can read more Spirited Discussions here.