In the year before Donald Trump was elected president, Jordan Blashek, a Republican Marine, and Chris Haugh, a Democrat and son of a single mother from Berkeley, formed an unlikely friendship. Over the months, Jordan and Chris’s friendship blossomed not in spite of but because of their political differences. So they decided to hit the road in search of reasons to strengthen their bond in an era of strife and partisanship.
Their new book Union, out July 21st, is a three-year adventure story that takes readers to 44 states and along nearly 20,000 miles of road to discover where the American experiment stands today. Jordan and Chris go from a Trump rally in Phoenix and the tear-gas-soaked streets outside; to the decks of a lobster trawler off the coast of Portland, Maine; to jazz clubs near the French Quarter of New Orleans; to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where former addicts painstakingly put their lives back together; to a state prison near Detroit, where inmates grapple with their imminent return to society.
A road narrative, a civics lesson, and an unforgettable window into one powerful friendship, Union will give readers an answer to one of the most pressing questions of our time: How far apart are we, really?
AllSides sat down with Blashek and Haugh for a Q&A on their unlikely friendship, ideological bubbles, and how Americans can begin to understand "the other side."
1. Tell me a little bit about each of your backgrounds. Where are you from, what have you done and what do you do now?
Chris: I was born and raised in Berkeley, California. After college, I found my way into a career as a speechwriter. While in Washington, D.C., I learned from some of the best and really came to believe wholeheartedly in President Obama’s message. At the same time, I realized I was more passionate about my writing than politics. And while I still do some speechwriting, more and more I’m writing under my own byline. I like to think I grew up in newsrooms like those of The Daily Californian, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlantic briefly.
Jordan: I was also born and raised in California, in a suburb outside Los Angeles. Like any good Jewish boy, I was planning to go to medical school after college. Yet, I had grown up during the Iraq War and deeply admired the generation of men and women I had read about in books like One Bullet Away and It Happened on the Way to War. So, I came home for winter break my senior year and told my parents I was joining the U.S. Marine Corps. I served five years as an Infantry Officer, deploying twice to the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Since leaving the Marines, and after a stint in graduate school, I've been building a new company called Schmidt Futures that invests in ways to advance science, protect open societies, and strengthen the American middle class.
2. How did you two form a friendship coming from such different backgrounds?
Chris: We started with what made us more similar than different. Jordan and I were lucky that a lot fell in that category—literature, travel, music, even our childhoods in California. Focusing on that stuff meant we could save the differences for later on when we shared more trust. That’s not to say we didn’t bicker about politics. We certainly did. But as we write in the book, “new friends have a way of inoculating each other against argument.” That held for a long time. Really, it wasn’t until we got on the road that we finally let our true feelings about politics be known. And by then we had a few advantages—including the fact we were stuck in the car together for days on end!
Jordan: Something clicked in our first meeting too. We found it easy to talk to each other on a deeper level. Perhaps it was the fact that both of us had just gone through really hard break-ups with women who were still tugging our heartstrings or that we shared similar dreams and philosophies towards life and career. We loved having political arguments in those early days—or at least I did. But we always came back to those deeper things that we shared.
3. Would you say the two of you had been in ideological filter bubbles before you became friends? Was your friendship with each other the first time you stepped out of your political bubbles?
Chris: New Haven was its own bubble, which I’d hazard to say was more comfortable for me than it was for Jordan. In 2015, it felt like President Obama would hand the White House to Hillary Clinton, and the progressive project would just keep marching on. Though, I will say, there’s no shame in having come from a bubble. The problems start only when you come to believe your own fictions. Jordan really helped push me to see beyond my narrow horizons. Not to mention, one of my mentors always beseeched us to “go to the scene,” and that’s what Jordan and I ended up doing.
Jordan: Except for my stint in the Marines, I've mostly been surrounded by liberal culture since I grew up in Los Angeles and attended fairly liberal institutions. I was very used to arguing with more liberal friends by the time I met Chris. But in those environments, I had always carried some fear that I might lose a friend or be outcast if I shared too much of my opinions and worldview. Chris was the first person with whom I felt fully comfortable sharing my beliefs unfiltered. It took a long time to get to that point, and we certainly had some hard disagreements that rocked our friendship along the way, but we built up trust so that we could have those kind of conversations.
4. What issues did you two explore while on the road?
Chris: What didn’t we explore? We talked about everything—"police-community relations,” as I called it back then, protest movements, climate change, voting rights, economics, military tactics, podcasting, newspapers, on and on. I bored Jordan stiff talking about the NBA a few times. One of the on-going conversations that stands out to me was about climate change. What started as frustrated—and maybe angry—debates about what was happening to our climate became by the end of our journeys punctuated by more agreement than disagreement. I’m not sure how much either of us moved, but we learned to hear one another and come to an understanding about common facts and theoretical interventions.
Jordan: Another ongoing conversation we had, and still have, was about the media and the future of journalism. Early on, these felt like pitched battles where I railed against media bias that distorted narratives against Republicans, while Chris defended mainstream journalism and responded in kind about conservative outlets. Over time, our discussions evolved as we both recognized the increasingly blurred line between opinion and news generally, the ways business models might incentivize bad behaviors, and the complexity on the ground that was often lost in the headlines. We're both still very concerned about the various categories of "fake news”—not just deliberate misinformation, but also distortion and editorializing that deviates from traditional journalistic practices—which have skewed our national debates. That's what drew us to Allsides, and why we believe so much in your mission.
5. What's the most striking thing you saw on your road trip, in terms of something that really helped you to see "the other side"? Did either of you dramatically change your views on any issue in particular?
Chris: Pete Mylen certainly did a number on me. We spent nearly a week driving in his long haul truck from Las Vegas to Slidell, Louisiana. When we first met the guy, he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, which made me really nervous. But we talked and talked and talked, and I came to know Pete as a soulful, dedicated man whose politics were more complicated than a glance at his shirt might indicate. I often say to Jordan that Pete and I might have yelled at each other if we met at a rally, but when driving for thousands of miles with a complete stranger our natural inclination was to find ways of connecting—it’s only human.
Jordan: We met a man named Gabriel in Parnall Prison outside of Detroit who I think about all the time. We were there to see a Shakespeare in Prison ensemble, and the discussion was on par with anything we had experienced in college or grad school. The men were using King Lear to explore and learn from their past mistakes and to find a path towards redemption, as they explained it. Gabriel threw himself into the performances, probed deeply into the scenes, and spoke honestly about the lessons. At one point, while answering a question about redemption, he explained that his stepfather was also out there "on the yard." They were both addicts, and his stepfather wanted Gabriel to follow in his footsteps. Gabriel explained, "In order for me to have redemption, I have to do things exactly the opposite from the way I’ve usually done them. I have to step outside myself. Something has gone so drastically awry that I have to try something new." I had been working on criminal justice reform, so in theory I knew about the headwinds people like Gabriel face. They’re in a system that will send them back to prison for even slight missteps, which is why our recidivism rates are so high. But Gabriel brought it home for me. He had such a strong desire to change his life, but the uphill battle he faced was enormous. When I think of Gabriel, I think about all the incredible human potential in our country that is not being realized and the urgency for us as a society to do better.
6. How do you think America reached this place of polarization?
Chris: It’s impossible to pin this on one trend or person, obviously. Blame sits at the feet of our media and social media, our campaign finance system, corporate influence on Washington, systematic racism, the ways our communities have segregated ourselves and been segregated — the list goes on and on. What matters right now is finding ways of chipping away at that division bit by bit while holding fast to our convictions.
Jordan: I agree with Chris' view. I also believe that it's partially cyclical and structural. We've had decades of change and growth and policies that have reshaped society, and while many have benefited over the past three decades, others have been left behind or been harmed. Their grievances are real and deep. America has experienced division similar to this many times before, and we have always found a way to move past it together. I believe and hope we will again, but it's not a given. Luckily, there are good, decent people across the country working as hard as they can to help us come back together. We saw those people everywhere we went, and that gave us hope.
7. What advice do you have for Americans who want to better understand the other side ideologically, or to form friendships with those on the other side?
Chris: Find your humility. For me, that was the hardest won lesson of Union. Something Jordan said to me years ago has stuck with me ever since: there is simply too much information and data out there to fully wrap one’s head around it all. What that means is we often are missing essential details, and if we listen to a wide range of responsible sources then we have a better chance of solving a problem and finding a way forward. Conversations with Jordan have improved my arguments, sunk others, and made me see the world a little more clearly every time.
Jordan: Another lesson we learned is that our most important identities are not political ones. Chris and I found that we would often get defensive if we came at an issue as a Republican and a Democrat, but we were able to really listen to each other when we approached it as a Marine and a journalist. I'm proud of being a Marine, and I know Chris respects my service. The same is true for Chris as a writer. That helped us understand how we came to a certain position or view on something that's typically divisive. It led to empathy rather than opposition. Of course, we also identify with our political beliefs and parties, and those are powerful tribal allegiances. When threatened, we have a tendency to defend our party. But if you asked me to give you a list of the five most important qualities that really identify who I am, my political identification wouldn't make the cut. We think that's true for most people. So the lesson for us was to find those deeper identities, since they will lead to greater respect and empathy.
8. What's the main message you would like to give Americans who are feeling scared or disheartened by the division in the U.S. right now?
Chris: Two things: First, Jordan and I heard the same desires—the same values—almost everywhere we went. Americans aren’t as far apart as we may seem on TV. Second is all the evidence out there is that this won’t last. What we’ve take place on in the streets this spring—whether they were empty or full of protesters—was a deep expression of hope. We largely banded together to fight a pandemic, condemn police brutality, and otherwise keep trying. We opted in, not out. That expression in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution— “form a more perfect union”—gets thrown around a lot, but we’re living up to it even if we’re not quite yet accomplishing the lofty goals that follow that phrase—justice, domestic tranquility, and so on. Things can change and often do—especially when we actively work on them.
Jordan: They're not alone. The overwhelming majority of people we met on the road felt the same way. One message I would want to give is that there are so many great people and organizations working on this issue. Groups like AllSides and Braver Angels and Civil Politics are doing terrific work, and so too are countless individuals in large and small ways. We all have the ability to do something to make this country better, to perfect our union. We all get to participate in this great experiment. Whether getting out on the road or hosting civil dialogues, everyone can do something to heal our divisions, even if that's just making a new friend across the aisle. That's the story of America.