Op-Ed: No, apparently we can’t all just get along

Is Stacey Abrams a hero or a failure? That's just one of the things liberals and conservatives see through different lenses.
Is Stacey Abrams a hero or a failure? That’s just one of the things liberals and conservatives see through very different lenses.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

Last month, we asked Robin Abcarian and Scott Jennings to begin having weekly conversations that we would run through the election season. The idea was to try to understand how, in our deeply polarized 2020 America, liberals and conservatives could look at the same set of facts and draw very different conclusions. Now that the vote is behind us, we’ll be running their conversations less often, but in this final weekly exchange, we posed a few questions for them to address. Have these weekly discussions changed their perspectives at all? And, in light of President-elect Joe Biden’s saying he wants to bring the country together across the divide, are there things they actually agree on?

JENNINGS: Taking that first question, Robin, I have to say that you said everything I expected you to say every week. The Trump era has produced a predictable set of liberal tropes that get recycled no matter the facts. In our conversation last week, for example, you said “just how much magic can Stacey Abrams be expected to work?” Anyone who glanced at the exit polls and election results can see that Abrams wasn’t the reason Biden won Georgia; his victory came from white people in the suburbs switching sides. The New York Times reported that “the Black share of the overall Georgia vote fell to its lowest levels since 2006.” Abrams is a failure! She lost her gubernatorial bid in 2018 and evidently failed at increasing Black turnout for Biden. Yet you call her a “miracle worker.” I suspect that’s because, among liberals, this identity politics narrative is sacrosanct. You’re hardly the only person deifying Abrams. Liberals pick a narrative and ride it no matter what. I like you, Robin. We had a very pleasant Zoom when we started this project, and I’d enjoy a dinner with you at the French Laundry to discuss politics, since I’ve read in the L.A. Times that it is open for business! I do think, though, that you’re trapped in a liberal feedback loop, in which only certain thoughts are permitted in or out. This is what terrifies me about the state of American political discourse — there are people on the right and left who stick to narratives without ever asking: Is this true?

ABCARIAN: I am not sure why you are picking on Abrams, but an awful lot of political analysts have given her credit for Biden’s win in Georgia. A major difference between us is that I think a Black woman coming within a hair’s breadth of winning the Georgia governorship, as Abrams did in 2018, is not failure at all, but a stunning success. Maybe the Black share of the vote dropped in November, but Abrams helped turn out a multiracial coalition that voted for Biden. It’s possible to get so lost in the weeds of exit polls and voter demographics that you can’t see the forest for the trees: Georgia has turned blue! I really don’t understand why folks like you are so obsessed with the phrase “identity politics.” Is Black Lives Matter identity politics? And is that bad? And isn’t Trump promoting his own brand of identity politics that involves white supremacy, racism and anti-immigrant sentiments? There have been times over the weeks, Scott, that I’ve been disappointed by your dismissive tone. We have legitimate policy disagreements and profoundly different political philosophies, but to say I am trapped in a “liberal feedback loop” is, I think, a way of saying I am disingenuous, or don’t think for myself. I have never uttered a word on this page I do not deeply believe. What I do like about you, Scott, is that you are an old-fashioned reality-based Republican. We can argue, but at least our disagreements are based on good-faith points of view, not the kind of crazy fantasies and paranoia that Trump specializes in whipping up. When I heard he’d summoned Republican legislators from Michigan to the White House on Thursday to try to persuade them to appoint their own electors, I could not help but wonder if, on Jan. 20, he’s going to chain himself to the Resolute Desk and refuse to leave.


JENNINGS: Thanks for confirming my assertion — no matter what the math says, you guys just plow forward. I get it. There are strict punishments in the liberal cancel culture for deviating from the approved narrative. And there are reprisals on the right, too, for people who dare challenge the narratives spun by President Trump. He threatened the governor of Ohio, of all people, with a primary for daring to admit that Biden had won the race. Mike DeWine has been a loyal Republican, supporting Trump until the end. But at some point you have to acknowledge the math, the facts, the truth. If that means admitting that liberals are spinning yarns about Abrams or that Trump and his lawyers are advancing nutso election conspiracy theories, we should all feel safe enough to do it. The only things I dismiss are unserious arguments and debunked narratives. I would never dismiss a liberal making a good-faith argument about any topic, because we must guard with our lives what little serious political discourse exists! I still believe Trump will leave the White House. Our institutions are holding firm and will continue to. I pray to God, though, that all of us privileged enough to have commentary jobs can find it within ourselves to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough, even if it means upsetting a few of our own people. We all have allegiances to our ideologies and values, but they should live alongside an allegiance to truth. I am extremely concerned that our national media won’t scrutinize Biden the way they have Trump. It would be a shame if his administration is treated with kid gloves.

ABCARIAN: I feel like you are jousting with an imaginary opponent, Scott. You seem to want to make me into some kind of avatar of the left. I’m not sure what “approved narrative” you are referring to. Maybe it’s because you are a creature of Republican Party politics that you assume I’m similarly situated with Democrats? Or that I have access to the Democratic Party’s talking points? Well, I don’t. I’m just an opinion columnist with what I hope is a consistent set of views growing out of my deep commitment to the idea that government exists to serve the people. One of the most fascinating parts of our discourse is that you can’t seem to accept that what I say is what I believe. You can say a narrative is “debunked,” but that doesn’t make it so. Whether you like it or not, Stacey Abrams is a hero to many, and the Lincoln Project (which you described as an organization of “grifters” in one of our conversations) may indeed have had a hand in helping Biden win. I agree with you that Trump will eventually leave the White House, but I am not so sure that our institutions are, as you say, holding firm. He has hollowed out the State Department, undermined the intelligence agencies, installed cronies and donors in the top levels of government, including most worryingly at the Justice Department, which he has turned into his personal law firm. He has spent most of his tenure trying to destroy Americans’ faith in the electoral process, and, judging by how many Republicans think Trump won the election, he has succeeded. What a despicable legacy. Which brings me to something I’m curious about. On Oct. 30, you wrote a CNN column headlined “Donald Trump Deserves a Second Term.” Given his atrocious, anti-democratic behavior since election day, do you still believe he should have been re-elected? Of course, I agree that Biden, like all presidents, should be scrutinized. Yet no matter how well the media does at that task, I predict conservatives will complain that he’s getting a pass. That’s their tried-and-true play. On another note, I just heard that Kentucky has closed its schools down again because of COVID-19 spikes. My 10-year-old has been Zoom schooling since March, and we are so over it. How’s your family handling things?

JENNINGS: You are correct. Kentucky’s schools, like those in many states, have been unnecessarily closed once again. One of the most frustrating things about the pandemic is the seemingly arbitrary decision-making about what is closed and what isn’t. The same day Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear closed our schools, Dr. Anthony Fauci was on CNN saying there was no reason to close schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director says schools are among the safest places for kids to be! It is obvious we are harming our children and causing them long-term damage. Democrats like Beshear say follow the science, yet there’s no science that says closing schools stops coronavirus and plenty that says the closures are hurting kids. It is heartbreaking to see politicians — Democrats, principally — bending to the demands of teachers unions instead of doing what’s right for children. I have one child with learning differences, and he particularly needs in-person instruction. Regarding Trump, I made the case for his reelection because I view elections as choices, as I have made clear in this paper. No politician will ever satisfy me fully, and I detest those in both parties who treat politics like a religion, but I prefer conservative governance to liberal governance. Trump’s post-election antics are beyond embarrassing for him, his party and the country. If you believe what his lawyers are selling, I’ve got some oceanfront property here in Louisville for you. On the other hand, I have no interest in being governed by the liberal mob that controls the Democratic Party. I hope and pray that Biden is a moderate, unifying voice, but I know in my heart he’s not strong enough to withstand the left wing of the party. Heck, an elected member of the Democratic National Committee from California named David Atkins tweeted this week that he wants to “deprogram” 75 million Americans following the election, comparing them to post-World War II Nazis and Japanese citizens. That’s Joe Biden’s party, not mine, and I’ll take 100 Trumps over Mr. Atkins or any other lunatic that comes around trying to “deprogram.” I think you and I view politics differently because I’m a trained political operative and you aren’t. I analyze how and why campaigns are won and lost differently than you. You may like the Lincoln Project ads, but every single Senate race in which the group advertised went to Republicans, and Trump won 93% of Republican voters in 2020 after winning just 90% in 2016.

ABCARIAN: Since we both have children stuck at home thanks to school closures, I thought for a fleeting moment that we could reach some common ground. The scientific debate over whether schools can be safely reopened has definitely been politicized, and I am hoping that the Los Angeles Unified School District will be able to come up with a plan that gets kids back into the classroom sooner rather than later — maybe even after Christmas. But slamming teachers unions is a such a predictable conservative trope, to borrow from your language. There is no question that many children will lose academic ground during the closures, but do you seriously think it’s been easy on teachers to conduct classes from their living rooms? Or that they are merely pretending to be worried about COVID-19? Republican operative that you are, you turn a legitimately difficult question into an attack on Democrats. You reflexively use emotionally charged buzzwords — “drunk on power,” “the liberal mob,” “the radical left.” And the way you take an obscure Democrat’s tweet and blow it up into a stand-in for the Democratic Party is just bizarre. Have you seen what Republicans have been tweeting? I have to laugh when you say that I am more emotionally attached to things that confirm my world view, and that your opinions come strictly from data. Your hyperbole gives you away: You will take 100 Trumps over a single unknown Democrat with zero power? That your party would, and did, take any Trump at all is why the pandemic is raging, the schools are closed, and we are in this sad situation. And yet, despite our considerable differences, Scott, I wish you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving. I fervently hope that 2021 brings a COVID-19 vaccine, reopened schools and a return to something approaching normal in this amazing country of ours.