The Middle Shelf: Part 4 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

In discussions on why common ground is often so difficult to reach, there is a lot of talk about echo chambers, tribes and especially the popular rationale of not being able to understand “the other.”  Of course, the notion of “the other” is subjective depending on who you are, where you might have been raised, what your socio-economic and demographic identity may be, not to mention gender, religion and the list goes on and on. We tend to see things through frameworks and breaking through those to understand a different view is hard.

One of the things that all of the panelists that CGC has had at its forums have been adamant about is that to reach common ground or at the very least to try to bridge some of the discourse, people should READ.  Reading about the ideas and lives of those we do not agree with or understand at least offers some jumping off point to gain insight.  To that end, this week we are putting the spotlight on three books that try to open windows into the thinking of who or what may be your “other.” These are not easy reads in the sense that depending on your vantage point you may find them uncomfortable.  However, part of the challenge in trying to find common ground is to at least try to hear many voices.

Two of the books came out originally in 2016 with the paperbacks recently being released. These both explore in different ways what could be called the “Trump voter,” though they offer a much deeper analysis of those in America who for many years have felt that the nation was passing them by.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance tells the story of Vance’s family who despite some upward mobility where he was raised in Middletown, Ohio could not escape their Appalachian roots.  Vance, a Marine veteran, Ivy League law school graduate and a leader in Silicon Valley offers a poignant memoir of both the rise and fall of the white middle class and the cultural and social impact that it has had on multiple generations.  However, the book remains somewhat controversial because while it has been embraced by many conservatives as a tough love view of the rural poor, many progressives believe that it reinforced myths about the poor.  Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, this book offers a starting point for discussion on the subject of can we have any common ground on how we view the causes of poverty versus personal responsibility.

While Vance’s book is more memoir than study, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild offers a more analytical approach to trying to understand the sources of anger many missed.  Hochschild is a retired award-winning U.C. Berkeley professor of sociology.  The book is based on a five-year study where she immersed herself with Tea Party loyalists in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She chose a state that she saw as a paradox.  Her goal was to bridge what she calls her liberal “empathy wall” to better understand the Right. As one reviewer put it:

“In her attempt to climb over the ’empathy wall’ and truly understand the emotional lives of her political adversaries, Arlie Hochschild gives us a vital roadmap to bridging the deep divides in our political landscape and renewing the promise of American democracy. A must-read for any political American who isn’t ready to give up just yet.”
Joan Blades, co-founder of,, and

While both of the above offer views of some constituencies on the white southern and rustbelt Right, the just-released I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown is a memoir of a middle class African-American woman who puts her personal story of growing up in Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio in the context both of race and her work in churches. Interestingly enough, she grew up in Ohio like J.D. Vance but offers a different perspective as an African-American and woman.  She is a writer with a degree in social justice and she has “worked with nonprofits, churches, parachurch ministries, and universities in both the urban and suburban context for the advancement of racial justice and reconciliation.”

Brown has worked hard through her activism to try to bridge the divide but this book pulls no punches when it comes to her anger over what she sees as systemic racism even among liberal whites.  She is not offering any absolution and while advocating reconciliation she also describes an exhaustion she feels from battling.

None of these books offer solutions. What they do offer as we search for common ground are windows into why some people feel disenfranchised and why polarization has no easy fix except to keep trying. A reviewer of Hillbilly Elegy summed up the situation thusly:

“All these books are inarticulate attempts to describe the true scene that now has been revealed to us. We don’t know how to talk about this; we don’t know how to talk to each other. One day we may stumble into a lexicon and a strategy for solution, but the way forward, for now, is to first learn to listen to each other and reflect upon our own distorting frames.”