I’d like to introduce you to an obscure but commonsense statement about human nature. It’s called Miles’s law, and it’s contained in a single, simple sentence: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” It originated as an observation about behavior in bureaucracies—that bureaucrats often defend their agencies’ narrow interests over the common good—but it works as a description of how we all tend to form our positions and join our tribes. It speaks to the immense power of experience and kinship.
I’ll explain by referring to two of the worst mistakes of my professional and personal life. Despite living in the heart of red America and spending much of my career deep in the heart of the conservative movement, I dramatically underestimated Donald Trump’s political appeal.
The next one is worse. Despite growing up in the South, I deeply underestimated the continued prevalence and malignant legacy of American racism.
How was that possible? In part because my experiences helped me miss reality. Even though I spent most of my childhood in small-town Kentucky, I lived in a college town. My dad has a math Ph.D. and is a retired professor. My mom has a master’s degree in education and is a retired elementary-school teacher. They’re both faithful Christians. They both taught me to abhor racism.
And so from the very beginning I was raised in the small world of highly educated evangelicalism. I went to a Christian college, and my social circle in law school was almost exclusively evangelical. The conservatism I grew up with was alive with the power of ideas. I was and am a pro-life classical liberal who believes strongly in the defense of liberty, not just as a matter of human dignity but also as a means of unleashing human potential.
I can’t even begin to tell you the number of conferences I attended where at least one person argued, “Conservatives appeal to reason. Progressives appeal to emotion.” And we’d all nod along. Then someone would say, “Conservatives appeal to opportunity and possibility. Progressives appeal to identity.” And we’d applaud.
It all seemed right until it was proved wrong.
Without even realizing it, I had let my experience shape too much of my worldview. Bit by bit, year by year, it had colored my perceptions until I couldn’t see what others could plainly perceive. I had grown so comfortable where I sat that it had made me too secure in where I stood.
I knew racism existed, but like many conservatives I underestimated both its individual prevalence and its systemic effect. I knew angry populists had a persistent presence on the American right, but I underestimated the extent to which their furious spirit had captured Republican hearts, and when push came to shove, the party would choose anger over ideas.
It’s a humbling thing to be wrong. But it’s also eye-opening. It taught me that understanding this nation requires understanding where people sit before we can even begin to debate where they stand. It requires, as much as possible, trying to sit in different spaces, with different people. It meant creating and applying a few simple rules.
First, try to learn about an idea from its proponents before seeking out its opponents. Take critical race theory, for example. Don’t know what it is? Read a critical race theorist. Then read his or her critics. Think of yourself as a judge, deciding a case between advocates, not as an advocate who’s always looking for ammunition for argument.
Second, intentionally seek out the best expression of the opposing side’s point of view. I say this knowing that there are times when there is no truly good opposing idea. The “Stop the Steal” movement was based on lies from start to finish. But one way we can discern merit is by earnestly looking for it.
Third, prioritize real relationships. One of the most important and insightful reported pieces in the entire 2020 election cycle came from The New York Times’ Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy. They analyzed data from the Hidden Tribes Project and concluded that “the outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online.”
Spend too much time online, and you’ll emerge with a distorted view of your opponents and your allies.
This is how I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. This is how I approach the world of ideas. This newsletter will likely touch on most of the third rails of American politics. The Supreme Court is going to issue its most important abortion decision in a generation. Arguments about race and gender are turning neighbor against neighbor. For the first time in my lifetime, tens of millions of Americans are even open to the idea of secession.
We have to be able to talk about all of these things, no matter how fraught. But how we approach each issue matters a great deal. Do we walk into the marketplace of ideas humbly? Do we even try to understand our most bitter opponents? Do we reject complexity in favor of false simplicity? Can we create a community based on a spirit not of “moderation” (which is another way of demanding that everyone agree, just at a different point on the political spectrum) but of shared inquiry?
That’s my goal, to speak with you and not at you, to explain what I know and to learn what I can. If we can’t truly escape Miles’s law, perhaps we can learn to apply it constructively. Let’s sit together, and then see where we stand.