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A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground
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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, CA, formed an unlikely friendship. Jordan was fresh off his service in the Marines and feeling a bit out of place at Yale Law School. Chris was yearning for a sense of mission after leaving Washington D.C.
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. What follows is a three-year adventure story, across forty-four states and along 20,000 miles of road to find out exactly where the American experiment stands at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
In their search, Jordan and Chris go from the tear gas-soaked streets of a Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona to the Mexican highways running between Tijuana and Juarez. They witness the full scope of American life, from lobster trawlers and jazz clubs of Portland and New Orleans to the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the prisons of Detroit, where former addicts and inmates painstakingly put their lives back together.
Union is a road narrative, a civics lesson, and an unforgettable window into one epic friendship. We ride along with Jordan and Chris for the whole journey, listening in on front-seat arguments and their conversations with Americans from coast to coast. We also peer outside the car to understand America's hot-button topics, including immigration, mass incarceration, and the military-civilian divide.
And by the time Jordan and Chris kill the engine for the last time, they answer one of the most pressing questions of our time: How far apart are we really?
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July 4, 2019
Earlier today, we submitted Union to our publisher, concluding more than three years of work. Tonight we will celebrate the Fourth of July at Chris's childhood home near Berkeley, California, with a smattering of family and friends. Sharing one another's lives like this has become the heart of our friendship. This book is a record of those rituals, and our way of sharing them.
Union is a story about the road. But these trips weren't always meant for a book. When we first set off for California from New York City in 2016, it was a lark. Neither of us imagined we would spend the next three years together writing about what was to come. As a result, this book is part memoir and another part reporting. By the midpoint of our drives, we were taking copious notes, snapping a number of photos, and recording as many interviews as we could. But Union will always be a fusion of both memory and reporting. It's about the experience of meeting people and listening to their stories. We didn't write an exhaustive account of who we met and where they came from. We wrote about our impressions of these encounters—how they made us feel, and what we discussed with each other afterward.
Over many thousands of miles, the fog of the highway inevitably sets in. Union is our good-faith effort to tell the story as it happened. Thankfully there are two of us, and we were rarely shy in correcting one another's memories. Everything in this book is the best attainable version of the truth, as one of Chris's mentors often puts it. Some quotes in the book are reconstructed from memory. Others are derived from transcripts. More yet are pulled from our daily notes. We don't distinguish among them for a very particular reason: we went back and checked our recollections with as many people as possible, then employed two fact-checkers to do the same.
We decided to write Union in the third person, like a novel, so readers could more readily understand our frames of mind and emotions in the moment. We considered writing it in the first-person singular, bouncing back and forth between our two voices, but ultimately decided to leave that to William Faulkner.
On our journeys, we chose places to travel for a variety of reasons: there was a story we wanted to report, an event we had to see, or simply a place we had always dreamed of visiting. Along the way, we met people by appointment and also by chance. Some of them we sought out because of mutual connections, or research on our part. None of them were chosen because they stood in for larger trends; they were just people. People who welcomed us into their homes, who shook our hands despite our differences, and who let us see them at their strongest moments and their most vulnerable.
We never paid anyone or promised anything, except an adherence to the truth.
But we did participate in the lives of the people we met. Jordan moved tackle and boxes for a lobsterman, Chris dialed a trucker's phone while he drove, and we both volunteered in a Tijuana free kitchen. Sometimes we went even further. Chris edited a speech. Jordan bought a handbag made by former inmates of a women's prison. Perhaps that compromised us as journalists, but this project was always meant to be participatory. We engaged, and that mattered to us.
Writing Union was the last leg of our journey. Until we wrote it, and reflected on what we saw and did, we couldn't fully process what we had experienced. For three years, this work mattered to us most, so we worked multiple jobs in order to stay on the road. We took conference calls for our day jobs from the car, then stayed up well past midnight at highway-side motels finishing work that should have been done earlier in the day. The road is a hard place. We recognize it might have been even harder if we weren't white and male. But it is also profound, beautiful, and instructive. There was nowhere we'd rather have been.
Somewhere along the way, we realized that these road trips had changed our friendship, and that our friendship had changed the way we both saw the country. There are still things about America on which we'll never agree, and we nearly parted ways over them. But unspoken values emerged in our actions and the voices of the people we met along the way. Out there, we also found there's more to America than gladiatorial politics. When we listened, we heard a nation being shaped by millions of voices, each with ideas and wisdom more complex than can be captured by the steady drumbeat of television segments, radio features, and social-media posts.
Time and again we witnessed expressions of faith in this country. At times these expressions were unique and at other times conflicting, but on the road something resembling reverence existed for a collection of higher ideals—ideals that might best be called America's civic religion. Beneath the words of our founding texts—and in the canon of American speeches and literature, the melodies and lyrics that make up our musical heritage, or even the ways we explain ourselves to one another—there is a deep well of feeling that brings us closer to a singular identity: that of American.
On our last road trip, a musician in New Orleans told us something beautiful: Music brings people together, he said, because you can come at it, interpret it, and appreciate it from infinite points of view. There is no "right way" to take in and fall for a tune. All that matters is that you do, and what you bring to it in turn. After all these years on the road, we have come to much the same view about this country. The story of who we are as Americans can be told in a multitude of different ways, each with its high and low notes. There is no right way to look at this country and its people, just as there is no "right way" to tell that story. This just happens to be ours.
Our hope is that Union will play some small part in an ongoing effort to bring Americans a little bit closer together. We wrote it, and reported it, and remembered it with that in mind.
Christopher Haugh & Jordan Blashek
Chris had a dream that he was flying and woke with a start at the absurdity of the idea. Jordan was at the wheel of the boxy, sea-blue sedan, and Chris was splayed out on the passenger seat. We passed into Pennsylvania along fast, narrow roads moments before midnight.
Chris shot a look over at Jordan, whose eyes were fixed on the slalom road ahead. It was empty except for us and the long-haul trucks on their way up and down another lonesome freeway.
Earlier that evening, we had meandered down the sidewalks of New York City toward Jordan's Volvo S60, which he had inherited from his aging grandfather.
"It's not much," Jordan said. "The steering grinds when you make a tight turn and it's missing a few parts, but it runs."
"Spacious," Chris said, opening the door.
"And she can't make a U-turn—feels like steering a boat."
Our plan for the week was to drive across the country from New York City to Berkeley, California, where Chris had grown up, a few hundred miles north of Jordan's family home in Los Angeles. As we shot down the avenues of the Upper East Side under orange streetlights, we threw around possible stops like Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and parts of the Pacific Northwest.
"Let's get to Chicago by morning," Jordan had said as we merged onto Harlem River Drive, and Chris had laughed aloud. But there we were, pressing on toward the Midwest through the dark woods of the Poconos a few hours before dawn.
Chris had come to know over our brief eight-month friendship how Jordan operated according to his own mysterious logic. A bleary-eyed, unending drive seemed true to form. So Chris kept quiet as we drove into the gloom of morning. We had six more days on the road together, and there would be plenty to disagree about later on.
It had also occurred to Chris in those first hours just how little he knew about Jordan. The two of us had become close at law school, but school friends are often just acquaintances. And as Chris thought it over, he couldn't come up with Jordan's parents' names or even what kind of a driver Jordan was. Would this Marine make them drive all night, every night?
We slid down the grades of Pennsylvania hills, the tail lights of the trucks ahead making us squint through the windshield. Our own headlights illuminated white trees with feathery leaves on the shoulder. Purple mountains flanked the road. A moonless sky merged with forested ridgebacks decorated with eerie crosses lit from below by pale floodlights.
Jordan shifted his position in the driver's seat. Like Chris, he had his reservations. Had it been a mistake asking Chris to come along on this trip? Jordan had never driven cross-country before, and spending days on end in a close space with a law-school peer was unsettling. It didn't help that Chris had talked nervously for the first hour. Jordan had asked on a whim, and there we were, many miles down the way.
Distracted by his thoughts, Jordan let the car reach a pace that brought us close behind an 18-wheeler. The truck's brake lights flared; Jordan rode his own, and we drifted back. As we did, a second truck flashed past the passenger window and Chris flinched. For a beat, our car was boxed in by two multiton machines just as the less-harried truck in our lane caught a slick in the road, sending its trailer fishtailing toward the cab of the one to its right.
Chris gripped the arm rest. Jordan pushed down even harder on the brakes. And in the sickening moment of inertia—when the door panel of the truck beside us nearly collided with the flank of the one ahead—we both screamed.
Then, as fast as it had lost control of its load, the truck in front righted its lashing fishtail and took off down the road, the slower of the two trundled on into the night, and the two of us swallowed what was left of our shrieks.
* * *
Two years earlier, under the very different circumstances of Yale Law School, Jordan looked down at his trembling right hand. Why am I shaking? he thought. Behind him on the walls of the classroom were oil portraits of judges in black robes and academics in tweed suits in front of mahogany desks. Eighty pairs of eyes settled on him, including those of a professor a few dozen feet away.
Jordan felt exposed, and Jordan, like any Marine, did not like to be exposed.
"Mr. Blashek," the professor bellowed. "Where are you?"
It was the first day of law school in the fall of 2014. And out of the 200 or so new students that year, the civil procedure professor had asked Jordan the first question—or cold call—of the year.
"Yes, here," Jordan said.
"Mr. Blashek, why are laws necessary in a free and open society?"
Jordan's mind raced.
"Wait," she continued. "Before you answer, I have something for you."
The professor walked across the room, up some stairs, and handed Jordan a garbage bag. Jordan reached into the bag and pulled out a toy rifle. He gripped its handle and wrapped his finger around the trigger housing. A rifle—a real one—had been his near-constant companion on deployment in Afghanistan just a year earlier.
"Well?" the professor said.
Jordan's mind went blank.
"We have laws," Jordan said haltingly, "so that we don't resort to violence."
"Mr. Blashek," the professor continued. "Do you know how to use one of those?"
"A toy gun?"
"No, a real one."
"Yes, I do."
The professor's brow furrowed.
As she moved on with the lecture, a wave of relief washed over Jordan. He sat there, hand still wrapped around the dimpled grip, as his classmates scribbled notes and nibbled on pens.
Holding the cheap plastic gun, Jordan felt torn between two worlds. In one he was a student again, raising his hand, puzzling over exams, and writing papers. In the other he was an infantry officer with two tours of duty overseas and friends for whom he would give his life—and they for him.
And some of them still needed him. For weeks, texts had flashed across Jordan's phone at odd times of the day and night.
"Sir I'll be in clear water FL after noon," one read in an Afghan's new English.
The texts were from his Afghan interpreters, who spoke of college, booking plane tickets across the globe, and settling into new lives thousands of miles from home. Some were hopeful. Others, though, were less sanguine.
"I need someone to show me how to get room," one wrote. Jordan could picture the young man, who spoke trembling English, in a strange city where he knew no one, unable to find a place to escape the autumn frosts.
In that world, the one Jordan descended back into with each text, he was Sir or Captain Blashek. But at law school he was simply Jordan.
Slowly he started waking up later and letting his stubble grow longer. That change in appearance did little, however, to ease his sense of loss. He missed his fellow Marines, and the mission the uniform had given him.
At the start of his second year, Jordan was with several classmates at a local bar with a back patio illuminated by a string of light bulbs. On Friday nights that patio became the center of the law school's social calendar, a place where students of all years would mingle under the open sky and drink discounted Miller Lite and Sierra Nevada. Law students would usually occupy a few plastic tables beside a brick wall, which muffled the music from a student cabaret and the African American Cultural Center just beyond its rampart.
That night Jordan was making the rounds when a friend of his approached with a stranger by his side.
"I want you to meet someone," the friend said. "His name is Chris."
"You're Jordan?" Chris, the stranger, said. "We're supposed to know one another."
"Oh, right," Jordan said. "Chris."
Lauren, Jordan's cousin who had worked for the government, had told Jordan about Chris in a brief email mentioning that a young colleague was matriculating.
Chris looked nothing like what Jordan had expected. He had tousled hair. Studs protruded from both earlobes. A big smile was broken by the faint hint of a scar on his upper lip. He looked like a person who didn't take himself too seriously.
"It's nice to meet you," Jordan said.
* * *
A few hours earlier, Chris had gazed out on the New Haven Green from his studio in the Taft apartments. It was September, and the humidity of the summer had long ago subsided. At night Chris could throw open the windows and listen to the murmur wafting up from the streets below. The elms along College Street, once a brilliant green, had turned orange and red, and the streetlights, which always seemed to flicker, glowed through the thinning branches. Chris spent many nights looking out that window. That view was his sanctuary, and it helped soothe the fever of embarrassment raised by his first few days of class.
"Is there a Chris here?" a professor had said from her podium a day or two before.
Oh no, Chris thought from the back row.
"Yes, he's—I'm here."
"Chris," the professor said, looking down at her notes. "Tell me, where does judicial review come from?"
It was a straightforward—some might say charitable—question. Chris had actually done all of his reading the night before, too. He had cracked an enormous red-bound tome on constitutional law and digested cases such as Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland. But as fast as Chris's brain raced, no answer emerged.
"The Supremacy Clause?" Chris offered.
The professor busied herself with her papers as Chris stewed over the answer he'd given, which was evidently incorrect.
"Well," the professor said at length. "Anyone else?"
That night, Chris puzzled over whether he was cut out for law school. For weeks he had pined for his former job at the State Department in Washington, D.C., where he had a purpose as a small part of a much larger machine. Each day he was engaged in a project to make things better for people around the world. Law school had not yet given him that same thrill, and Chris felt its absence like a hunger.
Away from this work, Chris gravitated toward writing. He read Edward R. Murrow's This Is London, the journalist's wartime reporting from a city under siege, and Timothy Crouse's Boys on the Bus, about the reporters covering the 1972 presidential election. Chris came to believe that getting back to his own reporting might restore that sense of purpose. The only hurdle was the classes and exams he had voluntarily taken on all over again.
One month in and Chris felt far from what mattered.
And so, later that night, Chris made his way to that very same patio bar where even the most hard-charging law-school types eased somewhat, or never showed up at all.
"I want you to meet someone," his friend said, approaching a student with a crew cut and broad shoulders. "Chris, this is Jordan."
Jordan had a face dotted with freckles and a military-trained confidence similar to what Chris had come to recognize living on Capitol Hill, where Marines and soldiers sported telltale shaved scalps and taupe T-shirts. But Jordan also had a warmth about him that broke through the studied posture and Marine gait.
"It's a pleasure," Chris said.
Jordan stuck out his hand.
"When you get settled, let me buy you a drink," Jordan offered.
"It's a plan."
* * *
A few weeks later, Jordan arrived at an Irish pub and settled in at a wobbly table with a dewy surface. Chris found him there and took a seat.
The conversation sputtered to life while the bartender busied himself with the drinks.
"So how's it been for you?" Chris asked. "Law school and all."
"It's funny," Jordan replied. "If you had asked me that just a few months ago, I would've given you a very different answer. The first year was rough."
The bartender put two tumblers on the table.
"But second year has been much better," Jordan said. "I've made some great friends here, and found a few professors who are supportive of what I want to do."
"And what's that?"
"A lot of things," Jordan said with a smile.
Chris waited for an answer as Jordan took a sip of his drink.
"Have you heard of Jim Webb?" Jordan continued.
"The senator from Virginia?"
"Yeah, former. That's the life I want, or something close to it. He was a Marine, wrote half a dozen novels, went to law school, became a journalist, and was appointed Secretary of the Navy. He eventually ran for Senate to oppose the Iraq War."
The bartender clinked glasses behind us and the street beyond shed noise from the passersby—couples draped over one another, raucous crew boys in turtlenecks, and professor types with swollen briefcases.
"How about you?" Jordan said.
"Write," Chris said.
"Heck of a place to end up, then."
"Yeah, a bit of a left turn. When I dropped out of grad school—"
"Yeah, I went straight to Oxford after graduating from college, because I wanted to be a war correspondent and haunt those London bars where war reporters like Dexter Filkins and Marie Colvin used to gather. But instead I was writing papers about Foucault, so I left."
"What happened to becoming a war reporter?" Jordan asked.
"I still want to," Chris said. "Maybe someday."
One drink turned into three, which was something of a surprise to the two of us, since all we knew ahead of time was that we didn't share politics. Chris was a Democrat, Jordan a Republican. Yet in that moment our partisan allegiances seemed less relevant. There was something else at work—Jordan was grappling with a recent heartbreak, and Chris was clawing his way out of something similar. Things we could no longer control had eroded our guards. So we discussed what was deeper and unvarnished. Things like our most cherished memories, the influence of our mothers, and whether law school was the right path. We talked about history and learned that we shared a passion for great novels and beautifully rendered reporting.
It was a unique moment—a fortunate one for forging new friendships.
"Jim Webb," Chris said later on. "You said he's your hero, right?"
"He's a Democrat."
* * *
After that first night, Jordan drew Chris into a larger circle of friends and classmates. One evening while the weather was still warm, he took Chris along to a curbside patio at the Owl Shop, a New Haven smoking establishment. Almost every Tuesday, Jordan and his friend Hilary met for a cigar, a glass of whisky, and a set by The Red Planet, a Grateful Dead cover band. There, she and Jordan would unwind together, which to them meant spirited debates over another kind of spirit. Chris tagged along more and more and, as he grew familiar with the back and forth, he even felt like he might belong.
On those nights Chris would often talk about the stories he wanted to write, and Jordan the companies he hoped to build.
Still, our political differences were there; as we sat at the Owl Shop's curbside patio, those views emerged into full view every once in a while.
"It really bothers me that Democrats frame every argument about climate change as if the opposition were either ignorant 'deniers' or corporate shills," Jordan said one warm fall night.
Jordan often argued with his more liberal classmates and had developed a measured tone for navigating delicate conversations.
"It belittles legitimate criticism," he continued.
"But what is that legitimate criticism?" Chris asked.
Chris was more hesitant to engage this way with Jordan and his classmates.
"All I'm saying," Jordan responded, "is it's okay to express humility about what we can know or predict about something as complex as the earth's climate over decades."
"But there's complete consensus among experts on this issue," Chris said. "How does one quibble with 97 percent of climate scientists?"
"That number is misleading. And not a single climate model has made an accurate prediction to date."
"The evidence is overwhelming that climate change is real and man-made."
"I'm not denying that humans have an impact on climate, maybe even a huge one, but that's not the issue. The issue is what to do about it. Dramatically slowing economic growth to prevent some unknown harm a century from now causes serious harm to people today, especially the most disadvantaged."
"But not doing anything would be catastrophic. Millions of people could die."
"How can you know that? We have decades to adjust, and you have no idea what technologies will be developed in the meantime."
"That's a hell of a risk to take. And nearly every climate scientist has said that we have a small window of time right now before the damage becomes irreparable."
Chris's face had turned crimson, while Jordan grew more combative.
"That sounds like scaremongering. If you had reasonable solutions, I'd be all for it. But nothing proposed by the Left would actually solve anything."
"What? There are dozens of policy options. How about a carbon tax…investment in more clean power…more global commitments to reduce emissions?"
"Most of those solutions affect low-income Americans by slowing growth. And none of them take into account the fact that countries like China and India can't afford to give up oil and coal when they have millions of people dying in poverty."
"Look, the U.S. has to lead by example if we want to make progress. We can't be the worst offender on carbon emissions. We can't set the tone like that."
"Leading doesn't mean we have to stifle domestic opposition," Jordan said. "We've made many bad decisions in the name of U.S. leadership because legitimate dissent was suppressed."
- "Union takes readers on a deeply personal journey through the heart of a divided nation. Haugh and Blashek discover an instinct to endure and improve that is shared by the left, the right, and the ever-narrowing center, and detail Americans' abilities to find growth, hope, and fundamental strength in their own lives."—Bob Woodward, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author
- "In the great tradition of American road trip sagas, Chris and Jordan set out across America. Two young people with different politics and outlooks, they were able to see the cool and inspiring things that bind us as a nation. Now more than ever, this is an important book-and also an enjoyable one!"—Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs
- "Union is a story of hope, beautifully told, and breathtakingly honest. It's honest about our differences, and it's revealing about all we can find in common if we take the time to look. Chris and Jordan bridge divides between each other and between Americans in a journey that's part de Tocqueville, and part Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley in Search of America." These two young Americans remind us that our country is complicated, and they find richness in the mosaic that is our fragile union. For anyone turned off by the shouting matches on cable news, open up Union and remind yourself that from the front seat of an eighteen-wheeler or the bow of a lobster boat, there's a better way to see our country and find ourselves."—John F. Kerry, 68th U.S. Secretary of State and author of Every Day is Extra
- "Chris and Jordan's odyssey across America is rich with lessons for us all. Giving hope to those who want to believe 'there's more to America than gladiatorial politics,' -that a collective and singular identity exists among Americans - this account provides a foundation for national purpose absent the scorching rhetoric of our time."—General Jim Mattis, U.S. Marines (ret.)
- "What our country needs right now is Union. Americans might not always get along-or see things the same way-but that doesn't have to be our undoing. Jordan and Chris capture our current moment of upheaval, yet leave readers with reasons to hold fast to what we have. This book is a unique tale told through two pairs of eyes-one that offers not just a sense for where we are, but who we are and why that still matters."—Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of Tiger Mother and Political Tribes
- "More than ever, America needs people like Chris and Jordan to teach and inspire us to build our own bridges across the diverse experiences and perspectives that make up our great country. Union is a book for anyone who believes in the future of America, despite this moment of polarization and divided politics. This beautiful travel log gives us hope for a more optimistic shared future."—Kerry Healey, President of the Center for the Advancement of the American Dream, former Lt. Governor of Massachusetts (R)
- "Union is a lively, funny, honest and original approach to the too-familiar problem of American political divides. Blashek and Haugh offer fresh insights on the roots of division, and point to positive paths ahead."—James Fallows, co-author of Our Towns
- "Blashek and Haugh's portrait of their friendship reveals both the challenges and benefits of 'argu[ing] passionately while respecting the other side.' Readers dismayed by today's hyper-partisanship will find solace in this sober-minded yet hopeful account."—Publishers Weekly
- "An insightful look at contemporary America."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Jul 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 300 pages
- Little, Brown and Company