Listening to the Other Side

BY Gwen Ifill  October 1, 2010 at 11:48 AM EST

I spent a day at the University of Vermont this week, getting up close and personal with my favorite people – the ones who like getting their news from PBS.

In the back of my mind, I had hoped the visit would give me a chance to take the pulse of American youth in much the same way President Obama did to great effect at the University of Wisconsin in Madison earlier in the week.

First big difference: I know you will be shocked to hear this, but I did not draw 25,000 people. Perhaps my advance work was off. There was, however, a standing room crowd of 900 plus, which was especially satisfying when they all combined to sing “Happy Birthday” to me.

But instead of getting to the bottom of the political angst of the liberal American college student, I discovered the people who most wanted to ask questions were simply puzzled.

How, they wanted to know, should they process the tea party movement? What were they to make of Sarah Palin? What would these midterm elections mean?

The questions surfaced repeatedly, at a small question and answer period, at the well-attended speech and at a private dinner afterward. There was no hostility in the questions, but there was naked curiosity – the kind that springs from voters who regularly send Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy to Washington.

I have long believed that most Americans who do not have a partisan dog in the hunt are willing to listen to alternate points of view. So when I suggested to them that people who self-identify as tea partiers are not inherently evil, they listened.

My point is this: just because someone disagrees with you (or with the president for that matter) does not make them crazy or intolerant. When I covered my first presidential campaign in 1988, I discovered that the supporters who flocked to rallies to hear evangelical minister Pat Robertson had a remarkable amount in common with the folks who came out to rallies headlined by Jesse Jackson. One group was mostly white; one was mostly black. Their politics could not have been farther apart, but both audiences were courteous and curious. And they desperately wanted someone to speak for them.

In much the same way, I read with interest how the people who came out to the National Mall to hear Glenn Beck speak were more church picnic than fire and brimstone. They, too, wanted someone to speak for them. It will be interesting to see who shows up for the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally on the National Mall later this month.

My second point was this: Sarah Palin may or may not be running for president, but she is impossible to ignore. If you look at the impressively long list of women running for statewide office this year, it is dominated by Republicans. New Mexico’s Susana Martinez. South Carolina’s Nikki Haley. Connecticut’s Linda McMahon. California’s Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. Nevada’s Sharron Angle. Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell. There is no list of female Democrats that long and fresh.

Surely Sarah Palin played some role in this sudden expansion of the GOP big tent.

Both of these observations brought the crowd to silence. They had clearly not thought about things that way. In order to do it, they had to come out in the rain and listen to someone who forced them to look away from the easy partisan answers that come when you only talk politics with someone who already agrees with you.

Perhaps I will find out what young people are thinking another time.

This post was updated on Oct. 1.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website. Click here to find out who Gwen will talk to on this Friday’s roundtable.