Ending the Culture War: Political Dialogue: Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess

Ending the Culture War: Political Dialogue: Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess

Posted On: January 23, 2015
Comments: One Response

“You’re not as crazy as I thought. (but you’re still wrong) Conversations between a Devoted Conservative and a Die-Hard Liberal” by Phil Neisser & Jacob Hess is an inspiring attempt by its authors to show how we can move beyond the energy sapping conflict between left and right, conservative and liberal and other political polarities. They demonstrate that at the very least it’s possible for liberals and conservatives to come to a position of mutual understanding and respect. They show that it is possible for us to integrate the best, the healthy strands of different political dimensions into an integrated whole.

Phil describes himself as a leftist and a liberal (in the American sense of the word) and Jacob is a Christian Conservative and proud Mormon. They had both grown tired of the culture wars in which the left and right have become ever more polarised, sometimes to the degree of mutual hatred and always to the detriment of America. Similar processes are found around the world. They set about the disciplined process of identifying the many subjects about which they had strongly opposing views and, one by one, they patiently listened to one another until they fully understood each other’s positions.

The subject which they found most contentious was the case for gay marriage. We took that as a case example in which each set out their view and then described the process they went through. In fact, as the interviewer, I had quite a hard job to try to stimulate any tension, emotional triggers or conflict as a way of demonstrating their positions and polarity original. This is because they’ve done such a good job of working through the issue that they can now very comfortably discuss it in a very mature, reasoned, nuanced way in which they fully respect the position of the other. They could even see some ways forward on the subject which may offer breakthrough.

I invited them to explore the challenges faced by the West, particularly Europe, as a result of high levels of immigration of Muslims at a time when Islam is going through a very turbulent phase of its adaptation to the modern world.  As a Mormon, Jacob is a member of a religious minority which is quite traditional and conservative, yet successful as living as prosperous, democratic, patriotic Americans. I asked him whether there were any lessons for Muslims in Europe as to how best to make a success of integrating into Western society without compromising their religion and values.  He said that Mormons had suffered a great deal of persecution both historically and currently and he felt that Christians and Mormons in particular have a lot in common with Muslims. If anything, he felt that globally that the fault line was not between Christians and Muslims but rather between religious people and secular people. He felt that one of the key things in enabling successful integration is to see the humanity in the person and group with which one does not agree. He gave examples of that and showed how it had softened his position on many subjects whilst still remaining true to himself and his beliefs.

I asked Phil to say how he navigates between being open,  tolerant and accepting of diversity whilst also being willing to assert some values as better than others. He draws the line at the use of coercion and violence. He believes that people should be free to live as they choose including living according to their religious beliefs but that they should not be permitted to impose those upon others. We discussed the reluctance of some of us to assert our values for fear of being accused of being racist, Islamophobic or similar.

Jacob described how he, as a Mormon, has learned to have great self-confidence in asserting his beliefs as the truth. He spent 2 years traveling around Brazil knocking on doors to share his truth. He believes that everybody should be confident to do that as well as also being free to disagree. In fact, that was one of the common themes throughout the conversation that a healthy political culture needs us to enshrine the willingness to disagree. Having said that, there are some things upon which we need to agree in order to live together as one community. Jacob gave a very practical example of a swimming pool in his community which is largely Mormon. The majority of the community will vehemently against the use of the pool on a Sunday, the sabbath. The minority were determined to use the pool on a Sunday as an expression of their freedom and rights. They managed to find a compromise through dialogue which enabled both sets of people to retain their own beliefs and protect their way of life.

They finished off by saying how the lessons from their  conversations could be scaled up to improve our political culture and institutions.

To follow their work, visit their website.


Phil Neisser

Phil Neisser teaches political theory at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he also serves as the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences. Neisser earned his M.A at Georgetown University and his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  He is the author of United We Fall: Ending America’s Love Affair with the Political Center (Praeger, 2008), co-editor of Tales of the State: Narrative in Contemporary U.S. Politics and Public Policy (1997), and the author of essays and book chapters on a variety of subjects.  And in the year 2000 he received a SUNY Potsdam Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching.


Find Phil on Facebook and Twitter


Jacob Hess

After graduating from Brigham Young University as psychology department valedictorian, Jacob Hess was admitted to the doctoral program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  There, he was invited by the UIUC Program on Inter-group Relations to help develop and co-facilitate a liberal-conservative dialogue course for undergraduates, the first of its kind in the nation.  Jacob also joined Nathan Todd in interview research comparing narratives of liberal and conservative citizens.  After completing his Ph.D. dissertation research on long-term depression treatment outcomes in 2009, Jacob has worked as research director at Utah Youth Village, a non-profit for abused children in the Rocky Mountain region.