Shortly after Farah Stockman earned a degree in social studies from Harvard in the late 1990s, she moved to Kenya, where she’d done a study abroad program in college a few years before. She already had friends, connections and a heart for Kenyans. She moved there to help kids she’d seen living on the streets during her college years.

Two years in, she became a Nairobi correspondent for The New York Times, a foray into journalism that would change her life and lead her to become a keen observer on global events. As a journalist, she’s covered a variety of international stories, including the criminal trials that arose from genocide in Rwanda.

She notes proudly that the NGO she helped start, now called Jitegemee, is run by Kenyans.

Stockman, 49, has been a full-time journalist for roughly a quarter century, including 16 years as a columnist and editorial writer for The Boston Globe; she still lives in Cambridge with her daughter. Over the years, she’s reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, South Sudan and Guantanamo Bay.

In 2016 — a big year in which she won a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary at the Globe and had her daughter — she returned to The New York Times as a columnist.

She’s since written a book, “American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.” It, too, is the story of people who struggle. She’s currently working on a new project about housing in Detroit.

Deseret talked to her about why politics shouldn’t be one’s identity.

We live in a world where there’s so many things grabbing people’s attention that the only way to capture you is to keep you in a constant state of outrage.

Deseret Magazine: Is polarization the serious problem media presents?

Farah Stockman: I think polarization is when people identify themselves as not the other. If you’re for it, I’m against it. If that’s you, then you are basically letting somebody else have power over you by whatever they’re for, you’re against. 

I see examples all over the place. My daughter has been having some challenges learning to read. We found this literacy teacher who was great over the summer, and she was furious that science-based methods weren’t being used to teach kids to read. I later heard that because George W. Bush wanted those methods under No Child Left Behind, the teachers union didn’t want those methods. It got political; it had nothing to do with the methods. 

It had to do with not wanting No Child Left Behind and not liking George Bush. You can come up with 100 examples of that when it comes to (Donald) Trump. I think Trump is an awful person, but it doesn’t mean everything he did was wrong. There were things he did that needed to be done and even Biden is doing them. 

At a certain point, we lose. We just do ourselves such a disservice when we start defining politics in this tribal way.

DM: What did you learn about identity writing that book?

FS: I think of class as an identity and a culture and that is rarely talked about on the left. That’s starting to change. But for a long time, there were these two pillars where you either cared about race or you cared about class. A lot of the talk surrounding the rise of Trump was about how he was talking about race and his policies were “racist” and, therefore, these white working-class people who supported him were all racist. There was a lot of that in the run-up to his election. I wanted my book to look more closely at that, and why working-class people were flocking to him, which was more complicated. Race was part of the story. But there’s more.

I think now we’re seeing the rise of unions and more conversation on the left about working-class issues, but for a long time, liberals were people who came from college and had sort of forgotten about some of these working-class identity issues. I think that’s part of why they lost ground in some places.

DM: What do you mean?

FS: I wrote about a factory in Indianapolis. Indiana, that used to be a hotbed of unions. They were blue-collar people who elected folks that believed in a labor movement, and some of them came to feel that the Democratic Party had abandoned them, specifically when Bill Clinton started supporting NAFTA.

Support of NAFTA was absolutely instrumental in some places in turning people away from the Democratic Party. They were so mad at Bill Clinton all these years later that they would never have voted for his wife.

They had personal stories of factories closing down. I interviewed two guys back to back. Both had lost not one but two factory jobs after their plants closed. If you know what a factory job used to be like, you work your way up and pay your dues, then by the time you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’ve made it. That’s the life their fathers led. But they didn’t get to live that life. They were still working the night shift at age 48, 50, because when you get rehired, you start from the bottom, you lose all your seniority. They were like men who are adrift. They couldn’t live up to the standards their fathers-in-law or their fathers had set. And they were mad.

The language of the Democratic Party was about going to college. It wasn’t about bringing back manufacturing. Now it is. Biden talks about bringing back manufacturing a lot and he’s done a lot to try to make that happen. But I think Trump did a lot to make that part of the narrative. A lot of these guys voted for (Barack) Obama in 2008. What did Obama promise to do? Renegotiate NAFTA. So, you know, it’s identity, blue-collar identity factory worker. But it’s bigger than that and it does tie into politics and policy.

DM: Can we close the distance between us?

FS: I was hoping we would see that under Biden, because he has adopted a lot of the blue-collar appeal, the stuff that Trump was saying, and he’s actually gone a step further.

It was Trump’s trade rep, a guy named Bob Lighthizer, who renegotiated NAFTA and Biden’s trade negotiator has taken that agreement and is implementing it. 

There’s no daylight between Trump and Biden when it comes to trade. Their people are secretly agreeing. When you get to the voters, are they still hair-on-fire polarized opponents? I don’t know. I see a lot of overlap. But when you get to the political rhetoric, it disappears. You don’t hear Biden saying, “Yes, Trump did this right and I continued it.” Instead, they criticize. Part of that’s politics, I think.

We live in a world where there’s so many things grabbing people’s attention that the only way to capture you is to keep you in a constant state of outrage. People don’t want to hear Trump did good things on this or that. Or, if you’re a Trump supporter, that Biden is doing exactly what you said you wanted.

DM: What’s Congress doing in all of this? 

FS: It’s similar in that when you hear them talk offline, they say things like, they’re surprised that things are more collegial. But they play to the cameras and they play to their base who hates the other side. 

In the name of absolute transparency, you want these cameras, but if it causes people to just perform for the crowd, maybe that’s not helpful.

DM: What did you learn from an unlikely friendship of two people on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom? 

FS: That was a space where you had Democrats and Republicans by design, and where the people working in that space decided to make it work. I guess that committee had had problems in the past with people feuding instead of trying to find areas where they could work together.

I think if you get to know people as human beings, you can better understand the way they see things. You may not ever agree with them, but at least you might be able to see how they could have that point of view. 

I worry that today we’re so self-segregated, where we live in communities where you don’t necessarily see people who have different political views, or who are of different education levels. So you might just dismiss their entire point of view, because they’re the other or support the other candidate. You never understand or hear a good-faith argument about why they think the things they think.

DM: Any last work?

FS: Don’t give the other side the power. If you define your identity, even unconsciously, as I’m for whatever they’re against, then you’re giving them the power to define you. And that’s just silly. It ruins politics because it means strange bedfellows can’t get together and do things that they do agree on, because they’re not supposed to be sitting at the same table.

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.