WATERTOWN — Amanda Ripley has interviewed people who study conflict all over the world and it’s made her lose sleep.
“There’s a series of predictable patterns, things that happen before violent conflict breaks out all over the world,” she said. “The United States has checked most of these boxes at this point.”
So her visits to Watertown in 2018 were refreshing as she did research and interviewed local residents for her story, “The Least Politically Prejudiced Place in America,” published in the online edition of The Atlantic magazine this past winter.
Ms. Ripley spoke Friday from Portland, Ore., as she prepared to board a plane back to her home in Washington, D.C. She was in Portland to visit family and to give a talk. She’ll give another talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Jefferson Community College about her recent Atlantic article.
In her books and magazine writing, Ms. Ripley explores the gap between public policy and human behavior. For Time and Atlantic magazines, she has written cover stories on topics ranging from surviving hurricanes to the primacy of sports in American high schools. She’s the author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way.”
The basis of her Watertown-based article was an analysis for the magazine conducted by PredictWise, a relatively new polling and analytics firm. From her article: “Using an original national poll, voter-registration files and other large data sets, PredictWise determined that Jefferson County and several nearby counties in the north country are distinct parts of America. These are places where people can disagree on politics but still, it appears, give one another the benefit of the doubt.”
PredictWise did the study pro bono for the magazine. Atlantic funded Ms. Ripley’s reporting and related work involving the story’s accompanying interactive map for the story.
The subtitle for “The Least Politically Prejudiced Place in America,” published online in March, is “As American towns become more politically segregated and judgmental, what can we learn from one that hasn’t.”
Ms. Ripley herself learned something valuable during her reporting here. She made two visits and had several lengthy phone calls.
“I came back feeling like one of the downsides of living in D.C. is that it’s very politically homogenous and your life is less rich as a result,” she said. “There’s value in having friendship with people who think differently than you politically.”
She saw such friendship, people on different sides of the political aisle, in Watertown.
“It’s true genuine friendship,” she said. “Not like an uncle you put up with.”
She was particularly inspired by a Rotary meeting she attended in Watertown.
“I looked into joining a Rotary club when I got back to D.C.,” she said. “That’s something I never thought about.”
Such gatherings, she found, are more relevant than ever in today’s world of political tribes with members deaf to other viewpoints.
In previous reporting, Ms. Ripley found it useful “to look at the outliers” — to find “places where things do seem to be working a little better and then write about those things.”
For example, for her book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” she visited countries with strong education systems and followed students.
“It’s helpful to get outside your world and not just to lament the problem, but try to see what can be done about it,” she said.
The PredictWise project included questions on what Republicans and Democrats thought of the moral character of members of the other party.
“Once we did that, we knew a lot about the people who took the poll,” Ms. Ripley said. “We could see what demographic traits seem to go along with high levels of political tolerance and intolerance.”
Perhaps the most interesting finding, Ms. Ripley said, was discovering that people seem to be politically segregated.
“They lived in neighborhoods where there weren’t many people from across the aisle,” she said, and added it’s a trend that’s increasing across the country.
“What stood out about Jefferson County was that it was more politically diverse on the neighborhood level and even in the household level,” Ms. Ripley said.
The author said she tries to find ways to make readers understand what’s happening and not to see issues and situations as a “Trump or Pelosi” problem.
“This is a human problem that’s happening in many places around the world where you start to see the other side in very simplistic terms,” she said. “There’s a lot of danger in that.”
These biases, she said, can lead to mistakes.
“When you have these distortions, you make bad decisions,” Ms. Ripley said. “Things feel more threatening than they are. Nobody can be curious or open to compromise when you feel threatened. What I’m hoping to do with this and other projects is contribute to a bigger conversation about how we can do better as a country.”
She looks forward to Wednesday and her Watertown visit when she can speak more on the topic.
“I know any time you parachute into town and try to write about it, there’s something a little bit dubious about that,” Ms. Ripley said. “I don’t live there and I’m not from there. I’m grateful to everyone in Watertown who opened their homes, offices and minds to talk to me about this.”
It’s not often she gets a chance to return to a community she covered for a story.
“Watertown invited me back and I’m really grateful because I want to hear what the community thinks,” she said. “There’s a lot there and there’s a lot that I inevitably failed to capture.”