Last week, as the midterm election results rolled in, it was clear that despite some impressive flipped seats and close races, Trump supporters remain very energized, signaling deeper polarization in America. Outside the Bubble, an HBO documentary directed and hosted by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, attempts to confront the political divide head-on, and winds up giving viewers a glimpse of the unbending conservatism that has come to the fore in recent years.
As you might surmise, Pelosi is liberal. She previously worked on Real Time with Bill Maher, but became interested in reporting on conservatives and their motivations, earning her the title of "purple sheep in the family." The documentary follows Pelosi's conversations with Trump supporters around the country, discussing ten issues dividing the nation, including gun control, Confederate monuments, immigration, climate change, and coal mining. The goal, as she explains at the outset of the film, is to take the first step in addressing polarization by stepping "outside [her] own bubble" to listen to people in the MAGA camp and see what there is to learn.
Despite the film’s optimistic tone, the interviews Pelosi conducts mostly confirm how difficult it is to bridge political divides, especially in the Trump era. She seeks deeper answers about why conservatives are staunch in their beliefs, but at least with this group of subjects, she struggles to find common ground.
While interviewing Judy Nichols, a Republican living outside Houston, Texas, Pelosi invokes the sanctimonious way politicians have responded to natural disasters in various parts of the country. She brings up the fact that conservative senators voted against aiding communities affected by Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, but then asked for FEMA funds when Texas was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Nichols argues that it's human nature to ask for help, even if you've denied it in the past. “That’s hypocrisy!” Pelosi contends, but Nichols replies that hypocrisy is “human nature, too.” It's a strange standoff.
In one oddly compelling moment, a Border Patrol officer brings Pelosi to a non-fenced portion of the US-Mexico border, where they watch people entering the country, while a nearby guard eyes the trespassers from a distance. But the power of the image fades for those who happen to be aware that most undocumented immigrants in the United States simply overstayed their legally-obtained visas. Pelosi is trying to show viewers the realities of illegal immigration, but this particular tableau makes crossing the US-Mexico border appear easier and more common than it is, and plays into conservative beliefs on illegal immigration at the border.
The film does highlight Pelosi forging some personal bonds across the aisle, but these moments all occur outside of pointed political discussion, plus she’s probably aided by being an educated white woman with a famous last name. The Houston residents she grilled about climate change invite her to a family dinner. And at another point in the film, Pelosi turns a combative, build-the-wall hawk into mush by introducing him to her two young boys. But even as he lets down his guard with Pelosi's children while they are building sand castles, the man jokes that Trump should hire them to help construct the border wall, hinting that the camera-friendly moment didn't do much to alter his politics.
Nearly all of the interviewees included in the film are firmly right-wing and don't waver from their political leanings. The people Pelosi talks to hold nearly identical points of view on all the issues she broaches. But as viewers, we know there are some conservatives who've changed their mind about Trump, and in any town there's bound to be some diversity of opinion. The hardened stance taken by so many of Pelosi's subjects raises a red flag about whether they are actually representative of their communities. The conservative families she talks to about climate change, for example, live just outside of Houston, which is one of the most liberal pockets of an increasingly purple state. Choosing to focus on more hardened conservatives leads to some humanizing moments, but also many that make Republicans look ignorant, wacky, and hateful. Since Pelosi is openly liberal with familial ties to the Democratic establishment, it's even harder to take the film's supposed non-judgmental exploration at face value.
Outside the Bubble presents itself as somewhat of a solution to the media industry's struggle to understand and portray Trump supporters. But its fresh approach raises new dilemmas. Despite Pelosi's reputation for open-mindedness, there's a constant awareness that the people on screen are being filtered through a liberal lens. Even though she set out primarily to listen, her interview style is far from ceding the floor to her subjects. She gets noticeably worked up when answers frustrate her, interjecting frequently to point out what she's baffled by. Pelosi seems particularly interested in people who should theoretically support Democratic policies, from her point of view, like a congregation that lost 26 members in a mass shooting or a coal miner whose plant shut down after Trump was elected. When they don't, it begs us to ask, what's the point? If Pelosi's assumptions guided her location and subject choices, the film is not a free-wheeling exploration, as its opening suggests.
The documentary demonstrates that pure intentions will only get Americans so far. But a biased interviewer feigning objectivity doesn't feel satisfying either. Perhaps a political documentary co-directed by a conservative and a liberal would ease some of the power dynamics and producing dilemmas. A film that captured disagreement or animosity within political factions could offer a better sense of how extreme certain subjects' views are within their communities. As it stands though, filtering interviews with staunch conservatives through a Democrat's lens is an entertaining yet imperfect method.
By the end of the documentary, as Pelosi tries to conjure a net-positive from her series of discussions, the film's real takeaway is bleak. It mostly demonstrates that it's possible to disagree more civilly with people of differing political views. Pelosi's evident frustration during her interviews, however, raises new questions about whether it's even possible to simply listen to the other side. Rather, the film demonstrates how hard it can be to burst your own ideological bubble, especially when we carry our biases and assumptions with us to new places and interactions. Addressing America's increased polarization is a noble goal, but Pelosi's attempt at it shows that our rifts are even deeper than they first appeared.
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