In Divisive Times, Remember: ‘There’s Something Amazing About Being an American’
The question that so many Americans are asking today is, how do we unite our nation once again? In the midst of so much division, how can we remember that we are “one nation under God?”
Today’s guest is best-selling author, journalist, and political commentator Sophia Nelson, who dives into the topic of unity in America and exhorts us to remember that the Founding Fathers “never said we had to agree all the time.”
“They never said we had to like each other all the time, because they didn’t,” Nelson says. “What they wanted was unity of purpose, and unity and loyalty to the Bill of Rights, and to the freedoms that keep us uniquely American.”
Listen to today’s podcast episode or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on The Daily Signal podcast by bestselling author, journalist, and political commentator Sophia Nelson. Sophia, thanks so much for being with us.
Sophia Nelson: My pleasure.
Bluey: Sophia, throughout the month of February we are excited to highlight the work of African Americans like yourself. I’d like to ask you to begin by sharing with our listeners how you originally got involved in media and politics.
Nelson: Well, it’s a great story. I think I’d like to start with someone that your audience will be familiar with who was a mentor of mine, a guy named Ed Meese, former attorney general. We all love General Meese, and I want to send him much love right at the outset of this and thank him because but for him, I would not be where I am.
He was someone that I knew from law school. When I was ready to start my career, I gave him a phone call and said, “I want to come work on the Hill. Can we make this happen?” He made a phone call to a former congressman then, Chris Cox, who was chair of one of the subcommittees, and the rest is history. It’s amazing what can happen through the power of connection.
I bring up General Meese on purpose because I think that when we think about those who have been trailblazers like Kay Coles James, [The Heritage Foundation] president, and others, there’s always somebody in the shadows that’s helped us. There’s always somebody that’s opened a door for you that’s created an entry point.
General Meese did that for me and it has just been, since that time, an amazing journey from being a young lawyer, committee counsel, to litigating in a big firm, to working at the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce], to you’re writing books. Now, as I like to say, I’m a recovering lawyer and I am enjoying being a journalist and a writer and a pundit.
Bluey: I’m so glad you commented on General Meese. He is a great colleague of ours here at Heritage. He is certainly a connector in the way that you described. What an apt description for him.
We, obviously, at The Daily Signal work in the media business. What was it like making that transition from going from law to politics and to now being somebody who is a well-known commentator?
Nelson: It’s a very natural transition if you think about it, right? Particularly if you’re here in Washington. I don’t know if you were somewhere else in the country, say, if you were in Kansas or in New Mexico, or someplace where there’s not this 24/7 news cycle obsession.
As you know, a lot of us go from working on Capitol Hill as staffers or even members of Congress themselves, attorneys, committee council, big trade associations, and the doors are always wide open for opportunity, to go into the private sector if you want, or to go into the public sector and go into media.
Particularly, … a year like this where you have a presidential election and you’ve got the Congress will be up for election. It’s a big election year. They add more pundits to the roster every day. Most of them come from the Hill. Most of them are lawyers by background or journalists from major publications. It’s actually a pretty easy transition. For someone like myself that loves to talk and I love to write, it was a very easy transition. I love it.
Virginia Allen: Sophia, did you always consider yourself a conservative or was there a point in time when you sort of stepped back and said, “Wow, I really identify with the conservative values?”
Nelson: Well, as an African American woman now of, I hate to admit it, 50 years of age, it is what it is, it happens to you. I think that a lot of people don’t understand the journey of African Americans and conservative values.
In my family, I can tell you, like many African American families going back generations, we can trace on my mother’s side in particular dating back to right after the Civil War. Republican members of our family engaged in politics all the way up through Dwight Eisenhower and into even Richard Nixon’s presidency.
I grew up like many African Americans, certainly like Kay, in the black church, in the church. I grew up with a set of values. Mother, father taught me certain things. There was right, there was wrong. There’s what you do, there’s what you don’t do.
I grew up in a military family. [The] Second Amendment was embraced in my household. I want your listeners to know that that’s not uncommon, particularly for someone in my age group, Gen X. Now maybe for millennials it’s a little bit different.
Conservative values were always in the family and always on the table, and I think pulsating just vigorously throughout the black church and throughout the church.
I think that for me it was a natural type of affiliation, but it was Jack Kemp that inspired me on my college campus. 1988 was the first time I could vote for a president that year. He was running in the primary and I heard him speak and that was it for me. I came home and announced that I was going to be a Republican.
I’m not sure that went over so well with my folks who are, again, they’re baby boomers. They were a little more what I would call left-of-center than their parents, the Greatest Generation, who had certainly been Eisenhower Republicans. Before that, a legacy in the family dating all the way down from [Abraham] Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt.
I think that, for me, I like to say that I’m the Alex P. Keaton in the family. Now you’ve got to be old to know who Alex P. Keaton was. “Family Ties.” Michael J. Fox, his character, liberal parents. He’s the Reagan-loving conservative in the household. That was pretty much me growing up. It was a pretty natural affinity.
My value system, my faith system would lend me to be more conservative. I think as I’ve aged—and they say women get more liberal and men get more conservative, that’s interesting—I think that I would comfortably call myself an independent conservative.
I am not happy right now with either political party, if I’m going to be honest. I think they’re both just not where the country needs to be. But I think that common sense, conservative values, and being a compassionate conservative is something I really want to see us move toward in this next decade or so.
Bluey: Thanks so much for sharing that great story, Sophia. We appreciate that historical perspective. Also, your mentioning Jack Kemp, who has inspired so many of us here at Heritage. Heritage is, of course, a nonpartisan organization itself. I think that we see that frustration with the political parties and I know we want to get to that a little bit later in the interview.
I wanted to ask about a book that you wrote called “E Pluribus ONE: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.” Tell us more about it and why you felt it was important to write.
Nelson: Well, for those listening in your audience, of course “e pluribus” is the “out of many,” and I translated the word one, so I hearkened back to our founding motto, which was created by Charles Thomson in 1780, E Pluribus Unum. I just translated the word unum into one because I wanted the one to really stick out on the cover of the book.
Now you’ve got it, you’ve seen it. It’s a pretty book cover. It’s very patriotic. I don’t know if you flipped over and seen the picture on the back, but I look kind of cool on the back picture there, so you should check that out.
The one, I wanted the one to really jump out at everybody because I wrote this book, I penned it on a hunch that … I had an inkling that our current president would win. I just did. We can talk about that a little later when you get into the politics segment.
I wanted to write a book that really reminded us that no matter whether we’re Democrat, Republican, conservative, or liberal, there’s something amazing about being an American. There’s something amazing about being able to be united even when we disagree. I think we’ve lost that, and I think we’ve lost it in a really big way.
We’ve become very uncivil, incivil. We’ve become very unkind and we now want to look at our fellow American who doesn’t agree with us, and now they’re not an American or they’re not patriotic. That’s not the way this country was founded.
This country was founded by 13 colonies. If you think that South Carolina and Massachusetts liked each other, you’re wrong. If you think that Rhode Island and Virginia had a lot in common, you’re wrong. They didn’t agree on much of anything. Certainly they show slavery was a huge dividing block between the colonies.
Yet these men, these Founding Fathers as it were, and of course Founding Mothers too, but these Founding Fathers really understood that if they were going to defeat tyranny and elevate liberty, if they were going to create a new nation based on equality and the great things that [Thomas] Jefferson talks about in the Declaration of Independence, these truths that are self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator God, with certain unalienable rights, then they had to unite.
They were going to have to get past their differences, and they were going to have to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight the tyrant in order to elevate liberty.
As a woman of color, again, a lot of people say to me, “What are you doing writing a book about the Founding Fathers? Those guys are rogue. They had slaves. They were chauvinists.” All the things that people say.
Well, they might be right about all that in one sense, but in another sense, these men were also brilliant. They were trailblazers. They were flawed. They were human. They had weaknesses. Yes.
Do I like the notion that this country started half-slave and half-free? I do not. I am a direct lineal descendant of slaves on my mother’s side. Direct. A great, great, great, great grandfather who was a slave owner’s son, and they ran off together. We can talk about that story later.
The point is that all of us [are] a part of this great American tapestry, this great journey, and I want us to embrace the men and women regardless, again, whether that had an “R” by their name or a “D” by their name or an “independent” by their name. I want people to understand the greatness of America is that we perfect this union. It was not born perfect.
I think [Condoleezza] Rice said it best when she said that America’s great birth defect is slavery. I think that’s such a great way to put it. But I think that since that time we’ve tried to right that wrong. We’ve tried to perfect that union, and look at where we are.
We had an African American president. We have women senators and governors, and CEOs. We have black astronauts. We have Latino members of Congress and statesmen. We have definitely perfected, we righted, and we continue to do that.
The whole notion of “E Pluribus ONE” is that our Founders really had a vision for a united country. Their original vision as, like I said, put forth in 1780 when Sam Adams commissioned Charles Thomson to come up with a motto, and they came up with “E pluribus unum,” “Out of many, one,” they got it. They understood it was the unity that was going to keep this republic strong.
They never said we had to agree all the time. They never said we had to like each other all the time, because they didn’t. What they wanted was unity of purpose, and unity and loyalty to the Bill of Rights, and to the freedoms that keep us uniquely American.
I elevated that in the book by talking about our founding principles, by highlighting the men and women throughout history. Like I said, in every chapter there’s a male and a female. I wanted to show the men and the women, regardless of where they came from or who they were, that contributed to the greatness of this country, and how we keep it moving forward.
Allen: Sophia, that is so critical to take the time to go back and remember where we have come from as a nation and what our history is. So what has people’s response been to the book?
Nelson: Well, it’s now 2 years old. It was a genre switch for me. … My first two books, the first one earned a Pulitzer nod. I didn’t win, I got nominated. It got a best nonfiction book award. My second one, one of the best-selling women’s books of all time. I’ve written books about women, women’s inspiration, and women’s leadership.
I really made a genre switch when I went to politics, but I wanted to take those same principles of inspiration, of connection, of courageous conversation, the things that I talk about to women and the world’s biggest companies and all around the globe, and I wanted to apply it to our body politic, to our public square.
The response, I think was, it picked up … when it first came out, nobody wanted to buy the book because they were mad. Everybody was mad after the 2016 election.
I mean this sincerely, nobody wanted to talk about unity. Nobody wanted to talk about why we needed to be one country. Then within about six months we couldn’t keep them in stock. As I talked about it more on TV and people began to see, “Oh my, we’re really divided. Oh, this isn’t good.”
Then when Charlottesville happened, that was a game-changer. It really propelled me and the book into a different type of spotlight because people said, “Sophia got that. She saw it coming. She was trying to warn us and wave the flag and say, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got to figure this out.’”
It has been a great response to the book. I get invited all over to speak. Colleges, companies, trade associations, all over, literally all over the world. I’ve been to Australia. I’ve been everywhere to talk about this great American experiment, and the light and the spark that I think is still the envy of the world.
No matter how messy it might get over here, no matter how much we might poke at each other and try to fight with each other, we’re still the great envy of the rest of the world.
It’s been a good response. I’ve been happy with it.
Bluey: It’s no secret that you have been critical of President Donald Trump. If you sat down with the president today, how would you encourage him to go about advocating and advancing some of those principles that you write about in the book?
Nelson: … I really would like to sit down with him, actually. I’d like to have him to my house and have some coffee with him and say, “Let me talk to you for a minute. Let me help you for a minute.”
What I would tell him is, “Mr. President, you’ve got some good policies. You really do. You’ve done some good things. The problem is … ” I would tell him what I tell my young nieces and others when they don’t know how to get out of their own way. Sometimes we need to learn to not always say what we’re thinking. We certainly shouldn’t always tweet what we’re thinking.
I think that … as the president of the United States, you’re in the most esteemed position in the world, what you say matters and how you say it matters even more.
I get that this president isn’t, perhaps, like any other that we’ve had in the sense that he wasn’t in public life before, and he wasn’t a senator or a governor or something like that. I get that.
Perhaps part of the appeal of him was that people wanted somebody who would go to Washington and do these unconventional things because I think we can all agree, whether we’re Democrats, Republicans, or independents, that Washington is broken. It’s not working and it hasn’t worked for a really long time. I really hope we can all at least agree on that.
I think that I wish he would stand up and be a different kind of man. I wish he would act like a man of faith. I wish he would talk like one. I wish he would encourage and motivate and inspire because, as my grandmother used to say, who just turned 90 two weeks ago and she’s still awesome, she always tells me, “You can get more with honey than with vinegar.” That stuck with me.
She’s right, I think you have more appeal to people when it’s how you say things and how you reach them. I think that this president probably could have had a very different presidency these last few years had he just tempered himself and understood more about how you have to manage Washington, and just how you talk to people. That’s what I would tell them. I think those principles of unity are so important.
I think he’s had some monumental moments as a president with a lot of, like I said, Charlottesville. Some of those opportunities were missed moments for him where he really could have stepped up and stepped in and really brought the country together, which is what we’re really used to seeing presidents do.
Whether it’s W, or Obama, or Reagan, or George Herbert Walker Bush, who I just thought was an amazing human being. I think he’s broken the mold a little bit. I’m not a fan. That’s true. I wish he would do better.
Bluey: Well, I hope you do have an opportunity to have that sit-down meeting. I think that it would be certainly lively and educational.
Taking a step behind Trump for a moment, I want to ask how conservatives, like those of us at The Heritage Foundation or The Daily Signal, can more effectively reach Americans. Be it minorities, young people, or women. What positive and uplifting messages should we be focusing on? Are there certain policy issues where you think that there’s common ground that we should focus on?
Nelson: I do, and I’ve thought that for the last 30 years. Like I said, I’ve been a part of the Republican Party … since 1988. Recently I made a decision, it’s probably better for me to be an independent. I think that you can’t be at odds with everything your party does and still be a part of it. It’s really not the values or the policies, it’s who’s talking about it.
For example, I’ve been saying for years, for decades to Republicans, the message is fine. It’s the messengers I have the problem with. If you want to talk to communities of color, if you want to talk to women, they need to see people that look like them in leadership roles and roles of authority. People that they can connect to, people who grew up in their neighborhood.
One of the things I’ve always prided myself on, if I ever decide to run for office—and I’m sure I probably will, I think about it, we’re talking about it—I think that one of the things that I pride myself on is I will be able to go into any community, whether it is the black community with women, with other racial minorities, whether it’s talking to a group of white men that embrace the Confederate flag with guns, I’m not afraid to go talk to them. I don’t think you should be afraid of your fellow Americans.
I think that if you run on your ideas and if you can talk about your ideas, and if you can sell people on why your idea is better than the other guy’s, not tearing the other guy down, not ripping them down, not talking about his family, not talking about what he did when he was 19 or 20. Who cares? What people want to hear is, how are you going to make my life better?
I think conservatives have done themselves a disservice by running away. I know if Jack were on this interview, he’d agree with me. They’ve done a disservice by running away from constituencies that need their message, now more than ever.
No community could benefit more from that Jack Kemp, urban entrepreneurial, lowered taxes, self-advancement message than the African American community in places like Chicago or places like Camden, New Jersey or Newark or the urban areas.
Let’s face it, look at the top 50 cities in this country. When’s the last time a Republican’s run any of those cities? Then look at how bad off many of those cities are economically. It’s a difference of philosophy. It’s a difference of how we get the results.
I think Republicans and conservatives are for health care. I think they’re for protecting the elderly. I think they want to feed hungry kids in this country. We always fail in how we talk about it …
Next year, I’m going to make sure you guys are invited to the Christmas party. I say that because my Christmas party is always a really big deal. You’ve got a lot of different people in here. You might have Yamiche Alcindor from PBS and then you might have Shannon Bream from Fox News, and you’ll see them talking in a corner.
I pride myself on having a party and gathering, particularly in my home, where people are different and they look different. I always point that out to them.
Invariably, people break out in applause because they look around the room and they realize, yeah, I’ve not been in a room like this forever, where there are white men and black women and African American men, and Latinos, and Asians and again, they’re from all different political persuasions.
I throw everybody into the same room together and they get along just fine, and they do great. I think we have to do more of that.
We have to not be afraid of each other and not be afraid to talk about things. Conservatives need to go into black churches and need to not be afraid of that. …
Just because you’re a white guy running for Congress doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go talk to the black people that live in your community. That’s stupid. If you have a message, share your message and don’t be afraid.
You’d be amazed how people respond when one, you have the courage to show up and two, [you] give them a different way to look at things.
Showing up is part of it where people respect you because you came to them and you said, “I don’t agree with how they want to do it, but here’s how I want to do it. Here’s what I think. I think that I can prove to you that this might work better for you, your kids, your family.” People tend to listen to that kind of stuff.
I think we’ve just missed a tremendous opportunity by how we don’t venture out to take conservative values and messages to places that need them the most in this country.
Allen: Sophia, we could not agree with you more. That’s something that we talk a lot about at Heritage, that importance of building unity and reaching across the aisle, and just the power of showing up. That’s a focus of The Heritage Foundation and of our president, Kay James. You’ve known and worked with Kay James.
Nelson: Love her.
Allen: Yeah. She’s wonderful. We love her so much. What role has she played in your own political journey?
Nelson: Oh, wow. I look at Kay, Kay’s like another mom. She and my mom are age cohorts, they’re baby boomer women, both conservative women, both, I call them, both godly women, just about their families and their grandchildren, and just good women.
Kay is a role model for me, not just certainly from a political or career type of perspective, but as a human being. I like the way she lives her life. That’s big to me. I talk about that a lot in my book …
If you think about what just happened with the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, which tragic, just very tragic and sad and the other people, it makes us all stop. It makes us reflect on our living and our dying.
When I think of who I want to be when I leave this earth, it’s a person like Kay James who has built something. She’s built legacy.
You’ve probably been to the Gloucester Institute or you’re aware of it. The work that she does to pour into African American students and students of color to expose them to conservative ideas and values, and to give them a part of their history that they don’t necessarily always get in college or in high school.
I also think that Kay has been an inspiration to those of us who are women of color who are more conservative, or even moderate, because there are very few of us.
I can count the number of black conservative women I know who’ve reached the height, if you will, of politics or policy in Washington on one hand. Kay is at the top of that, and her ascension at Heritage to president, up to me, is this, I still can’t believe it because it’s pretty amazing. I say that because it’s probably something that no one thought would ever happen and I think she’s done an amazing job.
I think that she is the right person for the times we live in because she knows how to talk to her community. She went to an HBCU [a historically black college or university]. She is grounded in her community so no one can challenge her on her love of her community, her loyalty to her community.
It’s important to be able to walk in both worlds where Kay can be in a room full of conservative white men and do just as well as she could be in a room of all black pastors and talk to them just the same. That’s where we need to be in this country.
I think she’s a great role model for how we create bridges and dialogues and opportunity to just stop with one another, break bread. We need to get back to some basics in this country.
We’ve got to stop all the meanness, and all the unkindness, and giving each other a black eye. We’ve got to learn to sit down and have some coffee, have a glass of wine, and just talk and listen. You’ll be OK, you’ll survive it. It’s really OK. I think that Kay is really good at setting that type of example for me and for others.
Bluey: That’s so true. Having worked with her closely for the last two years, it’s certainly opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about things. The challenges that she gives her staff are really incredible, and I will say, I’m a better person as a result of having her as a leader of Heritage and thankful for it.
Nelson: If I might real quickly, you made me think of something that I wanted to say when I was talking about General Meese. I brought him up intentionally, and Jack Kemp, again, for your listeners to understand something very important now.
I was a young woman in Washington, 30 years ago, I’m a young committee council and all those things. I was it. It was me. Kay was somewhere. I could call Kay, but that was pretty much it. There wasn’t a whole lot of us running around.
I want people to understand that Ed Meese and Chris Cox and very conservative men took me under their wing—Dan Burton, who a lot of people were not very kind to in the media. [They] thought he was extreme and thought he was a little strange, whatever they said about them, conservative, but these guys took me under their wing, they elevated me professionally, they supported, they encouraged, and they were mentors.
I think it’s so important for people to know that your mentor doesn’t have to look like you. They don’t have to just be from where you’re from. They can be someone that’s completely different from you, from a different generation. They can be a white male if you’re a young woman of color and they can help you.
I feel very fortunate to have had that type of experience because I think it’s so important for this new generation to understand and I think they get it, actually.
I think the millennials are pretty phenomenal in terms of … if you have kids and if you have young nieces and nephews or what have you, you’ve seen them. Their friends are like the U.N., they don’t see race, … they don’t, they are just all over the place. That is awesome. That’s very different from when I grew up, and certainly different from when Kay grew up.
I’m optimistic about where I think we’re headed, but I think that we’ve got to get past our differences and that’s why I really try to focus on oneness and unity. Even when we disagree, we have to be unified in what America’s about, what her value is, why she’s so important, and why this republic must stand long after we’re gone. I just wanted to let people know that it’s, your mentors don’t always have to look like you.
Bluey: Sophia, thanks for sharing that optimistic advice about our future. I know you have said that you believe in the best in people, and that’s great advice and words of wisdom for our readers. For those who want to follow your work and learn more about you, what would you recommend? How can they go about doing that?
Nelson: Well, certainly, good old Google will give you everything.
Bluey: It certainly will.
Nelson: … If you like feisty Sophia, you want to follow me on Twitter, @IAmSophiaNelson. If you want a more calm version, you want to go to my Facebook page, Sophia A Nelson. Everything’s “I Am Sophia Nelson,” whether it’s on Instagram or Twitter.
For your female audience, I certainly want to recommend to you, particularly, my second book, “The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life,” because I think it’s a game-changer. … It’s a crossover book. It’s a Christian book, but it’s also a professional book. It’s about what it means to be a woman and living by a code. I think that, like I said, we need to get back to some basics.
You can find me pretty easy, “I Am Sophia Nelson” on every platform.
Allen: Sophia, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.
Nelson: My pleasure. Thank you.