I’ve been writing about the political and social crisis in America for months, and the inevitable question becomes louder and louder in my head. And in yours too, I suspect. What do we do about it? My only answer has been—Write! My gratitude to those who have responded to my blogs, for language has no power unless it is shared, but once answered its power grows. Surely, Donald Trump has taught us that. I write in the faith that there are others who share my views, and so was heartened, this morning, to see that the New York Times Opinion section of May 2nd featured an essay, “What Democrats Don’t Understand About Rural America,” which I urge you to read, if you’re a subscriber to the NYT—and to share.
The authors are Maine’s youngest ever State Senator, Chloe Maxmin, and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward. The essay is adapted from their forthcoming book, Dirt Road Revival and is the story of Senator Maxmin’s two successful campaigns in rural Maine, despite the fact that she was a twenty-nine-year-old climate activist and a progressive Democrat running in the oldest district in this largely Republican state. Their central thesis: Democrats need to stop talking to themselves and knock on the doors of Independents and Republicans—and they need to talk values, not policies.
I was appalled to learn how totally Democratic national presidential campaigns have given up talking to rural Americans. Maxmin says a worker reported that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had only one worker responsible for rural outreach for the entire nation. It’s hard to think of a better prescription for polarizing America. One campaign chairman told them he didn’t believe in talking to Republicans, and, indeed, I’ve heard similar sentiments from Democrats for years. Senator Maxmin, on the other hand, knocked on doors of Republicans and Independents and so heard the story of frustration, helplessness, and loss by citizens who felt the Democrats’ message keenly: “You don’t matter.”
To my mind, as I’ve said in my blogs, this shift began in the Sixties with the massive effort on the part of the young college-educated liberals to disassociate themselves from their culture. In part, this was due to the endemic racism of this culture, in part due to the Vietnam war, and in part a brand of idealism that sought to create a “new world.” The focus, quite legitimately, was on changing racist laws, and the party has been victorious in this. The problem is that the change has been largely in federal and state laws, which is top-down, and laws don’t change attitudes.
To change attitudes you need contact, and you need to listen. Which is what Senator Maxmin and her workers did. They went door-to-door talking to citizens of all stripes, especially to those disdained by Democrats. They listened and found they agreed with the citizens on many issues—particularly on values. “Rural life is rooted in shared values of independence, common sense, tradition, frugality, community and hard work,” states Maxmin. A New-England-bred writer friend remarked, when I cited a very similar list as “Midwestern values,” that those values aren’t limited to the Midwest—to which I readily agreed. Neither are they limited to rural communities.
The problem is that in our splintered society, each group thinks those values are exclusive to themselves and that other groups don’t share them and are therefore a threat. Conversation breaks that barrier as nothing else will. These are the bedrock values of the nation—the common ground. In my experience, rural Americans, if you talk to them, would readily add fair play and honesty to the list, for the key questions, according to Maxmin, are “Can I trust him/her? Is he/she authentic?” Their response was on the personal level, and it worked. They changed votes and won. This is a change of attitude.
I could, and would, argue that some of those traditional beliefs protect and sustain racism, such as the belief that other races don’t work hard or are dirty, and an excess of community judgment honors convention over needed change. Those basic conflicts between tradition and change will continue to mark conservative and liberal, but the point is that conversations with those who hold opposing views demand each side confront hard questions their ideological positions evade—such as whether abortion is taking a life or wealth is a sign of hard work.
So I invite you to read and share the conversation with others. The internet is ours, too! Send a link to your email list with links to relevant New York Times Opinions, the many sources I’ve talked about over the months, or even to my blog itself! Spread the word.