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Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Sometimes the simplest lessons

by Tom Sullivan

Over the weekend, I ran across the fascinating tale from 2014 of the North Pond Hermit. Christopher Thomas Knight had spent 27 years alone in the Maine woods. He survived by raiding unoccupied cabins and summer camps for food and supplies in the middle of the night. When finally captured, he could barely speak. Michael Finkel interviewed him through letters and jail visits trying to get at what mystical insights he might have gleaned from 27 years of isolation.

Knight said, "Get enough sleep."

Sometimes the simplest lessons are the most profound.

Another of those deep mysteries I learned when Jim Dean and Democracy for America (DFA) brought their campaign school to town in 2006. A bunch of us political junkies settled in for the weekend at the local university's student union to learn about running political campaigns. Impressive for a liberal enterprise, it was run with almost military precision. It was like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. I learned a lot about campaign-craft. But what I remember most is something they kept drumming into our heads. Something we needed to remember when speaking with voters. "You are not normal people."

Normal people don't spend their weekends learning about campaign tactics. We needed to remember that when knocking doors, for example. Our job is not to engage voters in policy debates. Our job is to smile, listen, drop the literature, and most of all leave a good impression. Because if people like you, they will vote for your candidate. That's it. Sorry.

The title of Michael Tomasky's "Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem" in the New Republic raised a sigh and some caution flags. But in the end, it echoed DFA's message, one that tends to get as lost as we do in the heat of ideological battle. Out there in stretches of America far from the lights of the bright, blue cities, there are plenty of "liberalish moderates" who are potential allies that we are not reaching. And by constitutional design, such people in heartland red states may be the key to a disproportionate number of U.S. Senate seats, plus a few in the House as well. Not to mention state legislatures. Just because those voters are not coastal liberals does not make them adversaries or people "whose support no self-respecting Democrat would want."

Tomasky writes:

First of all, middle Americans go to church. Not temple. Church. God and Jesus Christ play important roles in their lives. Elite liberals are fine with expressions of faith among African Americans and Latinos, but we often seem to assume that white people who are religious are conservative. It’s not remotely the case.

Second, politics simply doesn’t consume middle Americans the way it does elites on the coasts. Many of these people have lots of friends—and sometimes even spouses—who are Republicans. They don’t sit around and watch MSNBC and talk politics. They talk kids, and local gossip, and pop culture, and sports. They don’t have a position on every issue, and they think Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for partisan rancor and congressional gridlock.

Third, their daily lives are pretty different from the lives of elite liberals. Few of them buy fair trade coffee or organic almond milk. Some of them served in the armed forces. Some of them own guns, and like to shoot them and teach their kids how to shoot them. Some of them hold jobs in the service of global capital and feel proud of their work.

Fourth, they’re patriotic in the way that most Americans are patriotic. They don’t feel self-conscious saluting the flag. They don’t like it when people bad-mouth our country. They believe that America is mostly good, and that the rest of the world should look more like America.
I know plenty of those people. Not far outside my little island of blue, it gets red really fast. Out where volunteer firefighters are rock stars, it might as well be another country. Some have as much use for cities and their concerns as the North Pond Hermit. But there are allies out there we are working to empower to win their neighbors' hearts and minds. In statewide races, winning doesn't mean winning every county outright. Sometimes it's enough to shave the margins.

We have been under siege from the state capitol since 2011. (For readers living under Republican-controlled state legislatures, I feel your pain.) Unless we expect urban sprawl to do it for us, the only way to end the siege is to win more legislative seats in the countryside with the help of allies more "normal" than we are. The trick is how to help them do it. We're learning.

Tomasky concludes:
A person can still be “on the team” even if they think the minimum wage should be raised only to $10, or don’t consider the placement of the crèche on the courthouse square for two weeks in December a constitutional crisis, or haven’t yet figured out how they feel about transgender bathrooms.
It's a process.