As America descends deeper into the triple curse of corruption, inequality, and division, the answers to these problems are becoming harder to ignore. Here’s the hard truth: our parties are not connected to America’s grassroots. When I ask Kentuckians if they agree with this statement, “Neither one of our parties is doing a great job of taking care of the people,” the response is 100% in agreement. Republicans, Democrats, young and old, black and white, all genders may not agree on anything else, but they agree with this.
Of course, not all Americans agree. Those who lead big pharmaceutical companies, big energy companies, and those from Wall Street or Silicon Valley feel quite differently. For the wealthy and powerful, everything is wonderful, their lives are delicious. But for regular working Americans, our government and economy are failing us.
Democrats — nothing we can say will change the Republican Party. The only party we might be able to change is our own. Here are the ways that I believe we need to change:
First, must recognize the largest group of voters — people who work. I’m talking about construction workers, factory workers, grocery store workers, healthcare workers, delivery drivers, truck drivers, musicians and other gig workers. It’s critical to understand that work knows no color, no age, no gender. People who work are liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. A message of hope for working people will appeal to everyone who works.
For a while now, Democrats have focused on social justice, issues like BLM and LGBTQ, politics based around our various identities. Have pride in your identity, but let’s find common cause in things we share — a need for proper housing, a dignified life with time to raise a family, the possibility of saving for retirement, safe workplaces, higher wages, a healthcare system that won’t take your savings or your house when you get sick.
Next, Democrats must reach out to rural voters. Republicans have worked out a dreadful bargain with rural America — “We’ll give you the Culture War issues, you give us your votes.” Note that a candidate saying they are pro-life costs nothing, and saying they are pro-gun might bring an NRA contribution.
Meanwhile, rural hospitals are closing, and rural broadband remains an unfulfilled promise. The opioid crisis that burns through our communities was created by the drug companies that elect our politicians. Main streets in much of small-town America are nearly deserted, while America’s big cities are becoming nearly unlivable, with overcrowding, homelessness, scarce and unaffordable housing and crumbling infrastructure. Prioritizing rural America will relieve some of the pressure on those cities, allowing a higher quality of life for those who leave as well as those who stay.
The divisions we see so clearly on national media aren’t nearly so bad on the ground as they are portrayed by those who profit from division. Understand this: division allows corruption, corruption creates inequality, and inequality creates more division. It’s a vicious cycle, and it destroys trust in our government, our economy, and even each other. Of the three, division is the soft spot, the place we can break the cycle. Most of us know how to be civil; all that is needed is the courage and commitment to reach out.
We cannot lecture, we must listen first — listen past the things we disagree with and wait for something we can agree on. That conversation, one where you seek agreement will build bridges, will find common ground.
And so, Democrats, we must make rural and working America priorities, without delay and without reservation. There is no option — stacking the Supreme Court, granting statehood to the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico aren’t likely to happen anytime soon, sorry. The obvious answers, reconnecting with people who work and returning to rural America have been avoided for too long. It is almost as if we Democrats are allergic to the idea. Connect with working people? Talk to rural Americans? Must we?
Republicans will need to make some similar choices, but they won’t listen to Democrats any more than Democrats listen to Republicans. The division is too wide, too deep and our positions are too entrenched. Our hearts are hardened to each other. We justify our own party’s terrible actions by pointing out the evils of our opposition. Of course, there is always the argument: “The other side is worse!” But this depends on your perspective, your values or which news sources you rely on. Both parties are now openly talking about The End Of Democracy, and blaming each other for America’s imminent demise. But both parties are to blame, both have some soul searching and important work to do.
America’s future depends on it.
Hank Linderman is the Democratic nominee for Congress in Kentucky’s 2nd District. Visit his website at hank4ky.com.