Through grassroots campaigns, communities can transform, take power, feel empowered, and make change. Every campaign is an opportunity to rebuild and overhaul our politics and our communities. The Democratic Party has forsaken rural America, relinquishing a tremendous amount of political power that has left our fight for social justice on the brink of despair. Yet we have managed to win two campaigns in Republican-leaning districts. How do we account for these victories despite the odds? And, more importantly, how can we translate this vision beyond our districts—to rural communities and campaigns across the country?
We need a new way forward that goes beyond the tired traditional campaign playbook. One of the primary lessons of how we won is through a new type of campaigning. It is on the campaign trail that we can and will build movements that shift our culture toward a more respectful, inclusive, and just path.
1. RESPECT EVERYONE
Our campaign movements are made up of people from all walks of life. We respect the intelligence of the people whose votes we are trying to earn and who we are campaigning with. We respect diverse perspectives and viewpoints, even if we disagree. This is more important than ever in these divisive times. We move backward when interactions devolve into arguments with each person putting up walls and digging deeper into their opinions. There is something to be learned from every person. Everybody has their own story and is a product of their experiences.
This is how we see people and how we train our volunteers to approach conversations at the doors. Take the time to listen to why somebody believes the things they do, and you’ll begin to understand why they think the way that they do. You may not agree with them, but when understanding—rather than anger or judgement—is the starting point, the conditions for worthwhile dialogue are created.
People have great intuition about how you view them. It doesn’t take an unforced error that is the magnitude of referring to people as “deplorables” to make people turn away. They pick up subtle clues everywhere to connect the dots. Sending a clickbait email with an all-caps subject line might work a few times and rake in some extra donations, but it erodes trust over time. It cheapens you, and it cheapens those you are trying to reach. It betrays a disrespect for the recipient’s intelligence and their time.
The final piece of mail that we sent out in 2018 is a good example of how we deliberately demonstrated respect in our communications. We sent a small card to conservative voters who were highly likely to turn out to vote. It was a photo of one of the hand-painted pallet signs leaning against Chloe’s barn with the text “Chloe Maxmin is a trusted leader. Don’t take our word for it, do your own research,” followed by Chloe’s and her opponent’s name and the URL for their campaign pages. It was elegantly simple and demonstrated a respect for the voters’ intelligence, as well as a self-respect that Chloe was confident to stand on her two feet in an unbiased side-by-side comparison with her opponent.
People always ask us how we won. Our biggest answer is listening. We cannot emphasize this enough. We see listening as an act of liberation, resistance, and revival. We live in a democracy that is woefully disconnected from and unrepresentative of the people it is supposed to serve. Public opinion has little bearing on whether legislation is passed, and citizens’ referenda are routinely ignored or altered. Meanwhile, corporate money and lobbyists work to ensure that the monied elite—and no one else—have the ear of legislators. Politicians rarely show their faces in rural communities and show little interest in understanding the needs of the people who live there. In this oligarchical society, and in this digital century, it is a radical act simply to show up, meet a person face-to-face, look them in the eye, and listen. As it turns out, people have a lot to say.
So many candidates and campaigns are all about output. They clog people’s mailboxes, televisions, social media feeds, and radios with their message. Their canvassers show up at people’s doors or on their phones and see how much of their script they can read off before the voter gets fed up and ends the conversation. We did our fair share of pushing our story by traditional means too, of course, but we balanced it by seeking heaping portions of input and conversation. We spent most of our time working to have authentic conversations with voters and gain genuine understanding.
Every time we trained new canvassers, we told them that the most important thing they could do was to listen. If they found themselves in an argument over policy, then they had already lost.
To skirt around a controversial word or topic in favor of finding areas of mutual agreements is not to cede that ground. You don’t change a worldview in a conversation. If that’s your theory of change, you’re going to be discouraged real quickly. Human and political change is a slow process. It is the long-distance grind of decades—one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. You have to lay the foundation first, before anything else can happen.
When you’re campaigning, see people as humans, and focus on areas of agreement. What are our common hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations? When we listen, thin tendrils of trust begin to sprout out of fallow ground. The possibility of a relationship grows. Even if we don’t convince the other person, we become a little bit more open to each other’s ideas, interested in each other’s experiences. Remember, it is not our responsibility to do everything all at once.
Listening also informed our decisions and the way we campaigned. As we’ve discussed, listening to feedback from volunteers who were running into diminishing returns on the phones in summer 2020 led us to pivot our direct voter-contact tactics. The single most common piece of positive feedback that the campaign received from voters was that they appreciated our commitment to staying 100 percent positive in our messaging. As the opposition attacked us, this feedback from listening to people at the doors bolstered our confidence in staying the course and not trading blow for blow.
Just as we all have our share of flaws as people, our political parties and our ideologies are inevitably flawed. Love means accepting one another, flaws and all, and seeking to understand and support.
Love in public mirrors this. We spend too much of our energy trying to cut the other side down in politics and paint their views in the most uncharitable light possible. We create stories about “the other” with very little factual basis. As the artist Anne Truitt put it, “Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on pre- conceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves.” If we spent half as much time trying to listen and genuinely understand the other side as we do trying to prove ourselves right and others wrong, we could really get somewhere. We need a whole lot less judgment and a lot more empathy in our politics.
3. TRANSLATE TO RURAL AMERICA
There is a dynamic at play in too many liberal and leftist spaces whereby people’s tremendous empathy stops cold when it comes to people who support Trump. They create the most uncharitable picture of the imagined people who voted for him. Ironically, this inability (or outright refusal) to empathize is one of the same character flaws that the left tends to ascribe to Trump voters.
Many people in rural America have been bombarded by the deliberate, twisted words on Fox News, conservative talk radio, web forums, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media channels to the point that there are certain phrases or ideas that are nonstarters in many rural communities. For example, Dolly Parton, when asked in a podcast by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad whether she considers herself a feminist, flatly rejected the label. The hosts then talked with a Dolly Parton scholar and asked if it bothered her that Parton doesn’t identify as a feminist. There was a pause, and then she replied that it bothered the part of her that went to college. What the scholar was suggesting is that over time a word or idea can be manipulated to the point that it comes to mean radically different things from one person to the next. Further, such words have a political charge powerful enough to electrocute a cow. We try to have a discussion about feminism but end up heatedly talking past each other because we ascribe radically different meanings to the words that we’re using.
What we find in campaigning is that it is usually more productive to avoid charged labels and discuss ideas instead. For example, we could often reach someone who might be up in arms over the term “feminism” but who agrees with the need to eliminate the wage gap and ensure equal pay and opportunity. Many people in our community want affordable health care, but they don’t want to talk about Medicare for All because relentless right-wing messaging has made these words toxic. So many of the values and ideas that we talk about can resonate in rural America if we can translate them into a rural context.
The reality is that people must be given an on-ramp before we can have any hope of moving them. In this case, what we had to first demonstrate was a clear understanding of the fear and oppression of poor and middle-class rural Americans. That challenging work must be done in conversation and dialogue with them, such that interactions are generative and have the potential to result in a mutual revealing of truth in conversation together. Only once their struggle has been illuminated can you begin to move people, to help them see how their oppression is connected to the oppression of others: the oppression of communities of color, immigrants, disabled people, trans people, and so on. That work is only possible if it is built on an existing relationship. If you don’t have that trust and mutual understanding and you try to skip straight into opinions about these other issues that you disagree on, you’ll hit an impasse. So, conversation by conversation, we strived to move beyond our heated divisions and search for areas of common ground and mutual understanding.