Rising hopes for democracy in the American heartland

Jan 5, 2019 by

At a time when many see looming clouds on the horizon of American democracy, I’ve been thinking about glimmers of hope.

From interviewing high schoolers running for governor in Kansas to following a canvasser in Kentucky as he knocked on doors, I’ve had the privilege this past year of meeting many Americans energized about their role in making government better.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Jack Bergeson, pictured outside his parents’ restaurant in Wichita, Kan., was the first teenager to run for governor in Kansas – after discovering that there was no age limit for the position.

Political activism in America, especially as depicted on social media or TV, tends to focus almost exclusively on die-hard Trump supporters or those who form the official “resistance” to the current administration.

But in between the red Make America Great Again hats in Appalachian diners and the pink hats at urban protests, a renaissance of everyday citizens, especially women, is sweeping American politics, posits the journal Democracy. The encouraging signs I’ve seen across the heartland this year are, I believe, part and parcel of a broader awakening that includes both sexes.

An earnest argument

It’s easy to miss even the most poignant examples of democracy in action.

I almost did.

After 12 days on the road for The Christian Science Monitor in Montana, I was exhausted when I finally left a carefully crafted rally featuring the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., in late September. Earlier in the evening I’d seen protesters bang on a window after being denied entrance, holding up their pink poster-board signs and yelling.

When I walked out into the cold autumn night, one of those protesters was still there, leaning over the fence, arguing with a supporter of GOP Senate candidate Matt Rosendale on his way out. She was young, scrappy, and passionately liberal. He was older, weathered, and equally fervent.

Yet more rancor, I thought as I walked past them.

But what I heard in passing was honest, earnest, and brave. They were asking serious questions about what kind of America the other wanted to live in – and responding with substantive answers.

I turned around to listen, savoring democracy in action. Right there in the dusty parking lot of the Bozeman fairgrounds, two Americans were coexisting in a rarely inhabited space between Facebook diatribes and in-person “Kumbaya” sessions. If we are ever to bridge our current divides, the most crucial bridge-building will take place here.

Learning to defend the other side

This spring, I saw high schoolers preparing for the sort of reasoned argument that would enable them to be such bridge-builders.

“Debate forces you … to hear the other side,” student Ben Engle told me on the sidelines of a Saturday qualifier for national championships.

“Not just hear them, but defend their beliefs,” added fellow student Bobby Phillips, one of the top nationally ranked policy debaters. (The contest requires that debaters also argue the other side of the question.)

Nationwide, more than 140,000 students are involved in the National Speech & Debate Association, and the national championships have doubled in size since the 1990s to 5,200 participants.

Shared love of country

Lest you be tempted to think reasoned debate is limited these days to high school students in controlled environments, meet Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot.

Lt. Col. McGrath ran for Congress as a rookie Democrat in a Kentucky district where President Trump won big, drawing many national reporters to the Bluegrass State, myself included.

In a diner parking lot along the campaign trail, where she had sat and talked for more than an hour with a handful of locals, I asked her about how losing fellow soldiers affected her view of a politician’s role. She told me about a fellow pilot in the Marines – a Republican with whom she had had vigorous political debates.

“Sugar Bear and I might have disagreements but we never doubted our patriotism, we never doubted our love of country,” said McGrath, who is part of a broader movement to put country above party on Capitol Hill.

McGrath narrowly lost her bid for Congress, but she seeded a new crop of civic activists – people like Scott Browder.

“I used to think all I had to do was vote, and let others do the work. No more,” said Mr. Browder, a first-time canvasser who let me follow him around for an afternoon in Richmond, Ky. “I used to think I couldn’t make a difference. No more.”

‘Without you … the election just won’t be the same’

Back in Montana, Rebecca Johnson organizes people like Browder, except her team’s whole focus is getting people to vote, period –  never mind for whom. She and her team visited the farmers’ market, college classes, even homeless shelters, chipping away at the masses of Americans who are too busy or apathetic or despairing to go to the polls.

They adopted the slogan, “Without you … the election just won’t be the same.”

Montana registered the third-highest turnout rate of any state, helped in part by the tight Senate race but undoubtedly by volunteers like Ms. Johnson as well.

While there’s ample room for improvement – even in Montana, about 1 in 3 eligible voters are still forfeiting their role in shaping America’s path forward – it’s people like Johnson who give me hope.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Glenn Brunkow checks on his ewes and their lambs, March 2018. He and his father farm 2,500 acres in northeastern Kansas, including land their forebears homesteaded in the 1860s. Mr. Brunkow, who sells about half his beef to Asia, voiced his concerns to his representatives in Washington over President Trump’s trade policy.

‘We the people’

There were many other inspiring examples of democracy in action, too: Glenn Brunkow, a Kansas farmer concerned about President Trump’s steel tariffs, who left his lambs during a chilly week in March to talk with his representatives in Washington; Ohio welders with tough hands and well-worn overalls sitting around a sleek glass conference table presenting their proposals for making their shop floor more efficient, battling America’s dearth of skilled laborers with grass-roots ingenuity; and the team of folks in a West Virginia city at the epicenter of the opioid crisis who cut the city’s overdose rate in half.

If you don’t have hope in America’s government, look to its people. They are sovereign in this country, after all. As Abraham Lincoln once said ­– drawing on the words first penned by Bible translator John Wycliffe – our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

And there are a lot of good people out here in America.

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