Found My Resonance: It's Shifting The Country
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
When it comes to dealing with the current state of the country, I feel like I had a bit of a head start. I moved to Iowa from Washington, DC in the fall of 2015… just as the races were really heating up for the Iowa Caucus set for February of 2016. So much for leaving the politics of Washington.
As I started to settle into my new life in the midwest, the spectre of Donald Trump was becoming more ominous. He seemed to be everywhere. His intention to be a disruptor was crystal clear.
I had a talk about Mr. Trump on a phone call with a friend of mine around that time. It was November of 2015, and I can tell you right where I was walking in a neighborhood park when we had that talk. It was right near two trees planted as a memorial to 9/11. Fitting. The friend I was talking to was someone I met while I was working at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – where we both worked because of 9/11.
My friend was convinced that Mr. Trump would win the presidency. I couldn’t get my head around it as a possibility. Mr. Trump’s hatred was so deep, and his uncanny ability to spread fear so dangerous. He had another uncanny ability, and it’s what propelled him to win: his knack for creating spectacle. I’m convinced that the spectacle he drew through the 2016 election and the extraordinary volume of media coverage that he garnered because of it is a large part of the reason he ended up winning – both the republican party nomination, and the electoral college victory.
In November of 2015 – none of that was known. Mr. Trump was a random media personality. A fearmonger, inciting rage and inflaming growing waves of resentment long built by culture wars and right-leaning media conglomerates. He was one of many republican presidential candidates – at the time there were something like 17 in the field.
My friend was convinced he would win – the nomination, and the presidency. So right there in November of 2015 I started considering it as a real possibility. A real threat.
Other than that friend from the phone call, I didn’t know a single other person who did.
By late January, 2016, at a pre-caucus political event in Iowa… I started hearing people whisper about Mr. Trump. Carefully. Quietly. That he was a demagogue. Quietly, quietly. No one wanted to speak the truth. He wasn’t yet officially considered a real threat, in a republican field with 17 contenders.
We are about 3 ½ years out from that time, and finally after this past weekend the mainstream media has started calling Mr. Trump, the current president of the United States, a racist. I went to hear the author of the book “White Fragility,” Robin DiAngelo, this past winter. She said that part of how white supremacy persists is that talking about race is made to feel uncomfortable – and that is how it is allowed to persist. Once something is clearly blatant racism… then we talk about it. But that we don’t talk about the enormous range of other things that are the bias, and the system that perpetuates the dominance of the white supremacy paradigm. Thus the white fragility. When you point out a white person’s bias… they often react with shock and fragility. It’s uncomfortable. So people avoid the uncomfortableness. And so things persist.
So here we are… now a couple of years into this abhorrent presidency. I’m not even going to try to summarize it. It’s bad. It’s getting worse by the moment… as it has from the moment sometime on November 9, 2016 when America as a whole woke up to the horror that the angry sideshow carnival spectre that almost nobody took seriously would now be the most powerful man in the entire world.
I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do with it ever since. Actually, I was trying to figure it out before the 2016 election, too, because even if Mr. Trump lost the election – he would have raised holy hell. These folks who lament over the loss of the potential woman president and how lovely it could have been if Senator Clinton had become president maybe don’t remember the hate, fear, and unrest that Mr. Trump was stoking at the time. Watch a Trump rally from the pre-2016 election. Dig into the misogynistic angry incel mob movements online. The 4chan and now 8chan crowds. The hate movements fomented by Steve Bannon and so many others. It’s evolving fast and it’s hard to keep up. The point is: had Senator Clinton won – we would not be living in sunshine and flowers.
It was always going to be bad.
So... What To Do?
I knew I wasn’t in the first wave… or even the second. Yet I knew I was part of some wave… sometime. We all have things we can bring to the table, and I knew I had things to bring. What they were and how I would bring them wasn’t yet clear. There were many things swirling; coalescing.
I knew this much: it was going to be a long fight, and it would need deep work. There were people then, in the beginning, who were hopeful that perhaps this wouldn’t get too bad. That it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. A lot of those folks were the same ones who didn’t take the threat of Mr. Trump winning seriously.
I did take action early on. I have supported the growing “resistance” movement. I’ve been to protests, and helped a bit with one or two. Hell, I flew to Washington, DC for the March for Our Lives to protest pervasive gun violence that kids have to deal with everywhere. Hopefully that’s the first and last time I’m in the front part of a sea of 800,000 protestors. It was crowded. That’s my inner Iowan: understating the total insanity of the experience. I went to support my mother, and teachers and students everywhere who prepare for active shooter drills the way we prepared for tornadoes when I was growing up. Not sure it helped. Our gun laws remain ridiculously absurd. They need some work.
I’ve also attempted calls to my legislators. Et cetera.
The trouble is… my federal legislators.
I’ve got Senator Joni Ernst, who answered my question in a town hall meeting about countering Russian interference in our elections with a bunch of vapid BS. Her complete non-action on securing our elections lines up with pretty much every other republican senator – so we have essentially no real, coordinated federal action to facilitate election security. Ms. Ernst is up for re-election in 2020. Part of my current personal life mission is to get her the hell out of office in that election, so we can get a Senator who actually does some good for Iowa.
Senator Chuck Grassley is another of my Senators. His list of awfulness is nowhere near as long as Mr. Trump’s, but it’s not worth summarizing here. His action and inaction have done much to enable Mr. Trump, and in some cases to solidify the damage of the Trump Administration (i.e., Justice Kavanaugh).
Neither Ernst’s or Grassley’s office staff write coherent, rational responses to any letters you send them. They are instead a set of republican party talking points. The party must have a secret encrypted database somewhere of form letters and style guides to make sure the talking points are regurgitated everywhere. That party’s got a tight messaging apparatus outside the cluster in the White House.
My other federal legislator is proud white nationalist racist Congressman Steve King. Yes that’s right.
That brings me to my main point today. More on that in a minute.
Since the 2016 election, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can make a difference; to do the most good with my knowledge and skillset. I’ve read a ton.
In the summer of 2017, I was working on what my consulting and coaching business would become, and how I could do any good in the time that’s now. I spent a lot of time in the entrepreneurial community in Iowa, and also trying to sort out what I could bring to the table. I did some reading to understand the nature of the challenge we are facing with this administration, and how to help us stop it. Turns out, there’s a bunch of research on effectively countering situations with emerging tyranny, authoritarianism, and strongman tendencies such as those exhibited by Mr. Trump. There are proven ways to stop it. Some of that is now summarized in Section 13 of the Proposal to Shift the Country.
I wasn’t sure how to put the pieces together, but I was figuring out what the pieces were. I spent time in the summer of 2017 identifying focus areas; ways for me to do good in the world, given this current situation, at scale. I wrote this piece on how that came about.
Not long after that, I got deeply involved in some disaster / emergency management work that kept me busy, and I didn’t get back to figuring out how I could contribute to helping the country in a serious way until the fall of 2018. I got engaged with some digital activists in the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections. They were working to help the democratic side win the #BlueWave, and were focused on a few key elections around the country – including the one in my district: where proud white nationalist Congressman Steve King was running. Again.
That guy. Again.
I’ll definitely get back to that.
The Disservice in the Stories
While I was exploring my own way forward thtrough all of this in the summer of 2017, the republican party and the Trump administration were on a seek-and-destroy mission to kill the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Democratic party messaging was missing a lot of the key points they could have been be making.
What I saw was a party holding onto an outdated economic paradigm that misses reality in a lot of America. Our economy is no longer one driven by big manufacturing, where everyone gets a nice job and keeps it and has healthcare coverage and can make a living with one job and there you go. That time has passed for many – especially in rural America. The ship has sailed – yet it’s still the paradigm both parties can’t let go of. The story. We’re just not there. It’s a myth.
It wouldn’t have made a difference then if the democratic party told a more accurate story, and the ACA survived – miraculously. But I would have liked to have seen the democratic party talk about the economy we have, where tons of people are small business owners and sole proprietors – and rely upon the ACA. There is a “gig economy,” and it’s pretty widespread. It doesn’t come with job security and healthcare benefits. Entrepreneurs and innovators are a huge part of that world; they are also some of the people working to solve some of the wicked problems we face. Not all of them – but some. Our economy is pretty full of people who work part-time jobs as well – with no healthcare coverage. Many folks work several part-time jobs. Sometimes in the city, and sometimes way out in the country – where there are not a lot of options for full-time jobs, yet you have to somehow earn a living.
I would have liked to have seen the democratic party talking about all of that in the fight for the Affordable Care Act.
The fact that it didn’t planted a seed.
The world’s economy has shifted, and our major political parties are still holding on to paradigms that are long since gone. The current president wants us to go back to an era where the US had the world’s dominant manufacturing base and therefore flourished economically – and also, where it was a-okay in the dominant paradigm for white people to be blatant racists. He clearly wants both of those things: the racism and the impossible economy. His most ardent supporters want both of those things, too. But some who are on the edges of supporting this guy and who maybe voted for him but maybe don't support him now wanted a way forward, and the strongman-type image he presented seemed viable to them at the time. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not the case for everyone. There's definitely a whole lot of bias out there (several Proposal to Shift the Country sections get into the research on the values, bias, and resentment that influenced votes).
Neither party is getting something right that's a big part of our story. After World War II, most of the world’s manufacturing capabilities were destroyed. Some areas of the world had not yet evolved manufacturing capabilities. Because of these things, the post-World War II boom in America was so robust because the US was a primary source for manufacturing worldwide. As the European and Japanese manufacturing capabilities were rebuilt, and as new manufacturing capacity came online in Asia and other places – manufacturing shifted out of the US, and the transition seems to have happened throughout the 1970s. Trade deals played a role too, but these are worldwide dynamics. They’re not just up to the US, or to its politicians.
The story matters. The stories we tell matter, because if the story about what’s going on isn’t accurate – how will we find a way forward that works?
And so we haven’t. I’m convinced that’s part of the struggle that the US is facing.
The myth is perpetuated that we can somehow again get back to a world where lots of people have nice, secure jobs that last for a long time, or that we’ll be able to re-create a thing like the post-WW II manufacturing boom that infused America and American’s middle class with resources, homes, hope, and jobs.
We’re not going back to either of those myths.
The world has changed. Globalization is real. Technology evolves lightning-fast. Wicked problems abound – climate change being perhaps the most eminently threatening. The economic might of China and the national security threat from Russia are real – and largely unaddressed. In fact, there’s a whole section in the Proposal to Shift the Country on the threats we face.
We need a way forward that actually addresses all of this stuff. That helps Americans adjust to the actual economic realities of the world. We need innovation. We need problem-solving. We need to support entrepreneurialism. We need to update our educational systems to help us compete globally, and to update them from an outdated paradigm where everyone will get out of school and get a job at a company where someone hires them and they’re all set. That’s not how the world is working now; we need to make shifts to get us ready for the world as it really exists.
Which brings me back, again, to proud white nationalist racist Congressman Steve King. My representative in the US House. That guy.
The Country Shift
The nascent #Resistence movement matured fast. Ticked off, fired-up Americans everywhere organized, ran for office, supported people running for office, knocked doors, wrote postcards, donated millions, and sure enough drove a democratic party win of the US House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term election.
It’s a lot. It was, indeed, spectacular. It shows what we can do. And we can do a hell of a lot.
It’s not everywhere, though.
Back to proud white nationalist racist Congressman Steve King. My congressman. Again.
He won his re-election campaign in the 2018 mid-term election. He certainly wasn’t the only republican who won – there were many in the US House, and also a number of senators. They tend to be from more rural states, and more rural areas. This is pretty well understood.
What I think is less well understood is what we can do about it.
After Steve King won re-election, I set about figuring that out.
Why wasn’t Mr. King’s outright racism a dealbreaker for rural Iowans? Some of the people in the more rural parts of this congressional district are my own relatives. Some of the people who voted for Mr. King are my neighbors.
Why wasn’t it a dealbreaker for them that Mr. King doesn't do anything to advocate for or actually serve Iowans? J.D. Scholten, the democrat who ran against Mr. King, ran on a platform of actually doing things for Iowans. He visited every single one of the 39 counties in the district at least three time… driving a district-manufactured Winnebago motor home that you couldn’t miss. I was sure Scholten would win.
Mr. Scholten lost the race by something like 10,500 votes. That seems reachable… but what could we do beyond what Mr. Scholten and his campaign already did?
And here’s the bigger question: how will we win the US Senate and the Electoral College in 2020 if we can’t figure this out? We’ve got to get enough votes to in these states to get us past the winning-the-election line. In many areas – we don’t have far to go. Mid-term U.S. election results in historically red areas show that many federal races were close.
I decided to dig in, and find some answers.
I had (past tense) some savings from prior consulting work. By late November 2018, I decided to use them to take some time to research how democrats could possibly win in rural America in 2020. What else did we need to do, that wasn’t already being done?
I thought it would take a month or two to find some clarity. It took four months to comb through enough research and do enough processing to make sense of it. The end result was the Proposal to Shift the Country.
I thought the key to winning in rural American would lie somewhere in taking on racial bias and racism, and perhaps in work addressing racial bias. That’s definitely part of the work. The thing is, though, we’re not going to convert hard-core racists to vote democrat in 18 months. The Shift the Country work isn’t about reaching extremists. It isn’t even about reaching people with heavier racial bias. Some of the inherent bias many carry will continue to be inflamed and activated by republican party messaging. And that messaging is clearly increasing.
The way forward seems to be in reaching, engaging, intriguing, and exciting (as much as possible) inactive voters, disenchanted voters, independents, moderates, and even republican party defectors who have finally had enough. It’s not about a moderate party platform or this myth of centrist “electability” that many have been talking about. In fact, the Shift the Country work doesn’t really get into party platform stuff.
The Shift the Country proposal does get into methodology, sociology, social networks, influence, language, values, framing, and what’s going on in a whole lot of America.
The core of the Shift the Country work is about tipping points. How we can deliberately create them, by paying attention to context, stickiness, the people in social networks, and how communities work. With language, with framing, with attention to values. With a ton of attention and activity and action that can create noticeable shifts in communities everywhere… even before the 2020 election.
We get there also by listening. Understanding the nuances of bias and resentment. Paying attention to what’s happening in the parts of America we don’t talk about much: micro-cities, small towns, big towns, farm country, ranchland, and even larger rural cities. There are population centers in rural America full of people who could be democratic voters… but the democratic side isn’t speaking to the issues impacting these communities any better than the republican party is.
This work begins by anchoring to established resistance and political campaign work… and building out from there. We take it to the next level.
This isn’t the only way forward. It’s not the only movement. It’s one of hundreds of movements, and thousands of actions – and that’s the point. It’s designed to bring different work together, to amplify it, and to add to it. To deliberately create tipping points – especially where so much is already in place to help us reach them.
Everyone’s got to find their path. When I was a kid and we used to go visit the “big city,” my uncle gave driving advice for navigating the freeways: “pick a lane and defend it.”
I've picked a lane. I figured out what I can bring to the table. This is it: Shifting the Country.
There’s a line in the movie Serenity (also mentioned in this blog post), where some bad stuff has occurred, and things are at a critical juncture. The situation is dire. In that moment, the preacher character, who is a mentor and a friend, emphatically pleads with the main character, “I don’t care what you believe, just believe it!!”
This is what I believe: we can Shift the Country.
I’m all in.
We'll see what we end up building here. We're growing a coalition; a team. Hopefully there will be lots of lanes to pick from... if you’ve decided to drive down this highway.
Thanks for reading.
We’ve got work to do.
UPDATE: With the advent of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring of 2020 our Shift the Country work has shifted from the focus in this post to focus now on civic engagement action to help people help people through this pandemic, to help stabilize this country, to protect our institutions, to survive, and to make some transformation while we're finding our way through.
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