Commentary

We are rural Dems and tried to connect with neighbors; here’s how it went | Opinion

November 2, 2021 6:00 am

Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images.

In a July 2021 Reformer article, I wrote of the Lyon County DFL’s plan to follow Jane Kleeb’s advice. Kleeb, the author of “Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America,” proposed several strategies for Democrats living in rural America. These strategies include finding common ground, being authentic by telling your story, listening, and, most importantly, showing up.

So that’s what we did. We showed up. We pitched our pop-up tent at festivals, fairs and lawns in communities around Lyon County throughout the summer. We did our best to be authentic, tell our stories, listen, and find common ground.

How did it go, you ask?

There were the usual verbal jibes — cries of “Trump!” or “Socialists!” or “F*** Biden!” As we walked in local parades, we were sometimes greeted with boos, jeers of “Here come the lefties” or — most recently — chants of “Let’s go, Brandon.” (This, we learned is code for F*** Biden.) One bystander made a comment to the effect that Democrats didn’t deserve to hold the flag.

There were also the usual negative gestures: middle fingers, scowls, headshakes, middle-aged men and women giving a vigorous thumbs-down as they drove by. Even the occasional raised fist.

Some encounters, although meant to be insulting, came across as comical. Two kids strolled by the tent, then came back for a second pass with a Trump flag draped around their shoulders. A person slapped a “Impeach the Democrats, Infowars.com” sticker on the front of our table while pretending to engage in conversation. A man hung his Trump 2020 flag on the front of his house after we had set up our tent on his next-door neighbor’s lawn (Minnesota passive-aggressive at its finest).

The Black Lives Matter slogan drew the most ire. We had several lawn signs set up around our tent that say, “In This House, We Believe.” Listed under that heading are several statements, including, “Love is Love,” “Science is Real,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

“Where’s your All Lives Matter sign?” one man sneered as he walked by. Another woman paused and asked, “Can I ask you a question? Don’t all lives matter?”

Admittedly, we were not always successful in employing Kleeb’s strategies. Sometimes we couldn’t help ourselves and clapped back, “Until Black lives matter, no lives matter.”

At other times, the hostility of the conversation derailed the attempt to stick to our playbook. One visitor, upset about the idea of forgiving student loan debt, started knocking over items on our display table. Although the elderly couple staffing the tent tried to share their story by telling the man about their daughter’s experience with crippling student debt, his in-your-face intensity and physical aggression put them on the defensive. 

When he then tried to bring up his objections to Black Lives Matter, the couple simply responded, “Don’t think we’re going to agree on that one” and thanked him for stopping by. Sometimes the best strategy is just to end the conversation when it’s clear no common ground can be reached.

But we listened, and at times we did find common ground. When one man complained of “all the killings” happening, we guided the conversation towards the problem of gun violence and the need to reinstate a ban on assault weapons. Turns out he agreed with that — common ground found!

After engaging another man in a conversation about rising gas prices — which he initially blamed on Democrats and the Biden administration — he left with a parting handshake. 

Yes, there were a few successes like this. But the greatest success was not these few instances of finding common ground, but the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from so many. 

The positive gestures and comments outnumbered the negative ones by a wide margin. For every negative gesture, there were ten positive: Friendly honks, waves, smiles and furtive thumbs-up signs from passersby. Sometimes they came from unexpected sources, like the big, friendly wave from the man driving a giant tractor flying the U.S. flag.

For every insult, there were ten positive comments, people who cheered and yelled, “I love you guys!” or “Those are our people!” or “Go Dems!” as we walked through parades. People came up to our tent and said, “Happy to see you here,” or just a quiet “Yes” as they walked by.

But the most frequent comment: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for being here.

This summer our presence under the pop-up tent did not so much build bridges or convert those on the other side. Rather, simply by showing up we provided support to those Democrats who feel isolated and alone out here. We stood as a beacon of blue in a sea of red. We signaled to people that they are not alone, and for that they were grateful.

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Anita Gaul
Anita Gaul

Anita Talsma Gaul is a community college instructor and currently serves as Chair of the Lyon County Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

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