It was a "boys afternoon" at home; my wife and daughter were off making the world a better place, leaving my 2- and 5-year old sons and I at home to cause trouble. A whirlwind of wrestling, playing Legos, and making a mess just small enough we could successfully clean it up before anyone noticed. Out of nowhere, my two-year old stopped what he was doing, and exclaimed (at full volume) "I WANT BARBEQUE FOR DINNER!" I briefly considered complaining about the inherent hypocrisy; sure, everyone thinks it’s cute when the two-year old does it, but when I do it, it’s weird, people stare, and my wife punches me. I ended up deciding it was hard to complain too much about barbeque, and so packed the boys into my truck, off to get some grub.
On the way, I got one of the bi-weekly calls I usually get from my dad. My dad and I have a good relationship, and we normally chat at length about any subject- except, of course, politics. That's because my dad has been an almost perfect case-in-point on the power that Fox News has exerted over his generation. A Republican since I was born, my dad followed a familiar farm-county trajectory of the late 70's and early 80's of becoming first a Reagan Democrat, then moving to become a full-on Republican.
That’s where I started, too; I helped him campaign for Lamar Alexander in Iowa in 1995. Even after I started to question the politics I'd been raised on, starting with Russ Feingold (the first Democrat I ever voted for*), I found while he and I might not agree, we could have a respectful dialogue. With Russ, for instance, I pointed out he was the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act- and dad couldn't rebut it, much to his chagrin.
But that respectful, "I disagree with what you say but I'll defend your right to say it" attitude is gone. It was exposed to non-stop invective from FOX News. The intelligent and nuanced discussions and disagreements that shaped so much of who I am today disappeared. In its place was something far darker and scarier. It was so stark that when I told him in late 2016 that I intended to run for the Virginia state legislature as a Democrat, I probably would've had an easier time telling him I'd been indicted for a Class E felony.
I could bemoan that for pages and pages; but that's for another time. While I was voting for Russ Feingold and discovering, a full decade before the 2016 elections, that "small-government conservatism" was a shell game for moral relativism and situational ethics in the pursuit of winning at all costs, my dad moved to San Angelo, Texas. Tom Greene county was one of the reddest in the country in 2016 (Clinton barely cracked 20%), which isn't really surprising for West Texas, I know, but it added an extra bent to how much he changed.
Instead, he and I now engage in what has become an American tradition- children avoiding talking about politics with their parents, except to say "uh huh" occasionally while gently re-directing them when particularly egregious stuff comes up. No, dad, it wasn’t just locker room talk. No, Dad, he hasn’t given anything up to be President- he’s profiting from it immensely at your cost. No, dad, Donald Trump isn't playing 11th Dimensional chutes and ladders, he's just, y’know... the friggin’ epitome of everything you once claimed to hate. Etc.
So imagine my surprise when, just after we'd talked about UVA's bracket in the NCAA Tournament, my dad said "Hey, you know that Pete"- here he murdered trying to say "Buttigieg"- "guy running for President?"
"You mean 'Boot-edge-edge'? Yeah," I said, suddenly wary. A few weeks prior, I'd made the mistake of speaking positively about Kamala Harris, and got to listen to a recap of the last few days of Fox News' and Facebook's "real" reporting on Miss Harris. "Yeah. Mayor Pete's a good guy," I said without elaboration.
"Well, I saw him on Fox News-" I took an involuntarily breath in, girding myself for what direction this was about to go in- "and, I tell you what, I like him. He can be my President anytime."
I think I can summarize my reaction best by quoting Douglas Adams:
“When you're cruising down the road in the fast lane and you lazily sail past a few hard-driving cars and are feeling pretty pleased with yourself and then accidently change down from fourth to first instead of third thus making your engine leap out of your hood in a rather ugly mess, it tends to throw you off stride in much the same way that this remark threw (Kellen Squire) off his.”
It took me a minute to wrap my head around this enough to catch back up to my dad on this, as he’d been going on happily about what he liked about Mayor Pete. He was incredibly smart, but, quote, “not like Sheldon” from the Big Bang Theory. Dad related the story to me about Pete being a veteran, stuff he’d done in South Bend, and about how he learning Norwegian just to read a book from an author he liked, a story which I only realized later hadn’t been told on Fox News- which meant my dad had spent time actually looking up and researching stuff outside his normal bubble on Mayor Pete.
Finally, my dad paused his gushing, and I decided to ask him the tough question that I hoped wouldn’t sour the entire conversation we’d had. I almost considered not asking it, but I just had to know.
“Dad,” I said, “you know Mayor Pete’s gay and has a husband, right?”
“SO WHAT?!” my dad retorted hostilely. I shrugged and nodded appreciatively.
“I’m glad you don’t care,” I said to him, “but, c’mon. You can’t tell me that’s not a big deal out in your neck of the woods.” Indeed, my dad grumbled a bit as he admitted a couple friends of his from church were intrigued until they found out about Mayor Pete’s husband, which then made him immediately unelectable in their eyes- “but their time is up!” my dad said (correctly) of his friends’ attitudes on sexuality, which made me grin involuntarily.
“Besides, they put up with all the shit Trump does, you think they could handle a gay-” Dad, “a gay”, really? Sighhhh. “- as the President.” Sighing aside, this was another bombshell for me. Again, my dad generally tries to take every opportunity to explain how some screwup Trump did was actually a long thought-out strategy of somesort. But here he was effectively admitting what we both knew- that was all part of an effort to rationalize cognitive dissonance.
The biggest bombshell, though, Dad saved for last- he was so impressed with Mayor Pete, he told me, he was probably going to donate to his campaign.
On reflection, though, it’s just a case in point of what I’ve been saying for eons. You don’t have to change your message, or embrace some sort of wishy-washy third wayism to make inroads into even the most conservative places in the country- you just have to be authentic and speak to kitchen table issues, understanding that there’s a difference between issues and values.
Mayor Pete’s not the only candidate I’ve seen able to do that. Elizabeth Warren has been hammering it unapologetically on the campaign trail and in the Senate this year. And those of you who’ve followed me for awhile have probably heard a story I’ve told many times about a lady I met in Greene County, Virginia, a blue-hair who told me just after the 2016 elections that she thought even though Bernie Sanders was “goofier than a pet goat” that she believed “he’d a fought for me.”
Of anything I’ve seen this cycle, it’s that understanding- something that a number of our potential Presidential candidates seem to get- that makes me the most hopeful. The lack of understanding of that principle was what made me throw my arms up and give a big middle finger to participating in organized politics. After working so hard to get Tom Perriello elected in VA-05 and missing by just a few thousand votes, as candidates in much bluer districts got completely blown out of the water, I watched as everyone completely missed that point, take all the wrong lessons from that election, and leave us where we are today.
But I now see a path forward; my dad’s reaction has given me a great deal of hope. No, I don’t think Mayor Pete (or anyone other than Donald Trump) will win in West Texas. I don’t think we’ll be able to flip Nebraska or North Dakota this cycle, no. But we can go out there, run unapologetically like these candidates are on a positive, progressive, populist message, in every race from dog catcher to President.
Yeah, we might lose 65/35 in some of these places, sure- but that’s instead of losing 80/20. It means we define the message; we set the rules. We stop reacting to the Republicans and make them react to us. And it matters. Folks like my dad might be one in ten, but it’s on those margins that we’ll make up the difference.
The path forward it clear: we can fight for them- we can fight for EVERYONE- without compromising anything. And if we do?
We’re going to take our country back.