But as time passed and people crunched numbers, it became clear where we did well and where our message did not resonate. We made major gains in urban areas and in the rural areas of South Texas. We recovered many local seats lost in the 2014 election cycle. And, whatever else, the presidential race was a single-digit race for the first time in 25 years.
Yet a pattern emerged that we could see on paper. Over the past 25 years, the Democratic Party has lost a big chunk of what was a reliable rural base. I grew up in one of those “reliable” Democratic farm-family households. My father was a World War II veteran. Mom worked at Consolidated Aircraft. They married and moved back to the farm after the war. She taught school.
We richly benefited from Dust Bowl prevention programs that improved the land, conserved the water and encouraged the windbreaks you still see on drives in the country. Our family farm was protected by the flood-prevention measures that came with damming rivers such as the Brazos. Hydro-electric power plants built near such dams created electricity which was routed through rural areas. For the first time, our family could live like city folks. Mama could buy a washing machine. The Rural Electrification Administration brought modern life to the farm family. The work day was transformed. Farmers were not necessarily bound by the rising and setting of the sun.
All of these policies and programs were championed by the Democratic Party. They transformed life for people like me growing up in the country.
Why then did the agrarian voters shift their votes and stray from the old Jeffersonian party? I have read and heard three, maybe more, areas where the Republican Party succeeded in labeling us. Often nowadays we are characterized as anti-God, anti-gun and pro-gay.
We can no longer allow this to happen.
Democrats are certainly not anti-God. If you read Scripture, our policies are often more Christ-like or God-like than the harmful policies of the Republican Party. The Psalms call on us to care for the widow and the orphan. The New Testament admonishes us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner. Scripture calls on us to love our neighbor and to take in the stranger.
I firmly believe Democratic Party policies model an attitude of service to others. We live a life of generosity that unifies us in spite of racial, ethnic and religious differences. We are the party of Good Samaritans. Our strong beliefs in universal moral principles of justice and truth and goodness lead us even now. We guard the ideal of religious liberty with deep conviction. In this land we are free to worship (or not) as our conscience guides us. We don’t seek the endorsement of God for what we do. In this grand country, we welcome all, as we should.
Another frequent argument comes up. Some say we are anti-gun. No, we are pro-sensible gun laws. All we ask for are common-sense, reasonable requirements for gun ownership. We are pro-gun safety. And we should not be afraid to say that we own guns and use guns.
This is Texas and, in many areas, it’s a basic safety precaution to have a firearm. I own firearms. They’re stored properly and I have had appropriate training. I am not ashamed of that.
The last label the other guys stick us with is pro-gay. As long as time has been, there have been gay people living and working among us. I stand with my Libertarian and “small-government” friends and agree that what I do and what you do in the privacy of the bedroom is nobody’s business but mine and yours. We remain the party of personal freedom and individual liberty.
Slowly over the years, the LBGT community and its allies have fought and won battles over equality in the workplace. Battles have been won over civil unions. Policymakers grew in their understanding of this and, with the help of Democratic Party leadership, the LBGT community won the fight on same-sex marriage. All of us can marry who we love . . . just as it should be.
For those concerned we might be tossing core issues aside to court the rural voter, there is no need to worry. We are not. It’s all about phrasing. It’s about our choice of words. Let me explain.
To one person the argument is about climate change and global warming. To another person it’s talk of drought, floods and uncertain weather patterns affecting crops and livestock. On the surface, it seems like two different worlds. But the environmentalist and the farmer share the same fears about changing weather. We just talk about it differently.
We have to talk less and listen more. We must build bridges of common interest, not fences.
To one person the battle is over who should marry who. To another it’s a matter of whether the government has the right to tell you who you can love and who can consent to necessary medical services. When you look at it that way, we can have a conversation.
We will be known for addressing the people’s “kitchen table issues” — smaller government, individual freedom, living wages, affordable college education for our children, affordable health care and reliable retirement.
We have let the other guys define us. We have let them build walls between us . And the rural voters began to think the Democratic Party did not have their interests at heart. Not true!
In recent years, both sides of the political spectrum have let stereotypes define our conversations. We hold elections. Then we spend our days fighting off harmful policies others legislate. People now consistently vote against their best interests because they have bought into the false narrative of who we are as Democrats.
We had our dark days as we grew to be who we are today. We were not always the party of equal rights for all. But since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression, we have become the resolute party of the working man and woman, the party of the people. I invite rural folk, urban folk, gay and straight, black and white and brown to take back the conversations about jobs and community and family. Let’s reject the broad brush strokes that we have been painted in. Let us reject the stereotypes all around.
In the end, we all will be defined by our actions. We will be defined by how we treated the least among us, the persecuted, the young, the poor, the infirm and the elderly. The Democratic Party will not waver on these. We will not apologize. We will not let the other side define us anymore.