John is running close to his opponent. I’ve spoken with numerous registered Republicans who are enthusiastically planning on voting for him.
His message is resonating – now he needs help getting it out to remaining undecided voters. If you’d like to help, you can donate here.
I’m sitting in a beautiful theater in the center of Mt. Vernon and watching the future of Ohio politics unfold in front of me. At least that’s what I hope.
The theater looks less than a quarter full. Maybe 100 people have shown up to watch a debate between candidates for State Representative from the 68th District: Republican Rick Carfagna, write-in candidate and Trump supporter Douglas Crowl, and Democrat John Russell.
I’m here to see Russell, a Galena melon farmer and stump grinder making his first run for elected office in a district that’s been dominated by the GOP for a half-century. This year, though, is a little bit different.
The 68th includes the increasingly exurban eastern half of Delaware County, home to Governor John Kasich, as well as all of the largely rural Knox County. Like so many rural Ohio counties, the county seat, Mount Vernon, is home to a decaying employment base and a small college; another sits in a village nearby. My entire drive was marked with Trump signs; in nearly 40 miles of driving in the district, I saw two Clinton/Kaine signs, both in the same yard. The landscape – rural, agricultural, working- and middle-class – is a far cry from the wealth and sterility of the Delaware County exurbs.
The GOP primary showed this divide, as well. Carfagna was endorsed by Delaware County’s Republican Party but not by Knox’s, and won handily in Delaware but lost narrowly in Knox. The write-in challenger at tonight’s debate is clearly swept up in this divide, and speaks bitterly of the Delaware County political establishment – but glowingly of Donald Trump.
This divide presents a rare opportunity for Democrats, if the party can take advantage of it. Donald Trump has tapped into a deep vein of anger among American voters. While his supporters, like those of any Republican candidate, are overwhelmingly wealthy, it’s undeniable that a certain segment of his voters are working-class and rural, and have a right to be angry at an economy that has left them behind. With much of rural America hemorrhaging jobs – out of state or overseas, it hardly matters – and not much livable employment available to replace them, it’s unsurprising that vast numbers of Americans are moving onto Social Security Disability Insurance.
Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party has increasingly become the party of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich call the “Professional-Managerial Class” and what Tom Wolfe called the “Flak-Catchers” – the people who are paid to ensure that exploitative relationships between employers and employees are maintained, to take the heat for the boss and salve the pain of the worker just enough to keep things running. It’s become, that is, the party of Toby from The Office.
This isn’t accidental: the move to appeal to members of the new “knowledge economy” was intentional on the part of moderate Democrats in the 1990s and 2000s – and it made some sense at the time. Outsourcing, offshoring, and automation would combine with technology to create the possibility of high-skill, physically-undemanding, satisfying employment for everyone (in the U.S., at least). But cracks quickly started to appear in this vision. Knowledge work, like most kinds of labor in sudden and high demand, offered massive financial benefits to employers who could make its tasks routine, deskilled, and interchangeable. 1999’s Office Space, with its present-day dystopia, is just one example. By 2012, the Ehrenreichs declared the “yuppie dream” had died.
It doesn’t bode well for the party of professionals when the boom in professionals fails to materialize on schedule. Fortunately, the Democratic Party has been shored up by the combination of growing American diversity and GOP hostility to that diversity – but it’s only a matter of time before someone on the right picks up the pieces. Trump’s new voters aren’t going anywhere, by most accounts, but it isn’t inevitable that they’ll all stay with Trump. (This is, to some extent, what Hillary Clinton tried and failed to articulate in her infamous “basket of deplorables” speech).
How do we make sure these new voters become part of the Democratic coalition? John Russell offers one vision of that. The vision of Democracy Russell is sharing is populist, but unapologetically progressive. When asked about culturally-dividing issues, he gives a straight answer, but immediately argues that most voters care far less about those than about material concerns: jobs, housing, drug addiction. It’s also a politics of class. He talks repeatedly about the shared experience of manual labor.
A new coalition – a working-class coalition – sometimes means strange bedfellows. A Democratic Left that can survive the “death of the yuppie dream” has to be built around organizing poor and working people in defense of their own interests. That will mean overcoming racism and xenophobia within individuals rather than simply rejecting it politically. It will require, as civil rights veteran Bob Zellner found, finding common ground before, not after, addressing these issues. This is how we’ll build a thriving Democratic Left. This is how we’ll stop Trump and the many politicians like him. This is how we’ll build a better future – and we’ll need people like John Russell to do it.
Everything about Russell’s campaign is yeomanlike, from its impressively-executed focus on face-to-face voter contact to the Depression-era design of its buttons. This debate is no exception. Russell sticks closely to his core issues, in a manner that recalls Bernie Sanders’s engagement in the presidential primary debates. The issues that matter, he insists, are not determined by the news cycle but by the life and shape of the communities in the district. Republicans have dominated the state for decades, and it would be foolish to turn to them to fix the problems they have allowed to come into being. Voters, he says in his closing statement, are faced with a choice between “a melon farmer and a lobbyist for Time Warner Cable.” It shouldn’t be a hard choice. It isn’t for me. Let’s hope voters in the 68th feel the same.