Symposium | What is Red-State Liberalism?

Yes, Red-State Liberals Exist

By Mary Logan Wolf

Tagged politicsRural America

I am resident of knuckle drag America. Some folks call it flyover country. We are the ’tween lands you pass on your way to points East or West and the purgatory you blame for our current President. Furthermore, in the clutch of states known as Red America, mine, Oklahoma, is the very reddest state of all.

I’m middle-aged, middle-income, Middle American and white; small town born and raised. My upbringing and that of my rural brethren may be less elegiac than the well-hyped hillbillies of Appalachia, but here in Oklahoma we understand outmigration. Bankrupt hospitals and struggling schools. Empty storefronts. Overgrown lots in an economic development complex waiting for industries that never come. Still, hope springs eternal in rural communities fighting for life: In the town where I was born, a festival celebrating bull testicles is the main attraction.

If this sounds a tad redneck to you, you’re getting the picture. To put more flesh on the bones of the stereotype, in my lifetime I’ve lived in two mobile homes, the last being a doublewide. My family lineage includes at least one officer of the National Rifle Association and farther back, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I am a Walmart shopper, I own a 38-Special Taurus revolver, and I wear Carhartt.

One more thing: I am a lifelong liberal.

That there are more like me is the untold story of the 2016 election. Night after night, we settled into our La-Z-Boys and watched as the media clamored to interview the blue-gone-red angry voters of the swing states, the blue-state liberals stoned by defeat, and the jubilant red-state conservatives.

But they forgot about us; the white middle-class voters, rural and urban, who would rather eat stink bait than vote for Donald Trump. To date, we red-state liberals occupy unprobed waters. In Oklahoma, our existence is like that of our beloved southwestern horned lizard. We call it the horny toad. The once populous species survives today in rare, isolated colonies across the state. Despite the rugged appearance, its future is tenuous. So it makes sense that you would overlook us, much less consider that our existence has value or could in some way benefit and complement your own.

It may surprise you to know that while our currents roil and backfeed based on the odd underpinnings of our sometimes divergent culture, for the most part, we flow in the same direction as you do. Like you, we believe in the liberal truisms—level playing field, equal rights, the freedoms—and we cherish our government’s role in protecting all of that.

But we’re an enigmatic bunch. Spend a morning in any red state diner, and you’ll hear patrons of all stripes whipping up on big government. My husband, a self-described moderate Democrat, hates government waste. At the same time, he’s quick to remind his capitalist-inclined friends that we drive on government-built roads and bridges, trust public schools to educate our children; and our loved ones can go to work safe from hazardous chemicals, faulty equipment, or colleague’s unwelcome sexual advances because of government. Law enforcement and fire protection? Thank you, government. Collapse in the kitchen? Call government-enabled 911. And when a climate change-addled Mother Nature comes sweeping down the plains gussied up as a mile-wide grinder tornado, an apocalyptic flood, or a drought-induced wildfire, we turn to Uncle Sam to help us rebuild. Social Security, National Parks, Medicare, Medicaid, rural electricity, even the maligned Affordable Care Act; we owe these programs to government, and more specifically, to Democrats. Hand these jobs over to private industry and the adage “bend over” comes to mind.

So we go with the flow on many aspects of Democratic politics, but rivers fork and occasionally form oxbows. Allow me to explain six key points on which we diverge. Before I do, however, I’d like to tell you what it’s like to live as a liberal in a land of red.

There is a theory called the Dunbar number that claims the average human is capable of successfully sustaining only 150 meaningful relationships. Closest to us are our five best friends or family members whom we see or visit with often. The next 15 are considered good friends, followed by 50 casual friends and so on. In your circle of 15 good friends, I wonder how many are conservative? How about your 50 casual friends? For red state liberals, the numbers are high, sometimes as high as half.

This fact forces us to adapt and learn skills necessary to survive in what can at times feel like an alien environment. I became acutely aware of my rarity in November 1981 as I stood in a long line of student voters that snaked around the cafeteria and down the street at the University of Oklahoma. As I waited, a boisterous fraternity boy ahead of me joked with his friends, wondering aloud why anyone would bother to use a secret ballot. “We all know we’re voting for Reagan anyway, right?” he cracked.

“Not me,” I chirped. It was my first presidential election. I was the plump hen at a bobcat convention. As the news rippled through the line, the frat boy asked for a show of hands. By golly, he was right. I was the only Democrat for as far as the eye could see, which at that moment felt like 500 miles.

Age brings wisdom and a keen tuning fork. Some of us lefties develop extrasensory abilities that help us find one another more easily. It’s like gaydar for liberals. Rather than cracking open a conversational box of worms, I note small details. Habitat for Humanity shirt and a preference for vegan leans liberal. Toby Keith’s Greatest Hits, a concealed carry license, or a business card reading “Christian owned,” and all bets say conservative. In waiting rooms, I notice whose eyes are trained on the television. From our tire shops to our doctor’s offices and sports bars, if there’s a TV on the wall, it plays one channel—and that’s Fox.

My immediate family is Democratic, but we are recessives in a gene pool of John Birch Republicans. We prefer to enjoy our extended family’s company at get-togethers, so we cut a wide swath around controversial topics, and then puzzle about their politics on the drive home.

My husband is a regular at the local diner where on any given morning you’ll find a long table of crotchety men in trucker caps. It took him 15 years to get an invitation to sit there. He calls it the Klan meeting; they call him “Hillary.” Up until election night, it was a fair fight, and he held his own. After November 8, they jumped on him like white on rice; their jubilation darn near palpable.

But time passes and karma works its magic. Tweets, incompetence, inconsistencies, and Russia, beautiful Russia, put a hole in their fence. They continued to greet him with “Hello, Hillary,” but with a lot less gusto. His stock answer: “Morning, comrades. Will you be leaving your tip in rubles?”

After a week of particularly embarrassing tweets and the Russia investigation heating up like noon on the Fourth of July, my husband plopped down among the clan. Before he could utter his usual greeting, one fella threw his napkin at his plate and growled, “God damn Democrats!” And they all stood up and left.

Their disgust didn’t last long, though. We’re a small town and we can’t afford the luxury of partisan gridlock. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, finding common ground is necessary to survive. If not, nothing gets done—and everyone knows where you live.

In rural Oklahoma, we find our commonalities in basic civility and in understanding that those who disagree with us also have wives and children, aging parents, beloved pets, grief and illness, all the familiar drama of being human. In that way, politics becomes an aside. Perhaps you can, therefore, view our differences in a similar light.

1. Religion. If you peer down on Oklahoma from a low-flying aircraft, you’ll notice many churches, a few with religious icons so tall as to imperil migrating geese. By any measure, faith is important to us.

Like some 89 percent of my fellow Oklahomans, I am a believer. Does my faith influence my politics? The answer—no surprise—is “Amen.”

Mine is a small clapboard church with a sagging floor and a faithful congregation of 15 on a good Sunday. Out front stands a marquee that reads “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” To me, it might as well say “Liberals Welcome Here.”

We have churches here that serve as polling places and preachers who promote politics from the pulpit. Not mine. Our Sunday sermons focus on Christ’s life and the values he embodied: compassion, mercy, tolerance, and love. My Christian values are congruent with my liberal values, so voting blue seems right as rain to me. I support gay marriage, and gay clergy, too. But I know moderates who struggle with these issues because of three passages in the Bible that reference homosexuality. I know a rural school administrator and devout Christian who stays blue by focusing on Christ’s words and remembering all the good things Democrats do. Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and elderly, helping the poor; that’s pretty much what Jesus would do.

I wonder now, is the Jesus-talk making you uncomfortable? Because I get that. Sanctimony and cheese are turn-offs. Don’t worry: I may live in the land of the giant praying hands, but I’m no fan of Christian conversion therapy. Here’s why: Years ago, I had an English teacher who promised an automatic “A” to any student who attended the spring revival at the local Baptist church. I could use an A, and so I went. After a tireless roll about sin, the preacher urged people to come to the front to be saved. Several kids from my class went down, and the preacher put a pigskin grip on their heads and asked them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. They agreed—at that point who wouldn’t?—and some of them cried. I never left my pew. The next morning the teacher asked for a show of hands from revival attendees. When my hand shot up, he stared at me. “You were there,” he said, “But you weren’t present.”

That moment anchored my nascent awareness that church and state make a sour cocktail. My faith is my business; that others share it—you or even our next presidential candidate—is not important to me. I’d vote for a Muslim, Hindu, Jew or an atheist if they expressed sound points of view based on knowledge and compassion. Truth is I’d have a harder time voting for an evangelical Christian. Thoughtful doubters and intellectual disbelievers tend to possess open minds, respect for facts, and a belief in science. Not so, fundamentalists.

A retired minister I know told me he once preached a sermon on religious tolerance and understanding. When he pointed out that the genealogy of the tribes of Israel seems to conclude that Allah of Islam and the Christian God are the same, several members of his congregation left the church. That’s red state reality. Even those who don’t go to church will cop to the pervious influence of faith—a higher power, an intelligent universe, something.

That said, you won’t hear red-state Democrats advocating for more religion in politics. We have front-row seats to the Christian hypocrisy show. We more than anyone see how easily Christianity is corrupted and manipulated by politicians at every level. Who needs more of that? What we would embrace, however, are politicians who understand the values of Christ, who preach freedom for the bruised, help for the poor, healing for the sick, and the avoidance of avarice—and do it with truth and integrity.

Last year, Oklahoma conservatives and liberals united to defeat the corporate farm boondoggle masquerading as “Right to Farm” legislation. This bill gives corporations legal immunity to pollute the environment and engage in unscrupulous practices. Squarely behind this defeat were churches of all faiths that recognized the inhumane treatment of animals and disregard for God’s green earth as incompatible with their Christian values. An activist leading the opposition told me that framing the question in terms of these values became key to its resounding defeat. Now, putting Jesus on the party platform is as phony as an evangelical’s toupee. But appealing to Christians by illustrating the Christ-like values inherent in Democratic policies and programs is not. If Democrats would do more of this, they might find red state voters receptive to the message.

2. The word “liberal.” The faith factor may explain why, in Oklahoma, the lion’s share of Democrats call themselves moderates. Few of us—19 percent, says the Pew Research Institute—check the liberal box. What’s more, many of these moderates recoil from the l-word. They may think liberal, pray liberal, and vote liberal, but call them one and they act like they drove over a dead skunk. “I’m a Democrat,” they’ll tell you. “But I don’t think of myself as liberal.”

At a gathering this summer, I shared a table with a retired Tulsa policeman (and active Democrat) who admonished his party and its adherents for their use of the word. “Why can’t we just be Democrats,” he lamented. “Why do we have to use that label?”

I’m sure it frustrates you to hear that Democrats here would have trouble with something so simple as a word, but they have their reasons. Some say they feel it defines them as loose or extreme; others associate it with fiscal irresponsibility; but most are unable to articulate their distaste. I see the reasons themselves as less important and here’s why: Whether we blame the liberal bad rap on the draft-dodging hippies, right-wing language assassination, or the natural human inclination to fit in, if the label is unpopular among members of our own party, candidates looking to woo Oklahoma moderates might exercise better judgment on when, where, and how they use it.

It took Oklahoma decades to recover from the stigma of the dirty Dust Bowl Okie; today, we embrace it. I am an Okie, and I am a liberal, and I am proud to be both. But I am also a horny toad. As a member of Oklahoma’s endangered political species, I’m willing to make a few concessions to avoid extinction.

You can and at least one of my family members driving around with a shotgun in his pickup. No one finds this alarming and neither should you.

After the election, my husband and I spend a lot of time binge-watching CNN. Trump’s win brought on my predilection for popcorn because so often I have to throw something at the TV. I think every blue voter will agree that something dire happened on November 8; now, the same media that skimmed over us backwater Democrats churn the reasons for the redneck revolt like butter. Too much identity politics? Hillary’s neoliberalism? The liberal fixation on political correctness? Maybe a little of all of the above, and then some. But so often in these debates the jargon leaves us red-state liberals comatose. Neoliberalism isn’t exactly Oklahoma vernacular, while identity politics might be better understood as a ideological can of biscuits. Google tells me neoliberalism is also free market liberalism, so why not say that? As for identity politics, even the PhDs can’t agree on what it means, but it sounds like something we’ve had for years—special interest groups. Either way, using these highfalutin terms to explain the common man’s rejection of Democratic politics seems the height of irony.

3. Guns. I’ll tell you straight away talking guns with an East Coast liberal makes me more uneasy than any gun would. Before you take aim, please consider our world. I grew up watching “Bonanza” reruns in a family room lined with shotguns and rifles, ammo within easy reach in an unlocked gun cabinet. These days you can find at least one of my family members driving around town on a Saturday with a shotgun in his pickup truck. No one finds this alarming and neither should you. Guns are a part of our lives in rural Oklahoma because hunting is a part of our lives. If you live in small town Oklahoma and don’t own a gun, you know someone who does. Nine-point-nine out of ten it’s a hunting gun.

My brother is an avid sportsman and an unwavering liberal. He owns 21 long guns and four pistols. Between the two of us, we know a good many gun-toting Democrats. How many of them worry about the government seizing their guns? Zero; about the same number who support the NRA.

We favor sensible gun control—purchasing restrictions for ex-felons and the mentally ill, restrictions on military assault weapons and gun modifications such as bump stocks, background checks, waiting periods, safer gun storage rules, and improved gun education. What bothers us is the gun neurosis evident on both ends of the political continuum. On the right, gung-ho gun kooks with—ahem—personal protection AK-47s they whip out on weekends to slaughter coyotes. On the left, gun phobia that expels a schoolboy for pointing his thumb and forefinger and saying “bang.” Irritating, too, are Democratic leaders embroiled in the gun debate who fail to educate themselves on the difference between automatic and semiautomatic weapons, ammunition, and accessories before issuing ill-informed statements that go viral on the Internet. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, and others are all guilty of misfires on the topic of guns. Especially cringeworthy is a Biden interview in Field and Stream where he recommended a shotgun over an AR-15 because if “you want to keep someone away from your house, just fire the shotgun through the door.” I really like Biden, but such little care for accuracy undermines the good intentions of gun control, not to mention raising the ire of knowledgeable gun owners.

Thankfully, in the national parley over guns, there is middle ground. It’s us. We appreciate guns as tools, not weapons; we don’t fixate or flaunt them, we practice gun safety, and we tend to be quite sportsmanlike, too. Many of us give our money and time to earth-friendly causes that work to improve wildlife habitat and biodiversity, protect water resources, and expand wilderness. Before you write us off as slobbering bullet heads, please give that some thought.

4. LGBT Rights. Now, gay rights. I’ve mentioned that some of our moderate Democrats find gay marriage less palatable than a confirmed liberal such as myself. They don’t dispute the legal rights of same-sex couples to marry, or transgender individuals to serve in the military; but you won’t find them lining up to watch a gay pride parade, either.

When I was young, we had a gay neighbor who owned a Merle Norman beauty store on Main Street. My dad called him “the hair twister.” In those days when people talked about an effeminate man they said he was “light in the loafers.” It was a very different time.

I’d like to think small towns have grown kinder and more tolerant, but I’m not sure. We have a large gay population in our metro areas, but few openly gay folks in rural communities; transgender individuals are pretty much AWOL. Ignorance breeds contempt, they say. But for white middle-class Democrats in rural Oklahoma, it’s more like indifference. I can’t think of one person, liberal or moderate, who quibbled over “whose loo” because honestly, we don’t much care. When toilet talk came on the tube, we usually tuned out or got up and fed the dog. It’s one of those election-throwing hot potatoes, though, so I asked people around here about it. From minister to mailman, the same response: A sweeping backhand gesturing to a single door somewhere near the back of their home, church or business, followed by, “We have a transgender bathroom right here.”

About now I hear a rumbling. It could be an earthquake, but I’m pretty sure it’s the P.C. police heading South. As you’ve probably ascertained, we scorn the heavy hand of political correctness here. We find the liberal compulsion to shield people from hurt feelings comes too close to impinging on our right to free speech. And it’s often absurd. A swastika hanging from the courthouse window is all kinds of wrong, but making a stink over some football players wearing sombreros? That’s drama.

A university president here made the news awhile back when he issued an open letter on the topic of political correctness. Dr. Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, made a number of excellent points in the letter, all worth reading, but I believe the following sums up the problem: “Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them ‘feel bad’ about themselves, is a ‘hater,’ a ‘bigot,’ an ‘oppressor,’ and ‘victimizer.’” He concluded with this zinger: “This is not a day care. This is a university.” Piper’s no liberal, but his sentiment’s something plenty of us out here agree with. When I read this, I wanted to stand and applaud. Our country is suffering from the disease of codependency, rushing in to shield its citizens from insult, thereby denying them the privilege to grow up and get over it.

5. Immigration. Oklahoma’s proximity to Mexico and our low cost of living make it a popular landing spot for Hispanic immigrants. Over recent years, the number of Hispanics in Oklahoma has surged, and the vast majority of them are Mexican. At 10 percent of our population, they are now our second largest ethnic group, surpassing African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians.

My hometown of 6,500 could barely sustain a Pizza Hut, a Sonic, and a diner; now we have three Mexican-owned restaurants and one more on the way. One of the chalkiest towns in the state, Guymon, Oklahoma, population around 11,978, is now over 50 percent Hispanic. The immigrant labor supports the region’s massive corporate hog farms, and for that reason the influx is tolerated. No one hollers about job theft because precious few white folks are motivated to spend the day slaughtering pigs.

Still, brown skin fear is here. We are one of 31 states to enact an English-official law requiring interactions with state government to be in English. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s xenophobe legislators seem obsessed with banning bilingual education in schools. Such issues make immigration reform important to us, because integrating Hispanics in ways that help them succeed is key to their prosperity and ours.

Hillary had a good plan, but her stumping often failed to communicate how smart measures might benefit both Small Town Joe and José. I have notions about what we gain from the expanding ethnic blur—the cultural richness that comes with the exchange of art, music, food, language and ideas, not to mention a healthy infusion of their Goliath work ethic. But that’s typical liberal malarkey to someone with a business to run and bills to pay.

My church choir keeps croaking because the songs are easy and we know the words. I wish as much for the Democratic Party.

My husband, the moderate, owns a small construction business. He complains that Hispanics who are here illegally own businesses that “don’t play by the rules.” They paint houses, mow lawns, install tile, and remodel homes at prices that are hard for some consumers to ignore. He understands that helping them obtain citizenship would eliminate the underground market that takes work from those who are legit, but others like him do not.

We know an undocumented Mexican who owns a small business in Oklahoma City. He told me how he crossed the border near Tijuana some 15 years ago with the help of a coyote. He would like to become legal, he stressed, but with a wife and two kids now it’s too risky. Still, he said he would like nothing more than to vote in a U.S. election. We’d like that, too.

6. Patriotism. They say red states bleed redder than blue when it comes to patriotism. They are right. Oklahomans don’t find it difficult to love the USA. For us, it’s a nonpartisan issue. On July 4, our patriotism erupts in a near-nuclear outbreak of fireworks and skyrocketing sales of hot dogs, potato salad, and baked beans. My little town holds an Independence Day parade with a few rudimentary floats, a handful of horseback riders, and a string of disheveled kids on bicycles. It’s all over in ten minutes, but people go because, well, that’s just what we do.

Our love of country is akin to our zeal for college football. We are a loyal bunch; we love our country, and we root for the home team! But even the Sooners make mistakes, and ours is not always star-spangled acceptance. Because patriotism is so awash in cornpone, so often used to manipulate, and so closely aligned with nationalism, the term can promote a kneejerk reaction, even in red-state liberals. In red America, we’re supposed to love our country like we love our church—without question. Do otherwise, and we risk being branded as un-American or un-Christian. Speaking for liberals in my neck of the woods, neither is true.

When crowds at Ground Zero chanted, “USA! USA!” shortly after 9/11, we stood in our living rooms, fist-pounded the air, and cheered right along with them. Six years previous, Timothy McVeigh’s 4,800-pound fertilizer bomb blew a hole in the heart of Oklahoma. That shared sense of loss made for hyper-tough Okie Bondo. We felt solidarity with our compatriots and, corny as it sounds, found strength and healing in that unity.

These are situations when Toby Keith’s twangy salutes to the red, white, and blue seem entirely appropriate and, for some folks, even necessary. Me, I’m more of a Woody Guthrie gal. “This Land is Your Land” resonates with me, more so for the lyrics Guthrie omitted, which seem near prophetic these days.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie’s artistic dissent—call it tough love patriotism—wasn’t afraid to point the high beam on Uncle Sam’s backside. His grit is of another sort and is as important to our country as donning a military uniform. Today, I’m proud to see this gutsy determination in the “fake news” journalists who ask the tough questions, in the artists who piss us off and make us think, in the comedians who show truth through humor, in the protestors in all those pussy hats. These folks make me proud to be American. I hope they do the same for you.

I visited Arlington Cemetery once and found it compelling; I am also moved by the scratchy news clips of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Reverend King called on our nation to live up to its touted ideals, to be what it was supposed to be: a country where all men and women, gay or straight, black, white, brown or yellow are created equal. These are the values represented by all those graves. It’s why when we elected Barack Obama as our first black President, I wept.

Like I’ve said, out here in flyover country there are others like me. Old and young, men and women, some of us bona fide country bumpkins, others just regular folks. We vote Democrat because we believe in tolerance, compassion, in the freedoms of speech, press, and religion, and principles of equality. Laurels are well and good, maybe some yodeling and flag waving, too, but we shouldn’t be mesmerized by unwavering loyalty. My dad wasn’t afraid to level a sound parental butt kick when he felt his offspring weren’t living up to their potential. If we love our country, we ought to be brave enough to do the same.

If you’re still reading, thank you for sticking with me. Just a few more things before I close. Remember me telling you about my little church? We have 15 regulars, and almost two of them can sing. That doesn’t stop the rest of us. We manage to keep croaking because the songs are easy and we know the words. I wish as much for the Democratic Party. Come up with a message, make it simple, make it strong, and for God’s sake, make it great. No bullshit.

And when the candidates powwow to plan strategy, please remember us to them. Several months back I watched an episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Maher interviewed journalist Dan Savage, who seemed pretty intelligent and sort of witty. But he said something that stopped me cold. Savage urged the Democratic Party to stop chasing rural voters. “Democrats have to unapologetically be the party of urban America the way Republicans are unapologetically the party of depopulated America, rural America,” Savage said. “Sending John Kerry out to shoot something before an election didn’t win any votes in knuckle drag America.” In other words, Democrats should forget us knuckle draggers and focus all its resources on reaching metropolitan voters. I thought to myself, buddy, we are still here. And we are hurting, and we’ve been hurting for years.

Send us candidates who understand that our infrastructure is eroding, our hospitals are closing, and thanks to meth, heroin, and opioids, everyone knows someone who desperately needs affordable, long-term drug treatment. The Oklahoma City metro area, population 1.3 million, has one treatment facility that accepts addicts without insurance. The maximum stay is two weeks to 20 days, barely enough to detox. The best hope for addicts without insurance in Oklahoma is jail time.

Free college tuition sounds terrific, but a good many of our high school graduates either aren’t capable or aren’t interested in going to college. So instead, help us revamp our vocational education system to prepare those kids for a career beyond sacking grain at the feed store.

Years ago, FDR kick-started a government program that brought electricity to rural America. That changed lives. How about we do the same with fiber-based Internet? Not satellite, not line-of-sight tower, not half measures that work a quarter of the time. Electric cooperatives can run fiber over power lines for less money than it costs to bury it, but political maneuvering by telecom giants is putting a stranglehold on funds earmarked for broadband improvements. Some are proceeding anyway. Help us light a fire under a nationwide rural fiber-based broadband program and Democrats will reach into millions of living rooms across red America and help us become better educated, more productive, and more competitive.

A retiree I know in the timbered hills of eastern Oklahoma gets fiber service through his co-op. He appreciates what the service does for his isolated community, but the benefit for him is more personal. “We enjoy having our grandkids stay with us, but they wouldn’t want to visit or stay as long if we didn’t have fast Internet,” he said.

Democrats want to win votes? Give us streaming Netflix.

That in mind, Democrats have been wise to take a close look at the proletarian appeal of Bernie Sanders. He advocates for gay and transgender rights, believes in making U.S. citizenship more obtainable for illegal immigrants, supports gun control, and knows darn well that black lives matter. All these hullabaloo issues we white folks in Middle America are supposed to find alienating, yet left-wing Bernie won the Democratic primary here and found plenty of support among Oklahoma’s white middle class. Why? We believe him. More than that, we like him. Rather than rummaging through the hodgepodge of liberal issues, Sanders focused on the big fish: jobs, wages, trade.

We heard him. We agree that corporate America catches too many breaks at the expense of middle-class taxpayers. Corporate CEOs getting richer than chocolate blackout cake while our neighbor takes a second job at 7-Eleven so he can send his son to college annoys us as much as it does coastal city-dwellers. Meanwhile, special interest lobbyists pumping money to politicians gut-shots our confidence in our legislative due process.

Oklahoma is, in fact, the birthplace of populist folk singer and pro-worker advocate Woody Guthrie. Maybe this explains why we redneck-leaning liberals find Bernie’s quasi-socialist message less alarming. What’s more likely is the old coot with the mussed hair has that thing we seek in healthy relationships—the real factor, authenticity. I’m sick to death of Chiclet grins and polished sentences that offer all the long-term satisfaction of a wad of cotton candy. I’m not saying candidates should start dropping their g’s, feign an interest in catfish noodling or belly up to a batch of fried bull balls to catch our ear, but a straight-talking candidate with a spit cup could go a long way.

Another unashamed Okie, Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” It’s time we changed that. Democrats should get on point, get tough, and roar like lions. Rogers also said that everyone was ignorant about something. It’s time for the worldly, well-educated blue-state liberals to realize they know precious little about rural red staters. Groundless assumptions are worse than honest ignorance. They’re just plain dumb.

From the Symposium

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Read more about politicsRural America

Mary Logan Wolf writes from her rural home north of Luther, Oklahoma.

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