What Being A Progressive In A Red State Has Taught Me

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Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri Jason Kander greets a voter on November 8, 2016 outside a polling place in Kansas City, Missouri.
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri Jason Kander greets a voter on November 8, 2016 outside a polling place in Kansas City, Missouri.
Whitney Curtis via Getty Images

As Democrats, when we try to determine who or what allowed Donald Trump to become president, we should look in the mirror. If we are really honest with each other, we have to acknowledge that Democrats accidentally contributed to dividing the country, and the president-elect saw it as an opportunity.

Yes, our party clearly has a problem connecting with working-class Americans. But it was much more than that, and if we think that was our only problem we will continue to lose elections we shouldn’t lose. Democrats fell in love with the idea that winning elections was a matter of talking to voters about the one issue we think impacts them, instead of our plan to move the country forward as a whole. Too many people believed that all we had to do was find the right set of messages to motivate the right blend of voters to go to the polls, and the result was going to be a lot of wins for a long time. It turns out that dividing the country into so many little segments can actually contribute to dividing the country for real.

When Democrats concede the idea that some voters are not our voters, we shouldn’t be surprised when those voters agree.

Imagine two lawyers standing in front of a jury for closing arguments. The first lawyer spends 10 minutes arguing passionately for his client. The second lawyer – with the whole jury listening – goes juror by juror individually explaining why they personally benefit from a verdict for his side. Also, the second lawyer has obviously chosen to skip a couple jurors that seem less amenable to his client.

“Let’s start by being unafraid to make our argument to everyone.”

I’m not saying we should stop talking about issues that directly affect specific groups more than others. In fact, I’m saying the opposite: We should passionately make our case about these exact issues with everyone rather than just the Americans most affected by them. And as long as we have a unifying vision of a country that rewards everyone willing to work toward the American dream, voters will listen.

Voters are smart. They know the difference between a Democratic Party that wants their vote and a Democratic Party that believes in making their life better. They’ll forgive you for pushing a policy they don’t like as long as they believe you’re doing it because you genuinely believe it’s what’s best for the country.

We want everyone who is willing to work to have a chance at the American dream. And we can’t make that a reality if we aren’t talking about minimum wage, women’s health care, LGBT equality, social justice, criminal justice reform, organized labor, sensible gun laws, saving our environment, or any other issue to everyone instead of micro-targeting the message depending on the audience. We can talk about all of that in every part of this country if we make clear our overarching desire to put the American Dream back within reach for everyone.

In the past four years, I’ve run statewide in Missouri twice. I won once and lost once, always substantially outperforming the top of the Democratic ticket by wide margins in a pretty red state. When I lost in November, I received 225,000 more votes than our presidential ticket and held the incumbent to under 50 percent. I was able to do that because I made an argument for progressive ideas rather than apologizing for the letter next to my name on the ballot or running a conservative campaign.

I told audiences that black lives matter in Ferguson, but I did the same in rural areas. I stood up for an increase in the minimum wage no matter whether I was at a union hall or a local chamber of commerce. In each case, I’ve been unafraid to tell voters why lifting up people they don’t know lifts them up too. They may not all agree with me every time, but they know I mean it and they know I care about everyone, including them.

I whole-heartedly believe that progressive policies are best for the entire country. I whole-heartedly believe that having a Democrat in the White House is better for the lives of every single American no matter their wealth, their geography, their race or their religion. And, essentially, that’s the argument I made in my campaign. And I darn near won with that strategy in a red state that Donald Trump carried by 19 percent.

As Democrats consider the way forward as a party out of power, my humble suggestion is this: Let’s start by being unafraid to make our argument to everyone. I’m not interested in conceding a single voter to the Republicans. Let’s never again focus on getting enough voters to win. Let’s get back to trying to win every single vote. My experience as a progressive in a red state has taught me this: Voters will forgive you for disagreeing with them on something so long as they know you are genuine in your belief and that they are included in your vision for the country. Democrats need to get back to doing that again.

Jason Kander is Missouri’s Secretary of State and was a Democratic nominee for Senate in 2016.

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