These Democrats have found a progressive community at college with the GW College Democrats, but not everyone had that luxury in their own community - check out their experiences growing up in red America.
I was born and raised in Central Pennsylvania, specifically in a suburb in Cumberland County, which is predominantly Republican and conservative. Our local government is Republican, and for the first time in twenty-eight years, our state went red in the presidential election. As someone who has identified as a Democrat her entire life, my opinions often conflicted with those of adults in my life and those of my peers. Many people in my county come from families that always vote Republican, regardless of the implications of the party’s policies. This past year, my high school held a Trump rally, sparking a great deal of debate and controversy. And apart from when I am with my liberal group of friends, talking about politics back home is bound to lead to disagreement. Despite constantly facing opposition as a Democrat, growing up in a conservative area taught me to stand up for what I believe in, even when the majority does not agree. It also taught me how to separate people from their political beliefs or at least try to listen to their perspective, which I often had to do to have good relationships with those around me. Upon coming to GW, I found a large community of people who have the same political views as me and who encourage each other’s political pursuits. Being surrounded by these people has made me more confident to express my ideas, regardless of the inevitability of opposition and criticism.
Kansas City, KS and Fort Worth, TX
I grew up in suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, and lived there until I was 13. At 13, I moved to a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas. I have gone to church all my life, and from third to sixth grade went to a small Christian school. My brother had a BB gun in my hand before I could ride a bike, I am part of a family-values family, and I am religious.
I am also unapologetically liberal.
My mom hates when I say this, but I call myself the “black sheep” of our extended family. I am more than loved and included, but when it comes to politics, my corner is pretty empty (I have suspicions of a few people who shared my views, but unlike me, they’re not the loud ones).
Living in deeply Republican states was hard. Even in high school, I was surrounded by people parroting back whatever Fox News or their parents told them.
I first realized that I thought differently when I was 11—at the start of Obama’s first campaign. Sure, I like Obama because my parents liked him, but I was always a politics nerd, watching the news to actually hear what Obama had to say.
I upset some people at my Christian school. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good education provided by good people. But I’m the reason the sixth grade class had to have a talk about people having different beliefs. I’m the girl who got in trouble for wearing an Obama pin on her uniform. I’m the reason some girl’s mom called mine, furious that I told her daughter, “I don’t want to ever vote for a Republican.”
People got mad at me. People made fun of me. And it sucked. It sucked having almost everyone in my small world think I had lost my morals. But my convictions were stronger than my hurt, and it was easy to stay strong when I had facts and all some kid had to say was, “Obama wants any pregnant women to get an abortion.”
Kansas was a little better. Sure, my state was run by people who apparently think funding education is stupid and represented by people who voted for guns on college campuses. But when I joined debate, I finally found some people my own age who shared my views, and honestly, it was incredible.
I knew I wasn’t alone in my beliefs, but in states as red as Texas and Kansas, it sure felt like it. Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964, and Texas not since 1976. Sometimes it felt like no matter how loud I yelled, my blue voice would always be drowned out by a sea of red.
At GW, I finally feel like I am in a place where my politics are accepted. Through College Dems, I have found an entire group of people whose views make me feel accepted, not like an outsider. I have found friends who actually want to talk about politics. I’ve even found friends who might be more liberal than I am, something I never thought could happen (and something I’m sure the kids I upset all those years back didn’t think could happen, either). But I’ve finally found a place where my voice can be echoed, not drowned out.
Being around people who think differently than you do isn’t something to shy away from. You won’t grow nearly as much if you’re only around people who mirror you. I know, I lived most of my life surrounded by people who mirrored each other. But being around some people who see the world like you do, who want the same things as you, is one of the most liberating feelings in the entire world.
I still read the bible, and I still go to church. I still spend time with my whole family. I still hang a Texas flag in my room.
And I am still unapologetically liberal.
Cedar Park, TX
My family isn't particularly political, but they definitely consider themselves conservatives. I was always fascinated by current events when I was younger and asked my dad to put the news on every morning when I was eating breakfast. Naturally, he put on Fox News, so that's what I watched. I considered myself a Republican for a long time because that's how I was raised; I remember talking to my friends in 8th grade about how "Democrat" was an ugly word. A good way to insult someone was to call them a Democrat. But my sophomore year, I got a new laptop and the internet homepage was MSNBC. Every afternoon when I got home from school, I'd read every single article on the home page before starting my homework. That led to me getting more involved in learning about government and politics (luckily as I got more interested, I started reading more news sources than just MSNBC). By the end of my sophomore year, my family could tell I was becoming a liberal. They gave me a hard time, but were never hateful towards me and my beliefs. If anything, I think I made them a lot more moderate because I helped educate them on issues they otherwise didn't know much about. My mom texts me often with just the sentence, "tell me about ____," and the blank is some current controversial event. She calls me her human Google.
When I came out as gay after my junior year of high school, they became even more moderate. My mom and dad have both told me, "It's really easy to have opinions about issues and opinions until it becomes personal." Honestly, I'm really thankful that I grew up in a conservative family. It's easy to write off people with different beliefs than you, but you get a lot more insight into why people believe what they do when you have close relationships with them. Sure, sometimes I get pretty angry when my distant uncle posts a meme about Obama being the Kenyan anti-Christ, but that's not most people on the right, at least from my experience. I'm proud to be a Democrat, and I'm thankful for a family that listens when I share my beliefs, even if mine are different from the ones they have.
My upstate New York suburb’s 2015 local elections should have warned me to put less emotional stock in Hillary Clinton’s win, as the results of those races perfectly exemplified what was to come in 2016. Our town supervisor, Jack Moore, came into his reelection race with 4 federal EEOC complaints against him for sexual harassment against town employees. As a local business owner, he approached one of our local high school students and called him an “n-word f-word,” referring to his race and sexual orientation, among many other well-documented instances of racism, stalking, and aggression. Despite these facts, and the widely public nature of them, our town voted to reelect him against the Democratic candidate, whose career of service to our town and its institutions was dismissed for Jack Moore’s supposed “principles” as a businessman. If nothing else, growing up blue against a backdrop of red (including my own family) has motivated me to fight for Americans who just don’t seem to use their votes to fight for themselves.
When I was four, I came home from my first day at preschool and said two things: 1. "There is no showing panties at school" and 2. "Why are we the only family with a Gore Lieberman sticker?" Both of those facts remained true for my entire time living in Houston, Texas. I grew up in an incredibly Democratic family. My mom and I protested the Iraq War on a bridge over the busiest freeway in Houston when I was 5. I went to The Million Mom March on Washington when I could barely walk. I went to the Gore Lieberman Democratic National Convention. I had an Emily's List bib. You get the point. But, despite being raised in an incredibly Democratic immediate family, my extended family and friends were as conservative as they could get. Rather than changing me and turning me into a #MAGA Trump Train Choo Choo kid, however, it made me passionate about speaking my mind and fighting for what I believe in. I wanted people to know that I did not feel as though they did because I wanted people to know I believed in equality and love. In fourth grade we did a project about the election and I was assigned to do a report on Mike Huckabee and I wore an Obama shirt so that no one would think I liked him. I constantly argued with my friends from a young age (I got into an argument about evolution with a girl in my 5th grade class), but it made me never afraid to stand up for myself. Although I did get blocked by a few people I grew up with in the most recent election and have gone a little insane arguing with my family, I'm very thankful that I learned to fight for what I believe in. I am also thankful that I learned to not show panties at school.
I grew up about an hour outside of Chicago in a village named Oswego. Our county, Kendall County, has been around since 1841, but we’ve only voted for a Democratic president once -- Barack Obama in 2008. Being a young progressive in this area was always a thrilling challenge. Every time a current event came up in class, it was me against all my classmates (and sometimes my teacher). I really enjoyed opportunities to practice effective communication of President Obama’s policies and the platform of the Democratic Party. This practice gave me communication skills I use everyday and I’m very grateful to Oswego for them.
Mostly, though, I’m grateful that Oswego gave me no choice but to learn how to listen. You can’t take on entire classrooms of conservatives for years without listening just once. I’ve become especially grateful for this quality in the past year. Instead of jumping to say something that might divide, my red home taught me to listen for something that can unite.
It didn’t take me long to realize that most of my fellow GW liberals came from a different kind of place than I did. Coming from the Deep South, I had always been the blue dot in a sea of red. I was the only progressive that many of my classmates had regular contact with. Whenever a Democrat would do or say something even remotely ‘controversial’, it became my duty to do my best to defend our platform and values. On a micro-level, I had to be the face of the Democratic Party.
When Donald Trump was elected, a lot of people here could not even begin to comprehend how he was able to win or how someone could bring themselves to vote for him. That was not the case for me. Given my background, I could understand the way the Trump voter thought. I knew what their concerns, fears, and hopes were. And why they thought the way they did, despite my fundamental disagreements. This understanding has helped me to grow as an American over the past few months. Growing up in a place where everyone thinks differently than you gives you a knack for bipartisanship and a greater appreciation for those who can achieve it. I believe that my red-state childhood has prepared me to be a stronger, more effective progressive that is willing to seek ways to bridge divides with those who don’t see eye to eye with me. And I think that we need that kind of spirit now more than ever, if we want to make any kind of progress over the course of these next four years.
This November, as a room full of students sat at an event that was supposed to be joyous, jubilant, historical, came to realize Donald J. Trump would be our next president, I could not help but stand in disbelief.
As my friends stood beside me, entrenched with fear and the general misunderstanding that came with a Trump-Pence victory, my confusion began to fade.
Think of Georgia, I said to myself, and suddenly the victory, the rhetoric, and the overwhelming support all made sense. I know Donald Trump.
No, I’ve never actually met the man, the myth, the idiot himself, but I’ve encountered what he stands for my whole life.
Growing up in Atlanta offers me a specific perspective—most of my immediate family is liberal, my school was called “the hippies on a hill”, and the city votes blue. Midtown homes are lined with rainbow flags, downtown is home to Coca-Cola, a liberal leaning company, and our culture is built around rap and hip-hop.
Drive ten miles out of the city? It’s a completely different story. Every time my family and I would visit extended relatives, I would say the same, inane thing: “I would never live here.” At a young age, I was uncomfortable with the fact that houses in my state proudly displayed the Confederate Flag, that home schooling children for religious reasons was commonplace, and that the very mountain which I had climbed on a field trip was battleground for what someone had called, “The War of Northern Aggression.”
The discomfort I frequently felt as a young kid, trying to reconcile the America I knew with the one just ten miles from my house, came back to me on November 8th. I felt disappointed and disgusted and unsafe. Still, if I can learn anything from this feeling and the experiences I have grown up with, it is that turning away from discomfort gets you nowhere. Of course, people should prioritize themselves and their wellbeing- I abhor every wrong and dangerous thing Donald Trump’s administration does, and I fully intend on fighting back. But I’ve learned not to turn my back on the parts of America that do not sit right with me. At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, they will still be there.
2016 hurt. Badly. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States proved to be one of the most earth shattering events I, and so many of us, had ever experienced. It felt as though our country was entirely different from the one we had woken up to on the morning of November 8th. With the pain came a whole flurry of emotion. It felt numb, dreadful, and infuriating. I went to bed that night feeling empty inside, but when I woke up the next day, well I still felt empty inside. Campus, was, as a classmate described, “Like a place where everyone had just watched their dog get hit by a truck.” But, I wanted answers, I wanted to know where I went wrong, what had I missed.
The thing was, I knew exactly what I’d missed because six months before I wouldn’t have been nearly as shocked by the outcome. Six months before, I had been the one desperately saying, “Don’t underestimate him” and, “Seriously, he could win” not because I had any kind of superior intellect or foresight, but because I was seeing it happen with my own eyes. Coming from a community that represents the bedrock of Donald Trump’s victory, I had every reason to expect the outcome we got, but after a few months in DC, the election hit my like a ton of bricks. I’d changed, my outlook had changed, and I was surprised by things I should have expected. Now, I understand that some aren’t quite fond of talk of “the bubble”, this place where we have lost touch with millions of everyday Americans, but as someone who lives both sides of the bubble, who has travelled in and out several times this semester, it’s real, at least to some extent. Perhaps my hometown lives in its own bubble, that’s a perfectly valid viewpoint, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my time at GW and in Washington, D.C. had a dramatic impact on me.
As a lifelong Democrat, but also as someone who is incredibly proud of where I come from, it disturbed me to see how much I and how quickly I had forgotten. Ever since the election, I’ve spent countless hours reacquainting myself with home and with an increasingly different world. I cannot claim that I have all of the answers, but I do believe that now, more than ever, my own personal experiences as a Democrat from Deep Red Trump Country, are incredibly valuable, that they might help others to better understand what happened to us that night. Maybe I might help others come to reconcile with those who voted for Donald Trump. Maybe I can’t, but for myself, with close friends and church family who voted for him, choosing not to accept and not to forgive is a luxury I do not have. Ultimately, all of us at GW Dems bring unique and incredibly valuable perspectives from all walks of life, from all corners of this country. So, here’s mine. I hope it helps. I hope it opens windows and I hope it breaks down the toughest, most painful barriers.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I usually just say Ohio and nothing more. Of course, the next question is almost always, “Oh, where in Ohio?” The answer they are likely expecting is Columbus or Cleveland or Cincinnati (Our three C’s), something familiar, but what can I tell them? Well, I say… Northwest Ohio. Honestly, that’s about the best I can do. Northwest Central Ohio is far too weird to say and let’s be honest here, you probably haven’t heard of Kenton, Ohio and you likely never will again. The common response is “Oh! Canton, I’ve heard of that, with the NFL Hall of Fame! Nope, Kenton, with a K.” But that’s it, home sweet home, Kenton, OH. Population just over 8,000. Nearest supermarket that isn’t a Wal-Mart? About 40 miles in any direction. It is, fundamentally, a very small town in one of Ohio’s smaller counties. Kenton is exactly that worn out old line about the Rust Belt community on the decline, where factories shipped out and didn’t come back. We are a community that was hit hard by the 2008 recession, we have a median household income of $29,000, 54% of our students are on free or reduced lunch programs, and we are a casualty of the Heroin crisis. And, in 2016, my county, Hardin County, gave 71.1% of the vote to Donald J. Trump. Now, for rural America that may not come across as shocking, but in 2008 and 2012, McCain and Romney received 59% and 60.4% respectively. Trump received a 10% bump and while I cannot say it is a statistical certainty, the numbers do indicate that roughly half of those who voted for President Obama also voted for Donald Trump. In my community, more yard signs went up for Trump than ever had for previous Republican candidates. But, why? Why, was my town, home to people I dearly love and am proud to share a community with, so kean to support Donald Trump? After all, without President Obama’s guidance, communities like mine would have fallen off the cliff, already so vulnerable in 2008, and things have been getting visibly better since then. As a community struggling with poverty, Democratic programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Food Stamps are widely and invariably crucial. While we are an important agricultural community, the city of Kenton is heavily working class, still seeking what factory jobs remain. Yet, there is such a strong GOP bend and Trump became a source of massive support.
Before I continue, I should stress, I am relatively well off for my community and I am technically an outsider. The son of a college professor and a pastor/chaplain, I was born overseas and came to Ohio at the age of four, Kenton at the age of six. I cannot claim to fully understand what so many in community have experienced. But that other experience is exactly what has emboldened support for Trump. The recovery has not felt like much of a recovery. Yes, unemployment is down to below even the national average, but the jobs just aren’t the same. It used to be that, for the many who chose to enter the workforce after high school, factory jobs were far more attainable. One could begin work at the factory and live their life, climbing the ladder and earning their livelihood relatively comfortably. The new jobs are far less stable and lucrative. Many families now raise children on McDonald’s or Wal-Mart salaries and when new factory jobs open up, they go very quickly. The Bernie Sanders line about “working longer hours, for lower wages” couldn’t be more true in Kenton. So, when we Democrats talk about the progress we’ve made, the numbers simply aren’t tangible evidence for those many struggling families and when Donald Trump promises to bring back jobs, to strike down America’s trade deals, these families already have their backs to the wall, they do not know where else to look. I’ve heard the argument made frequently that mechanization and modernization is far more harmful to factory jobs than trade deals like NAFTA and I fully accept that that may be true, but then what do you tell working class families? “Sorry, tough luck”? If we don’t have positive answers for them as Democrats, we aren’t doing our jobs right. I can’t help, but feel that we completely failed to appreciate the struggles of the working class rust belt and certainly failed to provide solutions to those struggles.
Unfortunately, understanding why my fellow “Kentonites” voted for Trump didn’t exactly make it much easier when the time came to return home for break. The election had still caused me incredible emotional pain and worse, I’d seen the consequences of the election on others. Hate crimes had risen and the Trump transition hadn’t proved to be any bit better than what I had expected and it was difficult to separate the people I know so well from the man they voted for. But that is exactly why devoting time to understanding was important for my own healing and for internally reconciling with my community. Regardless of how they voted, I hold firmly to the belief that they are fundamentally good, honest, and accepting people. Yes, at first and maybe second glance my community may seem like a caricature of conservative America. Many rail against things that are foreign to them; against Islam, against gay marriage, and against immigrants, but honestly, it’s all talk. When actually faced with people from the very communities they rail against, Kentonites cannot help but act more open and friendly than anyone would expect. When faced with a Muslim exchange student from Norway, they saw her for her humanity, the same for a student for Iraq. They did not cast out the openly gay student I graduated with. Not only do they share a community with Mexican immigrant families, they play on the same sports teams as their children and frequent their businesses.
I will not naively claim that they are perfect. There are some who choose to wave the Confederate Flag from their trucks and in front of the County Courthouse , but the vast majority of us are embarrassed by these men. It is not an issue of what is in their hearts, it is simply an issue of what they haven’t experienced. In a community that is overwhelmingly white and Christian, other parts of America seem very much foreign, different from the America that they can tangibly see in front of them.
After meeting up with several of my high school friends over Christmas break, I drove back into town with one of them and he said point blank that he voted for Trump. It was not a surprise to me and all I could think to muster was, “That’s alright.” What else do I say to a longtime friend? But he said something else, that initially angered and frustrated me, but after some thought, that has opened my eyes to a big problem with us Democrats. He mentioned that a college friend had brought up white privilege and my friend’s only response was, “Yea, that thing that doesn’t exist.” Now, to be absolutely clear, I do believe that white privilege is a real and tangible problem facing America. I do not doubt its existence for a moment. However, instead of just labelling my own friend as a bigot, I tried to understand him. I came to the question? that while white privilege is real and clear, how can individuals from an all white community come to understand that? In Kenton, most everyone is white and the vast majority are struggling equally. To hear Democrats talking about privilege doesn’t come across as a message for better understanding other Americans, it comes across as a message of, “Your problems aren’t problems.” Yet, for them, these problems are they only problems they can physically see and have physically experienced. Kenton is a community where underemployment is real and debilitating. It is a place where most of my high school classmates personally knew an individual who died of a heroin overdose. Maybe, just maybe as Democrats we can at least reacquaint ourselves with the struggles of rural America. Accepting the concerns of the Trump voter doesn’t mean we have to turn back on the problems of the rest of America, but as Democrats we know? accept that writing off parts of America is fundamentally wrong. And I do believe we need to reevaluate ourselves. We rail against racial language, yet I rarely if ever hear my fellow Democrats railing against terms such as “White Trash,” or hick, or redneck, or hillbilly. We need to examine our own role in creating Trump’s America, in producing societies so marginalized that they chose a candidate as incompetent, inflammatory, and damaging as Donald J. Trump.
The opinions of individual writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the organizational stance of the GW College Democrats. DemsBlog is committed to serving as a platform for a diverse range of ideas, opinions, and experiences.