A little could go a long way

In the year and half since Blue Jean Nation formed, I’ve been given a great blessing. I’ve had a chance to travel to every nook and cranny of my home state of Wisconsin and have been given the opportunity to listen to and share thoughts with those I’ve met along the way.

Here’s what I’ve found: We have a lot more in common than we think we do. But we’re quicker to see each other as enemies than we used to be. We judge each other more harshly than we did not so very long ago. Folks in one part of the state feel misunderstood by people in other parts of the state, but also are quite willing to jump to conclusions about the personal shortcomings or moral failings of the people in those other places.

Empathy is in short supply. As a society, we seem to have forgotten the wisdom of not judging others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard someone in an urban setting say rural people are stupid and are voting against their own interests. My stock answer is that neither is true, it’s just that people in the cities see rural interests differently than those living in the country see their own interests. Want to know how rural residents see their interests? Ask them. But truly understanding their answer requires a sincere effort to relate to their sense of place and way of life and unique challenges.

After I spoke to one of those urban audiences, a woman told me point-blank that the reason rural people are voting the way they are is because they are all racists. If that’s true, I responded, then how do you explain the election results in 2008? Dozens of rural Wisconsin counties helped elect the nation’s first black president. And if bigotry is why rural voters choose as they do, how do you explain the 2012 elections? Not only did large swaths of rural Wisconsin vote to reelect President Obama, they also helped elect an open lesbian to the U.S. Senate. Not many white male heterosexual Democrats were chosen to represent rural areas in the state legislature or other offices, but they were OK with the black guy and the lesbian.

Bigotry obviously exists in rural America and every other part of the country. As a child, I saw the white supremacist Posse Comitatus literature regularly distributed in my area but yet voters there were electing Democrats to Congress and the state legislature at that time. Today it’s a different story. In the last election for governor, my hometown had the distinction of giving the Republican incumbent his biggest percentage margin of victory of any community in the state. Something other than race or wedge issues like guns or abortion has to be behind this political realignment. People were just as socially conservative and just as fond of guns and hunting when they were electing Democrats in my youth as they are now. Making sense of changing party allegiances requires getting beyond stereotypes.

When I visit small towns, I run into more stereotypes. I regularly hear that people in the cities are elitist, economically privileged and morally decadent. I hear bitter complaints about how the politicians are catering to the cities at the expense of small towns and the rural way of life. What I hear leads me to believe the rural-urban divide is wider than it’s ever been in my lifetime.

Politicians have undeniably played a big role in making this so. They’ve fanned the flames of mistrust and sowed the seeds of hostility as part of a cynical and self-serving strategy of divide and conquer. But we don’t need to go where they want to lead us. We can choose to tear down the walls between us and replace them with bridges. We can choose to promote understanding and thereby break down stubborn stereotypes. It starts with holding off on judging others until we’ve taken a good long walk in their shoes. A little empathy could go a long way.