Against the currents

I recently watched the remarkable documentary film “Knock Down the House” about four courageous and inspirational women who ran for Congress against all odds in 2018. The movie hit me like a ton of bricks. So much of what they were saying and shown doing in the film mirrored my own experience as a candidate the same year.

Three of the four lost their elections. The one who won — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — did so in a shocking upset. The last poll in the race showed her trailing her opponent Joe Crowley, one of the top-ranking Democrats in the House, by 35 percentage points. A particularly poignant moment in the film shows an anguished Ocasio-Cortez coming to terms with her likely fate on the eve of the election, wondering aloud if she had let down all the people who had done so much on her behalf. I tried my best to fight back tears, but they streamed down my cheeks. Her pain was mine too.

As I watched AOC sort through her emotions, I thought about the more than 3,000 people who worked so incredibly hard to get me elected governor. I thought about one in particular from the La Crosse area who volunteered his evenings and weekends even as he was working more than 40 hours a week at his paying job to make ends meet. As the election approached, he donated his two weeks of paid vacation for the year to work full-time on the campaign. Like Ocasio-Cortez, the feeling that I had let him and so many others down tormented me. I thought I had worked through those emotions, but watching the film made me realize I had just stuffed them in some psychological sock drawer. The movie forced that drawer open.

I thought about the promises I made to myself when I was being pushed to run. I promised myself I would do it the right way, win or lose. I wouldn’t sell out to big money interests. I wouldn’t get down in the gutter and throw mud on opponents. I would focus on what I’m for. I could handle losing an election, but didn’t want to lose myself. I did stay true to myself throughout the experience. But given the outcome, the movie made me ponder whether those promises had been principled or selfish.

I wrote Blue Jeans in High Places because I sensed our country was headed toward a dark and dangerous place, and was fortunate to get it published in 2014. I had some ideas about how we might change the way we think and talk about politics and act as citizens to help us avert disaster. Trump was not yet in the White House. He was not yet even a candidate for president at the time. But conditions were ripe for the rise of the kind of ultra-nationalist, fear mongering, immigrant scapegoating politics of division and exclusion Trump embodies.

The book was no academic exercise, for I am no academic. It was intended to be a blueprint, and blueprints are worthless unless they are used to build something. Blue Jean Nation was that something. Blue Jean Nation has tried to be an antidote for the rural vs. urban and left vs. right divides that are ripping America apart. In today’s political environment, few seem to be looking for antidotes. Most hunger for more righteous indignation and condemnation of the “other side.” Choosing not to feed the beast and satisfy these appetites means swimming against some powerful currents.

My upbringing and life experiences have led me to believe — and to say over and over as a candidate for office and as an author and as keeper of Blue Jean Nation’s flame — that we are all in this together and we’ve got to look out for each other, and our politics need to reflect that.

Blue Jean Nation has not proven to be a sufficient antidote to the political poisons Americans have ingested, so the search for an effective remedy must continue. And if that involves swimming upstream, so be it. Only dead fish go with the flow.