How the other half lives

I set up a Storify post to get you caught up on recent events and controversy surrounding town halls. You may want to read it before proceeding.

I can’t articulate what motivated me to leave the life I knew in New York City, but I did move to rural Oklahoma at 19 years old. I was afraid to do it, but I did it anyway.

View of the wing on my flight to Oklahoma in 2006
Flying to Oklahoma in 2006 – Photo by John Hernandez

I wanted a change of pace, I guess. I had grown tired of the hour-long train commutes from my house in the Bronx to my high school in Manhattan. The sense of feeling anonymous in a city of millions wore on me. For many reasons, my life didn’t feel normal and I wanted to escape to a place with some semblance of “normalcy.” So I left for Ada, Oklahoma, which welcomes visitors with a sign that says, “Home of Blake Shelton.”

The fear that I faced upon arriving in Oklahoma became a guarded reluctance to engage its people then an open acceptance of our differences. I learned to love Mexican food and made some of my best friends there. I met Oklahomans that were unlike any people I had ever met in New York. I didn’t agree with many of them on some issues, but I recognized the cogency of their worldview because I immersed myself in their world.

I’m reminded of this episode in my life as I witness the recent controversy over Democratic activists at town halls. I’m reminiscing about the humanity of all the people I met in that Oklahoma town of around 17,000. God-fearing, well-meaning people who were as receptive to a relative alien like me as I was to them. They cast over 65% of their votes for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Again, if you need a refresher on how controversial town halls have become, I created this Storify to get you caught up.

Like the public officials at these town halls, I expected hostility from people who were so different from me. But I was surprised by the outcome of my time in Oklahoma, especially because I lived there when the Tea Party was on the rise. I made it, though, and now I feel that something constructive can come out of the town halls that have been so combative.

I know it’s not that simple for elected officials. Take Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision not to hold any town halls due to the heckling he’s likely to face. It’s too easy for me to say that he should attend his town halls based on my revelatory experience in Oklahoma. Yet I had no duty to move to Oklahoma, whereas there’s a good argument to be made that Rubio should have to face his constituents.

Coming to terms with the fact that people can vehemently disagree with you should not be so untenable that an elected official decides they’re going to hide from that reality. In other words, even if you expect hostility instead of decency, what right do you have to shy away when you’ve chosen this career? A career that comes with the expectation to represent and be your constituent’s better?

When U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas cited the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as a reason for not holding town halls she responded by telling him to “have some courage.” That speaks volumes about the escapist tendency of politicians. Democrats skipped town halls back in 2010, too.

To act like there are no lessons to be learned from town halls events is to disregard the rise of the Tea Party, the alt-right and the Trump presidency. Democrats are trying to have their new movement snowball into the gains that the right accumulated as a result of the Obama presidency. Though the road ahead isn’t predictable, it’s a definite possibility. For politicians who claim the mantle of populism when it’s useful, you would think that seeing the grassroots uproar caused by Trump’s nascent reign would have them entertaining all the possibilities.

In other words, even if elected officials see no ethical need to hold halls, they should recognize that history has a chance of passing them by if they form an inadequate response to a new movement. That’s what caught Democrats by surprise in the early morning hours of Nov. 9. 2016.

I’m wary of this cycle. When stakeholders view politics and the government like a zero-sum game, with winners and losers, then their ability to reason and compromise is diminished.

Media coverage portrays protesters as disregarding their own advice by not acting politely, the Indivisible Guide mentions politeness seven times, but drowning out the elected official in a chorus of boos is a more enduring scene. The politicians respond by lobbing accusations and refusing to hold town halls because they’re no longer facile, deferential events that will show them in a good light. Democrats hope the pendulum swings back in their favor in two, four or eight years even if it leaves approximately half the population up in arms again. Elected officials pray they’ve done enough to be reelected, but will probably be replaced with another perpetual campaigner if they lose. History repeats itself and I want to do something, but my inner conscience tells me, “Forget it, John. It’s American politics.”

Young protester after the end of the Women's March in Austin, Texas
Young protester after the end of the Women’s March in Austin, Texas – Photo by John Hernandez

It should not work this way. If a liberal immigrant from Colombia can grow up in New York and go debate his viewpoint at a Bible study in small-town Oklahoma, only to have the longstanding youth minister tell him that if Jesus were around he’d be exactly the kind of kid that son of God would want to talk to, then anything can happen.

It would require an epic check on the part of American culture to not fall for the traps it sets for itself. For example, if you’re someone who wants to continue treating politics like a zero-sum game, then brush up on your game theory and decide if going for the greatest gain is worth the potential massive loss (e.g. Republicans blindly supporting the questionable Trump agenda might lead to Democrats taking Congress in 2018).

If you’re tired of that, then it’s time for some lateral thinking and creative solutions. Follow the steps of the Democratic canvassers who are walking the streets with the intention of getting to know people instead of simply selling them on something. Question the status quo even if most your friends agree with it. Take the time to realize that the other side is not as weird, extreme or dumb as you think. Go to Oklahoma, San Francisco or East Texas and see if you can learn why people have learned to think differently than you.

It’s about being the bigger person even when the other side might want people who look like you deported.

Political discourse would be better off for it.

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