In the last few days and weeks I have encountered a terrific series of stories about our country and this election, about how youth are becoming more involved and about how rural people are being ignored. On NPR yesterday I listened to a fantastic discussion of what a next-generation government (namely, an Obama one) might look like, led by the author of a book called Wikinomics. This "Government 2.0" sounded a lot like democracy, and it made me smile.
I am synthesizing all these ideas, looking for the connections. They exist, I am sure of that.
First, there is no question that Barack Obama has tapped into the power of youth unlike any presidential candidate in recent history. I experienced that first-hand on Iowa Caucus night back in January. The young people in the Guttenberg Municipal Building that night were decidedly Obama supporters and not only that, they were leaders. Three young precinct captains, all of them female college students, wore Obama t-shirts. They were the ones rallying the troops, standing on chairs to count voters, heading to other circles to find potential defectors for the Obama delegation. This was not their first night working on the campaign and it would not be the last; one of them, Liz Smith, has landed a job with the Obama campaign for the general election. I hear she starts in July. This scene, of young people working for Obama, has continued to play out across the country:
According to CNN exit polls in the primary states, practically every state - even those the senator fails to win - reflect this trend: In Georgia, for instance, 81 percent of voters age 18-24 cast ballots for Obama. In Wisconsin, it was 79 percent; Utah, 70 percent; Missouri, 69 percent; Alabama, 66 percent; Illinois, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, 65 percent; Louisiana, 66 percent; Tennessee, 56 percent; and New York, 55 percent.Young people, of course, have different ideas about how government should work than the older people who have traditionally held power. The Government 2.0 discussion highlighted many of these points: that today's young people are more willing to tolerate radical ideas, if only as a starting point for a continuing discussion; that young people tend to see good government as grass roots, with plenty of collaboration, rather than a top-down hierarchy; and, ideologically, young people care far more about healing the environment, finding jobs, making college affordable and ending the Iraq war than they do about fixing Social Security, outlawing abortion and passing constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage.
So what does all this have to do with rural America? In this terrific story by Dee Davis, who once drove John Edwards around rural Kentucky, one can see that the concerns of rural voters are similar to the concerns of youth: the economy, the war and education. Davis correctly and gently criticizes Obama for not actively campaigning in Kentucky (he went only to Louisville and Lexington, the only two counties he won in that state last night). If Obama is to win rural America in November, as some suggest he can, he will have to reach out directly to the 60 million Americans who live outside the city. As Davis notes, and as Thomas Frank pointed out before her, rural voters admire politicians like John Edwards as much or more as they admire Pat Buchanan or George W. Bush. If Obama asks them for their vote, and offers solutions to that great American conundrum, rural poverty, the voters of Appalachia and other rural areas could send that blue state-red state map packing.
Having lived in rural America for the vast majority of my 27 years, I can say that rural Americans, virtually all of them, would appreciate Government 2.0 a lot more than what they've gotten so far. I saw a young man from Kentucky on the news yesterday, sitting with his family on a porch and speaking in a deep drawl. He said that all three candidates are the same, that government won't change until a poor person gets elected. Yet, I also read this terrific story about John Kennedy campaigning for the presidency in West Virginia in 1960:
Kennedy was shaking hands with coal miners in the state one day, when one grizzled old miner held onto his hand and wouldn't let go. "Is it true you're a millionaire's son who never worked a day in your life?" the miner asked.
Kennedy gulped and said, "Yeah, I guess so."
The miner slapped him on the back and said, "Lemme tell you, son, you ain't missed a thing."
Rural Americans, like all of us — especially this generation of young people — want more than anything to be involved, to be part of the solution. Whatever the movement is, if there's a good person in charge, we want to know that he or she knows us and cares about us and will offer a helping hand. In return, we'll do our part. Call it Government 2.0, call it democracy, or call it connecting with the American people. That's what the next president will have to do. It's a connection worth making in every part of this wonderful country.