“When did you become so liberal?”
The question, posed to me in early 2015, by a long-time former associate, took me by surprise. I admired and respected his insight and ability to recognize core issues and generate bipartisan support on every issue we worked on, which benefited agriculture. He had been like a mentor to me since we first met.
My response; when did you become so partisan and super conservative? I have never changed, and I have been a moderate conservative my entire adult life. That day, our phone conversation ended without resolution.
The political environment within our nation changed, however. Instead of talking to political opponents and finding ways to overcome barriers so legislation could move forward, people are isolating themselves in like-minded social groups. They speak within an echo chamber and challenge anyone who dares to break away.
Media has played a big role in this isolation, especially the extreme versions of broadcast and print media that heighten suspicions of political opponents and use scare tactics to anger their fan base. Extremist celebrities such as Alex Jones, the voice of InfoWars, Rush Limbaugh on talk radio and Sean Hannity on the Fox television network, plus a number of minor print and talk radio voices, all have loyal followers in farm country.
Fear-based politics is a great motivator for further isolation. Fear of people who are “not like us”; we are white, and our way of life is becoming a shrinking minority as “these” folks are moving in.
They look different, smell different, and they wear funny clothes, according to this fear-based media. We apply labels to them: lazy, illegals, criminals. We are told they want to rape and kill our women and children. Or, if they disagree with us on political issues, then they are left-wing, communist or socialist lovers who want to destroy our way of life.
Years ago, a prominent voice in farm country, one whose name is synonymous with agricultural policy, said, “There are two ways to govern effectively. One is by a democratic process of compromise, by reaching across the political divide and talking it out. The other way is by the barrel of a gun.”
Without submitting his name, my guess is the majority of readers will instantly recognize who said it. My point here is we’ve parted ways from listening to folks who know what that quote means. Rather, we are listening to folks who want to destroy our democratic republic and remake it to conform to their way of thinking. We appear to be willing to engage in confrontational tactics that place our nation closer to the brink of a culturally motivated civil war.
It is time we move away from the brink and renew our efforts to reach across the political divide and find a peaceful solution. I know it is possible. We accomplished it before. I was part of the group bringing together then-Congressman Jerry Moran and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro on a farm in Central Kansas. Who knew a conservative and a liberal had anything in common?
We can take heart in the example shown to us by the Ag Committees in both the Senate and the House, and we can strive to remember that if they can work together, we can too. Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Mike Conaway, R-Texas, are role models of how to make it work.
Just a couple more suggestions to round this discussion out:
To you folks like myself who are conservative and members of the Republican Party: Reach out to people who may have different ideas about governing this nation. Engage them in meaningful conversation. Get to know them and find common ground. End the negative conversation you hear in coffee shops and in social media.
Verify all information sent to you by anyone. Do not perpetuate the misinformation that often comes from questionable sources. Listen to other media to receive a wide range of perspectives. Then form your own opinion. Be supportive of inviting political opponents to an on-farm visit and have a real conversation about food, agriculture, the environment, climate change, and discuss what sustainability means, not only from your perspective, but listen to theirs.
To you more liberal, social minded folks who may be in a minority in farm country but are nonetheless present: This is your moment to rise and shine, not alone, but to reach across the aisle and find people who will listen to you. Show them you aren’t the evil “commie-loving” liberal that extreme media has said you are.
Invite Democratic members of Congress to our state, along with Republican counterparts who are willing to risk their careers while doing the right thing, and let’s show the rest of this great country that compromise on policy issues can produce good results.Penner is a Marion County farmer and past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.