Nine words that haunt me

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From the moment Texas was called for Donald Trump I’ve been haunted by nine words echoing in my mind like a rock climber’s calls for help cascading off cliff walls. 

I was at a bar on Rainey Street with Reed Galen, who would go on to found The Lincoln Project. It was summer 2016, and Galen was already among a group of experienced conservative operatives recoiling at the thought of Donald Trump leading the party that put Ronald Reagan in the White House. 

I was expressing with confidence bordering on certainty, as a liberal would in those pre-disaster days, that Hillary Clinton would peel off Republican votes across the country, keeping the White House blue for at least another four years.

Galen looked at me not with disbelief or laughter, but an even handed expression that seemed more appropriate for a father gently telling his son that, no, the Cowboys would not be going to the playoffs this year.

Reed looked at me with an epic poker face and said the nine words that I’ve been losing sleep over.

“You people don’t know how to talk to conservatives.”

I blanched at the suggestion. You have to understand, you see, I cut my teeth on Democratic campaigns by organizing rural and conservative districts and counties. I had stood on front porches across the country and swung conservatives to Democratic candidates. We knew more than Reed thought.

Four years later, as we work to reconcile how exactly we came so close but fell so short in Texas, those words seem especially prophetic to me.

There is a lot to be said for the progressive candidates who carried the torch for the Democratic Party across Texas in 2020. They engaged and empowered a new generation of voters previous campaigns and candidates could only dream of tapping into. They ran effective, inspiring campaigns Democrats can be proud of. 

The only problem is that our congressional and legislative candidates were forced to do battle with a readily apparent Achilles heel. In district after district, Republicans deployed the most devious combinations of art and science you could imagine, sawing districts into shapes that would get your kid a D in geometry, easily. 

They didn’t just draw Republican districts, they drew districts filled with reliable Republican voters and sporadic Democrats, providing a powerful hedge against wave elections. Even in years like 2018, where everything went right for Democrats, their advantage was irreparably baked in.

Even understanding that dynamic doesn’t help us understand what happened in South Texas, where Donald Trump defied expectations and overperformed virtually every Republican in history, including a surge among Latino voters.

What we’re finding as we dive into the numbers is that Democratic performance tipped not on a political axis in South Texas, but a cultural one. We didn’t have a full understanding of the perspective those voters possess, and we lost votes as a result. 

Perhaps it is one of the more pervasive and toxic impacts of the Trump presidency that we stopped hearing each other. The divisions in our country have become so deep, tempers so frayed, that we stopped talking to each other, and instead have spent four years talking past each other, if we were even talking to each other at all. 

These musings aren’t to suggest that we should give up on progress or move to the middle. Joe Biden ran for President on one of the most progressive national policy platforms we’ve ever had and still managed to attract a broad and diverse coalition that defied political labels.

But what I would like to suggest, as respectfully as possible, is that the way to win in Texas is by replicating a coalition that rejects political definition. It’s what made Beto O’Rourke successful in 2018, and the truth is that we will not win back the Trump 2020 voter in South Texas if we don’t make a better effort to understand their lived experience and the issues they worry to death over at their kitchen table. 

It isn’t something that will happen overnight, but if we make the right investments in prolonged organizing and deep canvassing, where the emphasis isn’t placed on the number or contacts you make but on building meaningful relationships and dialogue with voters, we can start to make heads or tails of how our fellow Texans and Americans think and feel, and we can find the common ground between us. 

And my choice of words here is deliberate: we need to find the common ground between us, not the middle ground. Progressive policies have repeatedly proven to be popular when we educate voters on the real impacts those policies have. 

As we face an incredibly important legislative session, Democrats are already filing bills to expand Medicaid, address school finance, and legalize and regulate marijuana among other progressive priorities. We can remain true to our values while seeing and hearing our neighbors, and we must do both to succeed in the future. 

But the first and most important part of that work is addressing the way that we see each other, and the way that we speak to each other. We begin that work by remembering what our grandmothers and elementary school teachers always told us.

The good lord gave us two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak. As Texas Democrats find our way up after the 2020 election cycle, we would be wise to keep that in mind. 

Photo: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images

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