An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders from a White Southern Male

Dear Senator Sanders,

As a native of Georgia from a blue-collar background, I was greatly encouraged by your recent comments about reaching out to white working-class voters. Thank you for speaking the truth in your usual straightforward style.

I agree with you that the Democratic Party has an enormous amount of work to do, if it’s to build an appreciable presence outside of our nation’s urban areas. The first step to accomplishing this goal is to see Trump supporters as they truly are, their strengths as well as their weaknesses, their virtues as well as their vices.

As for me, I’m a moderate Democrat who currently lives in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. I’m surrounded by God-fearing, Trump-voting, gun-toting Baptists.

This causes me no concern or consternation. Most of my neighbors are wonderfully kind and hospitable people who are always ready to help someone in need.

They bear no resemblance to the stereotypes portrayed in films like Deliverance. They don’t fiddle on their front porch, sodomize city slickers, or dress up in bed sheets and burn crosses.

I’m quite the odd duck around here. I campaigned openly for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Yet nobody tried to lynch me.

Nobody vandalized the Democratic campaign signs I erected during the recent election either. They stayed in place until I took them down myself.

Nor did anyone around here go berserk when Trump lost the election. There were some heated verbal battles, but not the slightest hint of physical violence. We all managed to get along.

This is a side of Trump Country that the media routinely ignores, and that for me is the crux of the problem. In recent decades the Democrats have become the party of privilege. And one of the perks of privilege is to look down on people who work with their hands, believe in God, and hang their high school diplomas with pride on their living room walls.

As I write these words, I’m reminded of a particular acquaintance who routinely dismisses Trump voters as “heavily armed religious fanatics” one step away from declaring jihad.

Try though she might, she can’t understand why the people she denigrates aren’t tripping over their own feet to embrace her enlightened views.

It may have something to do with the fact that she considers the US flag a “fascist emblem” and the 4th of July a “monument to white supremacy.”

Yet at the same time she enjoys a comfortable living under the protection of the very same soldiers and police officers she spends her time denouncing.

This person despises white privilege but has yet to relinquish any of its advantages. She preaches tolerance but is absolutely intolerant of people unlike herself.

In other words, this acquaintance of mine is a self-serving, self-congratulatory hypocrite. She’s also the type of person that most people imagine when picturing the typical Democrat. Our current political stalemate will never resolve itself as long as this remains the case.

It hurts my heart to say these things, because I’ve seen firsthand how much Appalachia and the South have benefited from the Democratic Party’s progressive policies. Historically, FDR’s New Deal may be old news. But it’s a living and ever-present reality in my neck of the woods, where our ever-growing prosperity is directly due to the highways, hospitals, and hydroelectric dams built under the leadership of the 20th century’s greatest president.

In fact, it’s the example of FDR that drew me to the Democratic Party in the first place. One man, a New York patrician accustomed to privilege, saw the Southern people, with all of our manifold flaws, through eyes of compassion instead of contempt. He built the essential infrastructure that we sorely needed to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We owe everything to him and to his legacy.

So why aren’t more of us Democrats? Is it because we’re a bunch of inbred racist hicks? That’s the conventional view among many progressives.

According to these people, we’re so dumb down here in the South that we need our betters to tell us what to do and how to think. Art and culture will be our salvation, even if our superiors have to shove them down our throats. All will be well once we throw away our guns and Bibles and opt for Picasso and pecorino instead.

That is the narrative that the elitist Left tells itself; and, of course, it’s nonsense. The Germans, after all, are among the most cultured and educated people on earth. So are the Japanese, for that matter. But art and culture didn’t stop them from going berserk 80 years ago. We are no better, and no worse, than them.

Left-wing ideologies will never purge our souls either. Stalin’s Soviet Union was just as capable of committing atrocities as Hitler’s Third Reich. Human beings are endlessly inventive when it comes to rationalizing their own evil. We all want universal harmony, but not until those “other people” are dead and lying cold in their graves. Then and only then will the Millennium arrive.

In other words, homo sapiens love to hate each other. Clever people know how to harness this perennial human instinct to their own advantage. Take Donald Trump for example. He became the most powerful person on earth by peddling an “us against them” narrative.

But Trump’s path to success was paved by those who used the exact same tactics from the opposite perspective. To see what I mean, ask yourself if any of these slogans sound familiar:

“You’re either pro-choice or you’re a misogynist. Even if you’re a woman yourself.”

“You’re either an educated atheist or an ignorant fundamentalist. CS Lewis doesn’t count.”

“You’re either anti-cop or anti-minority. There’s no middle ground.”

“The only possible choices are either transgender bathrooms or a homophobic patriarchy. Anyone who disagrees is evil.”

“I have no tolerance for anyone who defines tolerance differently than I do. That’s why I defriend 100 people daily. My commitment to compassion demands that I do no less.”

Rants like these have been the rallying cry of progressives for over 40 years. They’re used because they work. Nothing stirs people up quicker than being told they’re the underdogs fighting for survival against an implacable enemy.

The problem with these Rules for Radicals is that the Right is perfectly capable of co-opting them. Look closely at Ann Coulter and you’ll see a svelte version of Michael Moore, two apparent enemies with more in common than either has the courage to admit. They’re both in the same business; and business is booming.

The world doesn’t have to be this way, Senator Sanders. There’s no reason why Trump’s 73 million supporters can’t have a sane, civil conversation with those who voted for Biden.

The problem is one of initiative. After all, peddling hatred is a billion-dollar industry and expecting the media to sacrifice its cash cow is asking too much of selfish broadcasters. So it’s up to the rest of us to bury the hatchet.

The way forward will not be easy. We’ll be called Socialist sellouts by one group of fanatics and Nazi sympathizers by another. We’ll be vilified throughout the blogosphere and the mainstream news outlets.

The day will come when the hatemongers on both sides will join forces against us, denouncing nuance as a dangerous heresy and its advocates as the ultimate evildoers.

If it be so, then so be it. The stakes of success are too high, and the perils of failure too great, to ignore this opportunity for cultivating a lasting consensus. The battle is lost when the center can no longer hold; and right now the center is on the verge of collapse.

White working-class Southerners are your fellow Americans, Senator Sanders and anyone else who reads these words. We have a vested interest in seeing everyone prosper.

We’re ready to talk and more than willing to listen. All we ask is that you treat us as equals, not as enemies. It’s a trite saying but it’s true nonetheless: underneath we’re all the same.

With Warmest Regards,

Ezra Wilson

Asheville, NC

A folk philosopher, freelance writer, and lifelong gadfly.

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