Early in my 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate, I found myself beside a rack of shotguns in Wheatland, where a father told me that his son had been diagnosed with diabetes. The father was on Medicaid and disability. He had no insurance for his son, and during the last ten years the price of insulin had risen 300 percent. For him, the choice was groceries or health insurance. “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted to his son. “No one cares about us little people.”
I’ve spent most of my life shuttling between the liberal and conservative streets of America. I am on the faculty of Stanford University, an institution that created “safe spaces” for those grieving the election of Donald Trump, yet I ran as a Republican in my conservative home state and grew up with pickup trucks and a father who made his living in the sugar beet fields. I have heard anger and distrust toward the other side boil over in cafes in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in the bars in Cheyenne. But it was not until I campaigned for public office, meeting fathers whose need for insulin was more pressing than party one-upmanship, that I learned who pays the price for our collective behavior.
Because of my footprints in liberal America, the campaign had little to do with policy and mostly to do with tribal identity. It didn’t matter who had a better solution for insulin prices, because my opponent flooded the airwaves with radio spots over my ties to Massachusetts. All of which led to Facebook posts that accused me of being from the bad America. “Is it true you lived in Massachusetts? You scare me!” “How do I know you’re not really a Demo-rat?”
Meanwhile, as I had never been politically active, decades-long friendships with Democrats were strained at the realization that I was a Republican. One close friend even offered to donate to my campaign but only if the donation could be made anonymously because of his wife’s disdain for Republicans.
Today roughly 60 percent of Republicans view the Democratic Party “very unfavorably,” and unsurprisingly, Democrats feel the same about their counterparts. We now live in an America where one in three politically active adults feels that members of the other political party pose a threat to the nation. Meanwhile, while we quarrel, fathers can’t afford insulin.
At a senior center in Riverton, I listened to the executive director tell me that retirees in her town had learned to bite their prescription pills in half to save money to heat their homes in the winter. In a bar in Lost Springs, I met an oil field worker whose wife was a violent drug user, and, to protect his daughter, he had his wife arrested. As the only provider, he took every hour of overtime offered, but each year his daughter’s living expenses went up faster than his income. He told me that no matter how hard he worked, “I keep falling further behind.” Canvassing in Rawlins, I met a grandfather raising both of his daughter’s children because she had become addicted to opioids.
As the stories accumulated, I came to understand that these were not talking points for my next speech, but instead an opportunity to shake the hands and learn the names of those who pay the price for our refusal to do business with one another.
In the last week of the campaign, the woman who answered one door said I looked tired and that I should join them for dinner. It was Sunday and they had fried chicken to eat on the back porch. Had it been earlier in the campaign, I would have calculated how many doorbells I could ring in the time it took to eat her chicken and almost certainly declined. But things had changed for me, and while I’m not an overly religious person, I remember feeling as if I was supposed to have dinner with them.
Two grandchildren chased each other in circles while I learned she worked at the nearby coal mine in Kemmerer. She described how years ago she would come home covered in black dust, and on bad days the skies above Diamondville were often choked with smoke. But since then, people had learned more about climate change and the company had covered all the conveyor belts to control the dust. She was proud when she told me the plant had modern scrubbers on the smokestacks, and I wondered whether my friends from Massachusetts would believe that a coal miner cared as much about the planet as they did. She said she knew coal was on its way out, but they didn’t have much and that she hoped the mine would stay open a few more years. Four months after my campaign, the coal mine filed for bankruptcy.
I suppose in my heart I knew going in that solutions are not how modern elections are won in America. “This is the great danger America faces,” Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas warned us nearly 50 years ago. “That we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual.” The people of Wyoming taught me was that the cost of cleaving our country in two comes with faces and names.
I recently watched the documentary on the Apollo lunar landing — 580 million people cheered the moment Neil Armstrong put an American flag on the moon. The movie reassured me that there is an America that knows how to work together, and Abraham Lincoln’s words remind us that we have been here before and found our way forward. “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
We all know we have lost sight of our better angels. I now understand why we must find them.