It’s been an election season that’s fired me up. I’ve always tried to be politically-savvy, but I can’t say before this year, I’ve ever been politically-involved. Lately, though, I’ve gotten my feet wet in a local campaign that’s, honestly, gotten a little ugly. The father of one of my camp friends is running as the Democrat for District 27 here in West Tennessee, a district that was redrawn by Republicans with the hope of ensuring that more rural counties would guarantee no Democrat could get elected again. What they didn’t count on was a conservative Democrat who had either lived, worked, or gone to school in almost all of the counties that made up the District.
Perhaps because they got scared that Randy Lamb would dash their hopes of taking back District 27, the Republican Party began a series of negative ads comparing Lamb to Barack Obama and as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” One Union University student wrote into the Jackson Sun, the local paper, saying, “One pamphlet in particular I found to be reprehensible. Included in this campaign ad is a poorly Photoshopped image of Mr. Lamb depicted as a shepherd. He is herding a herd of black rams. The wording reads, ‘What Randy Lamb’s herding Tennessee doesn’t want any part of.’ This image obviously has racial allusions. It is subtle, but direct.”
That kind of thing is the kind of thing that can get me really fired up. Joining the campaign was something I probably would’ve done regardless of ads with racial overtones, but the negative campaigning made it all the more important to me to get a positive word out about Randy Lamb, his focus on public education instead of vouchers, on expanding Medicaid, and on bringing jobs to West Tennessee. While phone banking for Randy, I found myself telling voters: “Please, please, if you get anything in the mail that says something awful about Randy, ignore it. He really is a good guy.”
In the midst of negative campaigns, it’s really hard not to retort with something equally as negative, and I haven’t succeeded at it personally. It’s easy to dismiss Randy’s opponent, Ed Jackson, or the Republican Party in West Tennessee (who ran the negative ads Jackson said on Facebook he doesn’t like) as racists or as bigots. It’s hard to find the balance between the need to call out an injustice when you feel someone you believe in has been wronged while also dishing out the kind of grace that trusts most people are or want to be good and do the right thing. It seems like we too-often like to lump the injustices and those who commit them as one-in-the-same. But maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe most of us are just trying to get by, trying to do what we believe is right, and even where and when that’s misguided, there’s something to be said for our trying.
On Thursday, I stood in the sun at the polling center holding a sign for both the Lamb campaign and for “Vote No on Amendment 1,” an amendment that would give the Tennessee legislature the power to ban abortions for victims of rape, incest, or women with medical complications. Standing next to me for the nearly five hours I was there was none other than Ed Jackson himself and a few of his supporters. Naturally, we struck up friendly conversation. I talked about my time in the Peace Corps and my love for traveling. Ed and I discussed some of our favorite countries we’d visited, his son’s good work teaching English in an industrial town in China. We talked about the Boy Scouts, both of us Eagle Scouts. Turned out, Ed had been a part of a troop that was formed at my home church years ago, and we knew some of the same folks in scouting, an organization we both deeply admired given the impact it had on us growing up. There was something humanizing about standing there carrying on friendly conversation with someone whose worldview so greatly differs from my own. I offered him water. He offered sunscreen – which I later regretted not accepting – and lunch. Behind the social media anger, behind the negative television ads, behind the things we think we know that are right, even if they are right, are real people all too easily forgotten as “real” when viewed from the false veil of computer and television screens.
I don’t agree with Ed Jackson’s policies. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of Republican policies demean the poor with a lack of empathy that could hardly be considered “Christian.” In my short time working with the Lamb campaign, I’ve overheard a Republican or two say the same of us Democrats: how could those liberals be for policies that are so unchristian? But what I don’t doubt, having met him, is that – like Randy Lamb, like all of us – Ed Jackson is just trying to do what he thinks is right. And there’s hope in that. Because there’s common ground to be found there.
Last night over dinner with friends, it was said (to paraphrase) that “when compromise became viewed as a weakness in America, everybody lost.” Though I’m stuck on believing my way is the right way, I’d like to think that Ed Jackson’s encounter with me was an encounter he walked away from thinking, “Maybe we can work together,” because the way forward in a world where political differences seem to have become battlegrounds is to re-establish relationships that are cordial, civil, and most importantly, recognize and reiterate that we must trust that we’re all trying to figure it out, how to make this town, this city, this state, this country just a tiny bit better. I cast my vote for Randy Lamb, and I’d do so again and again, but if I were heading to the Tennessee State Senate and Ed Jackson happened to be there, I’d find a way to work with him. And I believe I could. But to be able to do so requires something of us all, on both sides of the aisle, and it’s going to have to start with getting out from behind the screen, meeting each other face-to-face, and being committed to friendly conversation.