Swing State Stories: Final Thoughts

Nov 14, 2012

Ann Perkins-Parrott in her Durango, Colorado, bookstore
Credit Chris Killian

For the two months before last week’s election, Kalamazoo journalist Chris Killian crossed the nation to ask people what they thought about the issues at stake. His Swing State Stories project included a major article for the Christian Science Monitor and reports for WMUK. Now he reflects on a desire that was expressed in town after town along the way for less partisanship and more cooperation.

We all survived another knock-down, drag-out campaign season. So now what?

During my nearly two-month, 8,000-mile trip through the swing states of America, I talked with dozens of people: teachers and waitresses; gold miners and mechanics; veterans and small business owners. Like most Americans, they hold strong, often times passionate political beliefs. But nearly all of them say compromise and cooperation should replace a legislative process rife with dysfunction.

These folks don’t expect elected officials to completely abandon their political principles. But they do recognize that solving the big challenges of the day, from shoring-up entitlement programs to expanding the economy to healthcare policy, demand that lawmakers dull the sharper edges of their partisan swords in order to work together.

Take Ann Perkins-Parrott for example. She owns a small, dusty used bookshop in the hip mountain town of Durango, Colorado. She’s a proud, gun-owning liberal from Beaumont, Texas, whose father was good friends with Lyndon Johnson. She believes in many progressive ideas, including that healthcare is a human right and that the “one percent” need to pay a bit more in taxes. But she also sees a need to seek common political ground.

“If I only listen to one or the other sides of the spectrum, I’m not going to find out anything that’s in the middle. It’s very important to meet in the middle. You can’t meet at the ends, unless you’re like me and you occasionally you go so far to the left that you meet the far right. I have guns, they have guns. We can talk about that. There’s always some meeting ground somewhere.”

Ann Wanke & friend in Janesville, Wisconsin
Credit Chris Killian

Janesville, Wisconsin, resident Ann Wanke is a self-described “moderate” Republican whose roots in town are about as deep as her political beliefs in small government, more defense spending and lower taxes. But in this southern Wisconsin town, the home of former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Wanke has worked for decades alongside those who don’t share her beliefs in order to do good in her community. She hopes those in Washington will do the same.

“My best friend in the world is a super left-wing liberal. I mean she’s pro-abortion, I’m pro-life. She’s very Democrat. We’ve worked together for 30-some years on projects in this town and love each other dearly. We used to be able to get across the aisle and get things done.”

Kenneth Maggard came to the United States from Mexico seeking a better life and more prosperous future for his family. A resident of Las Vegas for the past 20 years, he’s seen both the boom times and the busts. Maggard says he’s not a political expert but does know one thing: when partisan posturing rules the day, things get worse.

“It’s like anything else, if you look at history, if we get all the country together we do things better. Right now, it’s a lot of left and right. But we need to go forward. Everyone wants to be OK, so I guess we need to work all together. That’s what I think.”

Americans want a political culture that puts pragmatism over politics. They hope that the fiery, take-no-prisoners rhetoric over the past few years can be extinguished by reasoned, thoughtful discussion, not unlike that which they have around the kitchen table.

Negotiations on the so-called “fiscal cliff” start when the Senate and House return for a lame duck session. Republicans and Democrats are already fine-tuning their positions ahead of that debate. Meanwhile, outside Washington, many elsewhere are looking for results. Resolving the budget crisis would be a good place to start, ushering in a new spirit of cooperation.

The nation is watching.