A Pilgrim’s Progress

Image: Jenni Konrad

Mile zero: It’s late December and I’m preparing for my annual trip home for Christmas. At this point, the journey is as much a ritual as anything else in my holiday routine. I live on an isthmus between oceans: the narrow metropolitan strip along Colorado’s Front Range. To the west are the Rocky Mountains; to the east, the vast expanse of the United States’ northern Great Plains. I still consider the latter to be my cultural and spiritual home. It’s the place where I grew up and where my family still resides. But November’s presidential election opened a vast political divide between where I live now and the place I come from. The divide owes to many differing realities: in economics, demographics, education, opportunity…a host of factors, each one intersecting with many others, none fully explanatory by itself. This year’s journey isn’t merely a trip home; it’s a pilgrimage across places that are threatening to turn into irreconcilably different worlds. I wonder and worry whether there’s any room for hope that the divide can be repaired.

Mile 30: Exiting the urban environs of Denver, I will cross twenty counties en route to my destination in eastern South Dakota. All of them, with one exception, went heavily for Donald Trump.

Mile 83: Fort Morgan, Colorado, has attracted Mexican immigrants to its agricultural processing plants for a long time. When I lived in Mexico, I met several people with relatives who had made Colorado a temporary or permanent home, and it’s possible some of them ended up in Fort Morgan.

In 2011, a major Immigration & Customs Enforcement raid left many plant employees carrying an arrest record, which conveniently gave ICE easier grounds for swift deportation. After that, as Latino families moved out, the area became a home for resettled Somali refugees who took up those factory jobs. A dispute over workplace accommodation of Muslim prayer practices in late 2015, however, led to 150 employees being fired, and many of them have since left the area. The plants are one of Fort Morgan’s biggest employers, and the companies continue to scramble for workers. As I pass by on Interstate 76, the plants send towering plumes of vapor into the chilly air.

Mile 184: Crossing into Nebraska reminds me of the several times I’ve seen Nebraska state troopers with cars pulled onto the side of the road, trunks open for search. Nebraska does not like Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, and joined Oklahoma in trying to get the Supreme Court to intervene. The Court denied that request in March, so in April, the states asked to join an existing appeals court case. It’s a rare sight to see politically conservative attorneys general so exercised about a lack of enforcement of federal law on a question of states’ rights.

Mile 265: At North Platte, I make the turn due north. North Platte has the world’s largest railroad yard (a fact I learned from watching Jeopardy!) where Union Pacific employs 1 in every 10 people in the region and has long been considered a beacon of economic stability. The city’s second-largest employer is Walmart, where entry-level full-time pay runs at about $19,000 per year.

Mile 401: I enter South Dakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation (the one county on my journey which went for Hillary, and strongly at that). Just past the state-line casino, a sign welcomes me to Sicangu Oyate, home of the Lakota people. The county has long been one of the nation’s poorest and most rural. It’s a world I’ve never known much about, to my own discredit. Growing up in the state with the 4th-highest percentage of Native Americans, I was cognizant of only the demographic reality, never the stark economic and social divide between white and Native communities. I wonder what kind of things impoverished reservations and rural white counties could agree on if they ever sat down together at one table, if the voices distracting us with our cultural differences could be quieted in favor of those lifting up our economic similarities.

Mile 563: Across the fields and farmlands of southern South Dakota, I pass through small towns bedecked with cheerful Christmas décor on their main streets. The lights emit a soft glow against the diffused winter sunset on the frozen plains, calling to mind warm feelings I remember from childhood holiday trips to my dad’s hometown. I worked hard to retain those geographically-specific memories, especially when I went off to college on the East Coast and found that I was typically the first South Dakotan my new classmates had ever met.

The northern plains were once referred to as the “Great American Desert,” unsuitable for farming and undesirable for white settlement. Nowadays, the nickname is “fly-over country,” a moniker that residents of the region have found themselves either pointedly ignoring or quietly resenting. The nickname grew from an in-joke among bicoastal travelers, and while I didn’t hear it often from college classmates, I came to understand that people from the coasts often had no concept of day-to-day life in the vast interior of the U.S. (Of course, I knew just as little about theirs.) But since the election, I’ve heard the term revived as a rhetorical weapon against Midwestern states, as if to say that areas with certain political leanings deserve to be ignored and dismissed.

Some pundits have concluded that the Democratic Party suffered this election cycle due to rural voters’ perception that it was overly-beholden to urban and coastal cultural norms. Others suggest it was the party’s inability to interpret its economic agenda in terms relevant to a non-urban populace. (These aren’t fully explanatory; after all, Donald Trump received more votes in Los Angeles County than in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming combined.) One author argued that Trump “played on rural and exurban resentments about someone else — black people, women, immigrants, whomever — getting a notionally better handout.” Perhaps all these things are true. The realities in South Dakota may not be quite the same — or nearly as dire — as the politically pivotal Rust Belt, but either way, I know I’ve passed county after county that went 70–80% for Trump. The divide feels more enormous than ever.

Mile 640: I’m finally home for Christmas, and I’m filled with an upwelling of comfort and joy. But I’ve struggled this year to tap into the usual hope and optimism of the season, where the coming year is something to look forward to. Politics are the last thing I want to think about during the holidays, for a variety of reasons — not least of which is that my career is closely related to state-level politics. But this year’s pilgrimage has given me ample evidence that I need to fix my gaze outward, to consider very carefully why it is that diverse populations with distinct but interrelated economic needs — immigrants in Fort Morgan, Walmart cashiers in North Platte, Native Americans on the Rosebud reservation, and small town residents across South Dakota — can’t seem to find common electoral ground. Underexposure to different racial and cultural realities seems to be a significant factor, as my own piteous lack of knowledge while growing up would attest. Resentment from feeling dismissed by “coastal elites” (whether real or imagined) is certainly also afoot.

I haven’t arrived at any answers, but perhaps I’m getting closer to asking the right questions: namely, what would it take to build a politics of hope across this region? One which celebrates mutuality, community, and common purpose, rather than fear and ignorance? One which decries the spread of willful ignorance, pointless distraction, and purposeful “dismediation” and instead speaks boldly to our higher intellect? One which builds a “both/and” world, instead of an “either/or” world? My hope is built on nothing less than faith that these things are still possible. On the drive back to Colorado, I resolve to let my hope — and determination — grow with each passing mile.

Peter Severson is a writer and public policy advocate in Colorado. He aspires to be a morning person.

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