“Finally!” I thought to myself pulling onto a long gravel driveway. After a longer day of driving, knocking doors, and hanging more leaflets than actually speaking with voters, I had reached the last house on my walkbook. I pulled up the driveway enough to be capable of backing out, but not far enough to seem suspicious. I turned off the ignition and began my way up towards the house.
As tall thin Georgia pines gave way to a small clearing, I came upon a junk filled yard which framed an old and decrepit looking double wide trailer. Not an uncommon site in rural north-west Georgia. Continuing my way towards the front door I began picking up on the faint cries of a child. Finally, reaching the door, the cries had taken up a tone of wailing. I knocked and after 20 seconds exactly, the door opened.
Where a door had been only seconds before now stood a little girl. She was maybe four or five. Dressed haphazardly in a Disney Princess t-shirt that was too big; her hair was blond, distressed and unkempt; her hands dirty and dry; her smile was soft. Though her eyes were innocent, they were subverted by an overwhelming sense of trauma. As she meekly greeted me, a baby on the floor behind her wailed. I asked her if her parents were home. In response, she shifted to a right diagonal, inviting me to peer into the trailer.
A TV played in the background, in front of it sat an old couch occupied by a man and woman. A needle hung sinisterly out of the woman’s arm. It didn’t take too long for me to realize what I had stumbled upon in the sticks of Georgia. The little girl ran up to the man and began pleading with him to come greet me. After a few moments, he slowly stumbled off the couch and walked towards me. I ran through my pre-prepared pitch; asked him if was planning on voting, asked him if he would vote for Senator’s Perdue and Loeffler, then gave him some literature that contained information on polling locations.
Three days earlier, when I arrived in Georgia, I thought I’d signed up to rally voters, get out the vote, and would be spending time in Atlanta’s suburbs. I didn’t expect to be challenged by anything except for Ossoff and Warnock supporters and maybe the most diehard believers in “Stop the Steal”.
Instead of the Atlanta suburbs, I was sent to rural Georgia; and instead of enduring challenges from liberals and Trump supporters, I was challenged by voters who were truly and deeply suffering. What I experienced these past ten days in Georgia was an America in despair. From these experiences, I gained an unshakeable sense that this country has reneged on its promise, deferred its hope, and neglected its most vulnerable. I saw that what needed saving was not the Senate, but Americans themselves.
No sooner had I processed the horror of what I’d seen in that double-wide, was I confronted by another American struggling. Reaching the end of my book again the day after, I came to a modest middle-class suburban home. I knocked and waited almost a minute until finally the door opened, revealing an older man with a portable chemo machine hanging from his waist and a tube reaching from the machine up to a port in his chest.
I introduced myself and what followed was one of the best conversations I had the whole trip. In time I learned the older man’s name was Robert, and he was suffering from colon cancer. Originally from the Northeast, Robert was a colorful character. Reminding me of my grandfather, he regaled me with stories from his life. The Italian kid with Polio he played ball with as a kid; his first whiteout on a New York state highway; a Buffalo Bills game he attended that was both disappointing and freezing (some things never change); a tour of downtown Boston where he became so tired of his tour guide’s overbearing Massachusetts Pride that at its his conclusion he blurted out “if you’re all so smart here in Massachusetts, why do you keep electing the murderer Ted Kennedy to our nation’s Senate?!” You tell ‘em, Rob.
Yet, as our conversation continued the stories became coarser; where he was when JFK was assassinated; where he was on 9/11; how his kids had all moved away; regret and pain over his cancer, its late diagnosis, and how he knew it would kill him; his sorrow that Covid-19 had kept him from seeing his grandkids for nearly a year; his frustration that America seemed to be trapped in an irreversible cycle of hate and decline.
Despite all of this, Robert was also a man filled with hope for tomorrow. Growing up at a time when America “was great”, he believed that our country could still be restored and built back greater than it ever was before. With watery eyes he looked at me and said, “But I won’t live to see that America, and you won’t live to enjoy it, but unfortunately it’s gonna be your generation’s job to do it.”
Robert and I talked for almost two hours. I didn’t make it back to my hotel until late that evening, my heart incredibly heavy. An hour after making it back to my room, I received a call that a recently elected congressman from my state, Luke Letlow, had died from complications caused by COVID-19. The weight on my chest grew even heavier.
For nearly 10 days I have traveled across a corner of northwestern Georgia. I’ve seen desperate poverty, middle-class regret, and upper class isolation and bliss. I’ve walked neighborhoods that would be the butt of an SNL joke, and neighborhoods filled with people that probably still think SNL is funny. I have interacted with a cross-section of American life, a slice of this nation that simply wants our country to work. These people are sick of the hate and anger disseminated by mass culture, they’re tired of Democrats pretending they lack culpability, and they’re tired of Republicans acting like they don’t have responsibilities. These Americans know and feel that their country doesn’t care about them, and despite all of that, they still haven’t given up on America.
I don’t really have an answer as to why they haven’t given up, aside from an Aaron Sorkin platitude that the American spirit is relentless and will always find a way, but this isn’t West Wing.
The stark reality is that America simply isn’t working anymore. Whether you come from a red state or a blue state, our country and her institutions are no longer fulfilling their purpose. Nor are they meeting the needs of her citizens. Georgia has been run by Republicans for well over a generation now, and yet, outside of the wealthiest neighborhoods, children are growing up in sickening poverty. Isolated from any civic community, church, or functional family, we are losing an entire generation to the twin scourges of poverty and despondency.
Though our country has long recovered from the stagflation of the 1970s, our giddy upward rise has been undercut by four recessions, a destruction of our middle class, and growing economic disparity between individuals and regions. These trends have combined to create a political order that ignores the needs of poor and middle-class Americans, thrusts college students into a hyper-competitive job market that simply doesn’t have enough jobs to go around. All the while, protected interests continue to see their profits and political power grow. This is not a recipe for us to, as President-elect Joe Biden says, “build back better”. The Coronavirus Pandemic has seemingly thrust us back into a farcical rehash of the 2010s, a groundhog day of political gridlock. Using those years as a guide, in the next decade we will not build back better, but simply worsen trends already causing unacceptable erosion to the foundations of American civil society and order. Happy days are not here again.
All of this is not groundbreaking. Heading to Georgia I had a rather clear idea of this crisis plaguing our country. Instead, these ten days in Georgia implanted, in my mind, and urgency for change. American’s need real genuine help. I can’t stop thinking about the little girl in the double wide, or Robert, or the countless other American’s I met on this trip. I can never allow myself to forget them, for they made real to me the suffering our country now endures.
In high-school I was taught to think of the world like a web; Everything and everyone is interconnected, and when one part of the web is weak, the entire web is weak. In this small corner of Georgia I found America’s web to be weak, reflective of our nation’s growing weakness. Regardless of who wins in Georgia tonight, our mission as citizens and especially as Conservatives is to spend these next four years fighting to strengthen that web. We must make America’s web strong for the Roberts, for the little girls in the double wide, for the kids growing hungry, and all those Americans, young and old, who feel isolated and alone. They are our most vulnerable, and if Georgia has taught me one thing it’s that if America is no longer working for them, it isn’t working. Fullstop.