Party Over People: The Abandonment of a Moderate America

As we ramp up for the elections of 2020, we should take a moment to reflect on elections past. My personal experiences in the 2018 midterm election opened my eyes to the reality of the hyperpartisanship that currently grips our nation. I was the Democratic nominee for Tennessee’s First Congressional district -- a region characterized both by its complex mix of suburban and rural geography (more on that later) and by its seemingly unflinching support for the Republican party (no non-Republican candidate has held the seat since 1881).

What I learned during my run was that, unfortunately, the leadership of today’s political parties are all too willing to undermine candidates who lack what they see as the required ideological purity. The Democratic party in particular has inculcated the premise of a Red State-Blue State dynamic and has adopted the position that much of rural America is a lost cause. I disagree, fundamentally, with this position.  I know that the voters of the Tennessee First, and many other districts like it, are complicated and diverse and deserve representation that is truly reflective of their will. Regions like ours represent opportunities for growth and dialog.

Recent polling has shown that the majority of Democrats want a more moderate party.  I believe that moderate candidates represent a better fit for much of America. I know that moderates can win elections that more aggressive and “ideologically pure” Democratic candidates would undoubtedly lose. When Democrats forsake regions like East Tennessee, they abandon all hope of ever seeing a return to a Senate majority; states with large rural populations elect more senators than urban ones -- that’s a simple demographic fact. In a mere twenty years, two-thirds of our senators will be chosen by less than one-third of the population. Now is not the time to retreat into radicalism and abandon the middle. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Tennessee First is demographically and geographically diverse. Just over half of the district’s population reside in a handful of small cities. It’s an easy matter for an incumbent or a significant national player to fly into one of our area’s regional airports, make a stump speech, shake the hands of some major donors, ride in a parade or two, and then fly right back to Washington. Such a strategy might be useful from a logistical standpoint, but I felt it was one that was unworthy of the people I would be representing. I opted instead to cover as much of my district as possible on the two-lane roads and backways that wind their way through rugged mountain hollows and fertile river bottoms. I wanted to see the people and the lands who metaphorically, and quite literally, feed the suburban majority. I saw the twelve counties of the Tennessee First from the back of a bicycle -- covering over 250 miles of blacktop and so many thousands of feet in elevation change that my calves still ache from the thought. One stop in particular, during my bike tour, highlighted a forgotten past of Democratic successes in rural America: the Cranberry Festival in rural Shady Valley, Tennessee.  The mostly Republican citizens were both shocked and pleased to see me. I can’t tell you how often I heard, “Wow, I’ve never met a Democratic candidate before!” There was good-natured teasing aplenty, but I felt genuine appreciation that a candidate cared enough to visit them.

The Cranberry Festival helps support Shady Valley’s local elementary school, a beautiful historic building constructed from native stone. The school was built back in a time when native wood was cheaper than plaster; the interior walls were of board lumber. Visible even from a distance was the distinct patterning of wormy chestnut - a rare and valuable hardwood salvaged from the devastating disease that eliminated the region’s American Chestnut population. It’s an irony that wasn’t lost on me -- a blighted resource, given up for lost, unexpectedly transformed into a precious commodity. Over that building’s main door was engraved, “Works Progress Administration.” The school building was constructed during the 1930s as part of a government program spearheaded by a Democratic government. That program hired local construction workers, purchased local stone and lumber, and built a school that students still attend three generations later — all of this in a community where nobody living can recall having ever met a Democratic candidate.

I was thrilled with the support that I, a first-time candidate and recent Independent, received from local East Tennessee Democrats.  But the national and state Democrats did not share in this support. It’s not uncommon when looking at a ballot from any given general election in my district, to see seat after seat with nothing but Republican candidates running unopposed. Incumbents may hold office for years or decades without ever facing a real challenge, only to pass the torch to their chosen successors in due time. It’s a state more befitting of Stalinist Russia or North Korea -- single-party states -- than of a vibrant representative democracy. That’s the environment that I waded into, believing vehemently that the voters of our region deserve to have a real choice and that every voice in our region deserves to be heard. I never received so much as a “Thanks for running,” email from the national Democrats.  

Being ignored by national Democrats was still better than the outright obstruction that I faced from the Tennessee state Democratic party. The statewide coordinated campaign refused to allow volunteers to pass out my campaign’s literature. I had a small but very dedicated team of volunteers and staff, but the Tennessee First District covers twelve counties, and every extra hand and ear offered would have been welcome and well used. I was reliably informed that influential Democrats had told significant donors not to donate to my campaign -- that my district and our voters were considered a waste of effort and a lost cause. I understand that resources -- the people, time, and money that are the lifeblood of any campaign --  have to be allocated in a manner that will realize the maximum benefit, but making sound financial decisions (a stance upon which I’ve been very vocal, by the way) is something altogether different from active obstruction. Ensuring that every voter is given a chance to express their will is never a waste.

I have always held that the reasons a person chooses to run for political office are these: to help ensure a better future for one’s community to confront the challenges and opportunities that we face. My team and I met those challenges and opportunities. We heard the voices of our community loud and clear -- and not just the voices of big donors and the crowds conveniently accessible from an airport or the back of a parade float, but from the voters in the small towns and remote farmsteads of the entire district.

Dr. Martin Olsen is a practicing Ob/Gyn physician in Johnson City, TN and was the 2018 Democratic nominee for US House of Representatives district TN 01.

As we ramp up for the elections of 2020, we should take a moment to reflect on elections past. My personal experiences in the 2018 midterm election opened my eyes to the reality of the hyperpartisanship that currently grips our nation. I was the Democratic nominee for Tennessee’s First Congressional district -- a region characterized both by its complex mix of suburban and rural geography (more on that later) and by its seemingly unflinching support for the Republican party (no non-Republican candidate has held the seat since 1881).

What I learned during my run was that, unfortunately, the leadership of today’s political parties are all too willing to undermine candidates who lack what they see as the required ideological purity. The Democratic party in particular has inculcated the premise of a Red State-Blue State dynamic and has adopted the position that much of rural America is a lost cause. I disagree, fundamentally, with this position.  I know that the voters of the Tennessee First, and many other districts like it, are complicated and diverse and deserve representation that is truly reflective of their will. Regions like ours represent opportunities for growth and dialog.

Recent polling has shown that the majority of Democrats want a more moderate party.  I believe that moderate candidates represent a better fit for much of America. I know that moderates can win elections that more aggressive and “ideologically pure” Democratic candidates would undoubtedly lose. When Democrats forsake regions like East Tennessee, they abandon all hope of ever seeing a return to a Senate majority; states with large rural populations elect more senators than urban ones -- that’s a simple demographic fact. In a mere twenty years, two-thirds of our senators will be chosen by less than one-third of the population. Now is not the time to retreat into radicalism and abandon the middle. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Tennessee First is demographically and geographically diverse. Just over half of the district’s population reside in a handful of small cities. It’s an easy matter for an incumbent or a significant national player to fly into one of our area’s regional airports, make a stump speech, shake the hands of some major donors, ride in a parade or two, and then fly right back to Washington. Such a strategy might be useful from a logistical standpoint, but I felt it was one that was unworthy of the people I would be representing. I opted instead to cover as much of my district as possible on the two-lane roads and backways that wind their way through rugged mountain hollows and fertile river bottoms. I wanted to see the people and the lands who metaphorically, and quite literally, feed the suburban majority. I saw the twelve counties of the Tennessee First from the back of a bicycle -- covering over 250 miles of blacktop and so many thousands of feet in elevation change that my calves still ache from the thought. One stop in particular, during my bike tour, highlighted a forgotten past of Democratic successes in rural America: the Cranberry Festival in rural Shady Valley, Tennessee.  The mostly Republican citizens were both shocked and pleased to see me. I can’t tell you how often I heard, “Wow, I’ve never met a Democratic candidate before!” There was good-natured teasing aplenty, but I felt genuine appreciation that a candidate cared enough to visit them.

The Cranberry Festival helps support Shady Valley’s local elementary school, a beautiful historic building constructed from native stone. The school was built back in a time when native wood was cheaper than plaster; the interior walls were of board lumber. Visible even from a distance was the distinct patterning of wormy chestnut - a rare and valuable hardwood salvaged from the devastating disease that eliminated the region’s American Chestnut population. It’s an irony that wasn’t lost on me -- a blighted resource, given up for lost, unexpectedly transformed into a precious commodity. Over that building’s main door was engraved, “Works Progress Administration.” The school building was constructed during the 1930s as part of a government program spearheaded by a Democratic government. That program hired local construction workers, purchased local stone and lumber, and built a school that students still attend three generations later — all of this in a community where nobody living can recall having ever met a Democratic candidate.

I was thrilled with the support that I, a first-time candidate and recent Independent, received from local East Tennessee Democrats.  But the national and state Democrats did not share in this support. It’s not uncommon when looking at a ballot from any given general election in my district, to see seat after seat with nothing but Republican candidates running unopposed. Incumbents may hold office for years or decades without ever facing a real challenge, only to pass the torch to their chosen successors in due time. It’s a state more befitting of Stalinist Russia or North Korea -- single-party states -- than of a vibrant representative democracy. That’s the environment that I waded into, believing vehemently that the voters of our region deserve to have a real choice and that every voice in our region deserves to be heard. I never received so much as a “Thanks for running,” email from the national Democrats.  

Being ignored by national Democrats was still better than the outright obstruction that I faced from the Tennessee state Democratic party. The statewide coordinated campaign refused to allow volunteers to pass out my campaign’s literature. I had a small but very dedicated team of volunteers and staff, but the Tennessee First District covers twelve counties, and every extra hand and ear offered would have been welcome and well used. I was reliably informed that influential Democrats had told significant donors not to donate to my campaign -- that my district and our voters were considered a waste of effort and a lost cause. I understand that resources -- the people, time, and money that are the lifeblood of any campaign --  have to be allocated in a manner that will realize the maximum benefit, but making sound financial decisions (a stance upon which I’ve been very vocal, by the way) is something altogether different from active obstruction. Ensuring that every voter is given a chance to express their will is never a waste.

I have always held that the reasons a person chooses to run for political office are these: to help ensure a better future for one’s community to confront the challenges and opportunities that we face. My team and I met those challenges and opportunities. We heard the voices of our community loud and clear -- and not just the voices of big donors and the crowds conveniently accessible from an airport or the back of a parade float, but from the voters in the small towns and remote farmsteads of the entire district.

Dr. Martin Olsen is a practicing Ob/Gyn physician in Johnson City, TN and was the 2018 Democratic nominee for US House of Representatives district TN 01.