In 2016, I met thousands of voters by going door to door.

What I learned as a Down Ballot Democrat in the 2016 Election

I’m Joe Carlasare. I spent most of 2016 campaigning door-to-door for local office in a blue-collar district. I knocked on thousands of doors and met incredible, hard-working people who shared powerful stories with me. The most frustrating part of the experience was hearing what voters thought about the Democratic Party. I worked hard to try and understand the reasons many white working class voters felt the need to flee the Democratic Party. Even the most liberal voters seemed unhappy with the direction Democrats have gone. Months before the Presidential election, as I looked into voters’ eyes, I saw the unique appeal of Donald Trump — who not only claimed he wanted to make America Great again, but left his supporters with the feeling that they too could be great again.

These experiences, combined with the devastating electoral losses Democrats suffered throughout the country, have convinced me that the Democratic Party needs real reform. Democrats need more than a 50 state strategy. They need a 50 state message and platform that can appeal to every voter; regardless of color, class, or creed. The measure of success cannot be whether it gets the party through the next election, but whether it puts Democrats on the right side of history.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I have some that I’d like to share.

Too many voters view Democrats as the party of the elite and urban; the party of the arrogant; the party of special privilege. Democrats are quick to tell you they want to fight for the working class while criticizing many of the things working class people hold dear; faith, community, sacrifice, and personal responsibility.

Every person reluctant to vote for a Democrat is not sexist, racist, xenophobic, or a bigot. Every person who is skeptical of progressive policies and believes in small government is not small-minded. Every patriot who respects the rule of law and believes in standing for the national anthem is not un-American. Every voter who believes in the Second Amendment isn’t someone who wants to see schoolchildren shot.

I’m a Democrat because I believe in putting people first. I believe that an active and interested government plays an essential role in our society. Government is not always the solution, but it’s not always the problem either. I believe in a free and fair market. I believe in promoting opportunity for all, special privileges for none.

Democrats fight to defend the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in society. It’s admirable and it’s the right thing to do. But defending the disadvantaged can quickly take a demeaning and condescending turn. Yes, structural racism exists in our society. But focusing solely on racial and ethnic differences will only further divide. Emphasizing the ties that bind is what bring us together. Serving the under-served cannot mean ignoring everyone else in society. Dumbing down our politics to a collection of proposals designed to appeal to a certain gender or race is poison in a multicultural society.

Democrats need to focus squarely on challenges that affect all Americans; challenges like reforming broken economic and political systems and the extreme concentration of wealth into the hands of the very few. Democrats cannot bemoan campaign contributions from big business while holding their hands out for contributions from wealthy donors and lobbyists. Democrats cannot defend gerrymandering in the blue states, but criticize it in the red states. Democrats cannot pretend to be champions of organized labor while championing trade agreements that destroy middle class jobs. Democrats cannot spend entire campaigns exploiting social and gender issues to paint the opposition as unacceptable without offering a vision for America.

Voters do not elect a series of poll tested policy proposals to represent them. Voters cast ballots for human beings. That’s why honesty, trustworthiness, and likability are traits that no Democrat can ignore if they are asking for the faith of the electorate.

Finally, Democrats cannot be fearful of ideas; even ideas that appear to be the most dangerous and pernicious to our sense of decency. Dissent is not patriotic only when you agree with it. The next time you hear someone say something that absolutely makes your blood boil, think about why the person said it. Is there an ounce of truth to it? Is that part of the reason it carries so much pain?

I am by no means perfect. But recently, when I have a discussion with someone that disagrees with me, I’ve been trying to change my approach. I’m no longer interested in winning an argument. What good is winning an argument when the person on the losing end is only further alienated. No, I’m interested in appealing to the better angels of someone’s nature. Name-calling and derision do nothing to heal the divide. The only force with the power to break down every barrier is love and understanding.