The Elephant in the Room is a Guerilla: Campaigning with H.F. Valentine
Audacity. We look back and praise it. We write essays about it. Politicians coopt it into their slogans. We yearn for it in our activism. But when we encounter it live and in person, what will we make of it?
In his new book, Don’t Think Of A Republican: How I Won A Republican Primary As A Lefty Progressive And You Can Too (available as a free, serialized edition via ZNet, and in book format via UnsafeMedia), Lonnie Ray Atkinson introduces us to H.F. Valentine, a “lefty progressive” who runs as a Republican, in a deep Red district, for the U.S. House of Representatives, and wins. Now these two, Mr. Atkinson and Congressman Valentine, want to be part of the crack team that helps you, and dozens of others, to do the same.
Yes, Valentine is a fictional character, and Atkinson’s book a work of political satire, but the message is dead serious. This is an opensource playbook from a successful, though as yet imaginary, political campaign. It is “a curation of the scandalous rhetoric and the unprecedented electoral truth-telling employed throughout H.F. Valentine’s groundbreaking campaign. Don’t Think of a Republican proves the idea of running a lefty progressive in a Republican primary was not really all that bonkers” (6).
I admit, when I first came across this book via an activist network that both Lonnie Ray Atkinson and I are part of, I mostly gave it a chance because I know Lonnie personally. A book pitched as a story about a lefty progressive going around trying to win Republican voters over to his cause, sounded like it could be a grossly patronizing squirm-fest, or at least a head-in-the-clouds waste of precious time. But, like I said, I know Lonnie. And he is FUNNY, which is good, since he’s a comedian. He’s also a proud blue-collar good ol’ boy from Nashville, and nobody’s fool. And finally, via his own journey, he is one of these radical “lefty progressives”, like me. And I, like you, could use a good laugh these days. So, I decided to see for myself what Lonnie had cooked up, if he had pulled it off. My take – this is no mere comedy stunt, and just about as crazy as a fox.
Looking back on the early days of his campaign, Congressman Valentine gives a disclaimer, “My mission was never to convert Republican voters into DSA members, fans of the Squad, or disciples of our Lord and Savior Bernie Sanders. My mission was to demystify the Left. To show Republican voters there was nothing to be afraid of in the questions I was asking. To show the nation why the establishment in both parties, as well as the media, were working so hard to portray those questions as a threat” (18). Disclaimer aside, most of the policies put forth in this campaign would make the Squad look conservative. Yet, they are delivered without any of the usual party baggage, mutilations, or concessions, and therefore become palatable and even natural for a red-blooded blue-collar district to support. These are policies for the people – untainted by the usual DC touches.
The underlying premise is this: why should “we”, any of us, from the left, right, or far out, let anyone else, especially moneyed powerful interests, control the narrative, control our identities, our desires, and especially, our outcomes? Our lives? What do these labels in electoral politics, and also in activism outside electoral politics, do to serve us? Why do we let the empire frame the questions? Valentine’s campaign has the audacity to dismiss assumptions and labels that constrain, divide, and often control us. It is a dose of brave authenticity. Valentine simply chooses to hide nothing from the people, tell no lies, and expose lies whenever they are told…and though far from easy, in this story, victory was claimed.
As a result of Valentine’s campaign, people saw through the polarizing labels, they heard over the din of media and money, and they recognized honesty. The book follows his campaign trail via a vivid collection of speeches, notes, and interviews. It spans a wide breadth and depth of policy, delivered in fiery Southern style, and pulls no punches in naming political sell outs on both sides of the aisle. Valentine’s honesty and clarity of vision does more than inspire retweets and soundbites, it makes you want to jump out of your seat and join the movement.
Is it crazy to think his words might inspire most people, regardless of formal affiliation, to do the same? I must admit I took great pleasure in imagining H.F. Valentine running against the Senator from my own home state of South Carolina, that slimiest of political creatures, the South’s answer to Giuliani, the ever bemoaned yet everlasting Lindsey Graham. Talk about speaking truth to power – what a debate that would be. I’d like to be the one selling tickets to this reckoning. It would be a full house, and I can assure you that my Republican neighbors would enjoy it every bit as much as my radical lefty-self, if not more, to hear a candidate properly expose just how full of shit ol’ Lindsey is, and how his days of telling us who we are, what we want, and of selling us out are over. And really, who better than a Republican with a radical left agenda to do it? Just because you’ve never met such a mythical beast before, doesn’t mean s/he couldn’t exist – and Valentine is here to ask the question, why not?
I would be remiss in reviewing this book if I presented it only as a bold idea, a feel-good dream, or even as a highly entertaining and energizing read for those of us who have long since lost faith in electoral possibilities, and maybe even in our neighbors. It could be all three, but there is a fourth way to understand it. There is an extremely practical and immediately actionable playbook within its pages, beyond literally running to win a Republican primary with a Progressive Left agenda. Don’t Think Of A Republican is an organizers’ manual.
What is the difference between activism and organizing? One way to look at it is that activism is the work we do with like-minded and aligned people to oppose the power structures and wrongs in society that we aim to overcome. We engage in actions, we build networks, participate in organizations. We are not so much trying to change minds, as to challenge power and build new institutions. Organizing on the other hand, involves reaching out to people who are not necessarily of like-mind, and making the case for vision and for solidarity. We try to win support and understanding by communicating our vision for a better world in a way that focuses on common ground, common interests, and links all people in the common struggle against oppression. We engage in consciousness raising.
Effective organizing for movement building means talking to everyone – Anarchists, Marxists, Social Democrats, Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, the apolitical… Everyone. As Valentine would say, “You may not agree with how I think we could get there. But, for the issues you raised, the areas in your life that matter the most, we most definitely agree on where we need to get” (165). We don’t all have to agree with everyone on everything, but grassroots movement building means aiming for a massive popular consensus to a high enough degree to form a power bloc to effect change. This means talking to everyone, including a not insignificant percentage of the national population who vote Republican. This is a place where the left generally fails miserably, but where Valentine can help.
Through the voice of H.F. Valentine, Atkinson is delivering the Left a self-help book for learning how to talk to people – Carnegie for socialists. The prescription is to drop the labels, drop the jargon, and drop the assumptions. Tell the truth, help people confront what they already know, framed in a way that makes sense, as opposed to the way political parties and donor money want to frame the issues. For example, when discussing a single payer healthcare program, an organizer (or candidate) might frame the discussion: would you prefer healthcare that is better and cheaper than what you have now, and that prevents an extra 70,000 deaths nationally per year? Or, would you prefer to keep the status quo, which offers less coverage, is more expensive, and causes almost 70,000 preventable deaths nationally each year? This is a grand departure from how the issue is framed in any mainstream political arena. Valentine’s strategy is to step back from the bait, and frame the question on his own terms, in a way that is immediately accessible and logical to people, as opposed to parties.
Valentine’s organizing philosophy also rejects the impulse to dumb down conversations, insisting that his constituency, working class Americans who identify as Republicans, are no less intelligent, or less able to exercise empathy and responsibility, than their more politically woke turn of the century forbears:
“Propaganda relies on a lazy and unhealthy mind. Our society is sick right now because our political acumen is so weak… In the early 20th century, workers making a few cents an hour were politically sophisticated. And they demanded more from their society than the crumbs the rich saw fit to give them. That’s how this country boomed. Because the workers were too smart to fall for a bunch of bullshit.
What I had to gamble on was that people still had that same capacity in them. Even if they weren’t as well-informed. Even if they were being propagandized… In the spirit of transparency, I told voters exactly what I was doing… What mattered was that they could see I was taking them seriously. And that bought me time enough to see if my gamble would pay off” (42).
It might be easy, at this time, to assume Valentine is full of all the niceties, but light on substance. However, Don’t Think of a Republican, as a policy framework and as a guide to organizing, does not shy away from specifics. Valentine jumps right into the deep end, taking head on topics that seasoned politicians and experienced organizers dread. He talks racism, religion, patriarchy, climate change, and more – armed with honesty and authenticity, staying true to his progressive values and finding common ground with his constituency. Though he does possess a certain oratorial flair that no doubt assists in his successes, Valentine’s real key and lesson for us is in his consistency: loyalty to the truth, never allowing money or power to complicate what is simple, and never seeing a disagreement over policy as an obstacle to establishing shared vision. Don’t let his down-home ways fool you, this guy could organize cats into synchronized swimmers.
Wouldn’t it be something, if Valentine made the leap from page to political office, enacting his radical left policies, inspiring a domino effect of progressive campaign victories and grassroots solidarity across traditional divides? The imagination runs wild, but this is not a fantasy novel – it is a call to action. Maybe Valentine will inspire real campaigns, and maybe Atkinson will add political speechwriter to his resume. Maybe their campaigns will win seats in the halls of power, or maybe such campaigns will spark a wider political movement outside of electoral politics. Only one outcome is already certain, Don’t Think Of A Republican is an audacious rejection of today’s political gridlock and polarization, and a scathing critique of big money and little action in our government. This is a book for sparking conversations across false divides. It is an organizers handbook, and a resurrection of unity against oppression.
Atkinson says, “I don’t particularly like describing this shadow campaign as fictional. In my eyes, it just hasn’t happened yet” (11).
Well, I don’t particularly like referring to this shadow campaign as fictional either. It contains more truth than any campaign I’ve ever encountered, or even dreamed of. And I for one, think it’s up to us to start making it real.