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Johnson co-authors political report with Rep. Bustos

Barry McNamara

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A Monmouth College faculty member played a leading role in creating a report that aims to change the national political landscape.

Political science lecturer Robin Johnson worked with U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) to publish the 50-page report Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington.

Released in early January, the report has attracted coverage in several national media outlets, including National Public Radio and Politico, which used the headline “Heartland Democrats to Washington: You’re Killing Us.”

Johnson did the legwork for the report last summer, traveling throughout the Midwest to interview rural Democratic politicians. The goal was to speak to 50 individuals, but Johnson wound up conducting 72 interviews in such locales as Ohio, the farm fields of Illinois and Iowa, Minnesota and the dairyland of Wisconsin.

The report acknowledges that Democrats need a turnaround.

“Democrats’ national level of support has seen better days. Much better,” the authors wrote. “By the numbers, Democrats are at their lowest in nearly 100 years. ... Stronger support from the rural, working-class voters who propelled Donald Trump to victory in 2016” is needed to help the party.

But the report noted that Midwestern Democrats often feel overlooked: “When they open the paper in the morning or flip on the news at night, too often they see Democrats talking about things that don’t directly relate to them.”

Also a campaign consultant and host of the radio show Heartland Politics on KBUR-AM/FM in Burlington, Iowa, Johnson has focused much of his attention in recent years on the importance of the Midwest to national politics.

“It’s the middle of the country, and we decide a lot of the elections,” he said. “We decided this last election when President Trump was elected.”

Monmouth students benefit from Johnson’s expertise in numerous ways.

“It’s really nice to be able to have the work I do mix so well with the courses I teach to benefit my students,” he said. “The class I teach – ‘Politics and Government in the Midwest’ – is still unique within the entire country. We’re not aware of anybody else that teaches this.”

Students in this spring’s class are being treated to Johnson’s research hot off the press.

“For my students, (having this report) is really an opportunity to enrich the learning experience – to share more of this information with them and really have them see the Midwest as a region,” he said. “We have a part of the class where we look at each state in the Midwest – its politics – and I’ll have a lot more information to share with them on the politics, the economics, the culture, all that.”

Although Hope from the Heartland targets the Democratic Party, Johnson has also worked with Republicans, and he’s helped his students secure campaign positions with both parties. A key to the country moving forward, he said, is for both sides of the aisle to work together.

“We’re Americans. We’re essentially an optimistic country,” he said. “I think we’re at risk of losing that, quite frankly, because we’ve been so polarized and both sides have dug in, and the ugliness and nastiness.”

Johnson said it’s not a new problem, but it’s reached a new level.

“I tell my political science students we’ve always had this kind of bitterness going back to the time of Adams and Jefferson,” he said. “But now it’s different because it’s on TV all the time and social media – the number of people who absolutely dislike people in the other party, the polls showing people don’t want their children to marry somebody of the opposite party. I mean, come on, we’re better than that.”

Johnson hopes that more moderates being elected from both parties will reverse the trend.

“It’s so hard to overcome the cynicism, but it’s critical that we do,” he said. “We’ve got to get back and get some people who are in the middle that can bring both sides together to get things done. That’s why this fight’s worth fighting. Otherwise, we’re never going to get anything done, and a lot these problems we have are going to continue to fester.”