Barry McNamara  |  Published May 09, 2024

Strengthening Democracy

Monmouth faculty member Robin Johnson to be part of transatlantic discussion on May 15.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College faculty member Robin Johnson will be one of the featured guests of a transatlantic virtual discussion, focusing on how democracy defenders can, and do, win elections.

Hosted by the Jefferson Education Society of Erie, Pennsylvania, the event will be held from 10-11 a.m. May 15. To hear the discussion, register at this link.

ROBIN JOHNSON: The political science faculty member also hosts the weekly Heartland Politics radio program. ROBIN JOHNSON: The political science faculty member also hosts the weekly "Heartland Politics" radio program.A member of Monmouth’s political science department who also hosts the Heartland Politics weekly radio show on WVIK-FM, Johnson was chosen to be part of the panel because of what discussion moderator John Austin called his “path-breaking work on how Democrats can and do win in ‘Trump country.’”

In 2020, Austin founded the Industrial Heartlands Transformation Initiative, a transatlantic collaborative partnership dedicated to closing geographic economic divides and reconnecting residents of rural and former industrial heartland communities to economic opportunity. One of the organizations he pulled into the initiative is the Chicago Council on Global Affairs where, years ago, his work on supporting economic transformation in the Midwest overlapped with Johnson’s interests.

“The initiative works to return community pride and optimism about the future, and diminish the appeal of polarizing, resentment-driven, isolationist and ethnonationalist political movements that threaten our democracies,” said Austin. “There is tremendous concern in the U.S. and across Europe over the rise of nationalist, anti-democratic political movements – and the leaders who stoke voter resentment in their bids to take and keep power.”

How to fix it

Johnson acknowledges the concern, but adds, “There needs to be a realization about what is fueling these movements.”

“People feel abandoned and left behind as the major economic drivers of their regions have been displaced, many by actions taken by leaders of both political parties,” he said. “And, if you talk with people from both sides of the political divide, as I do, you find the same concerns expressed from both sides about the other.”

“Democrats need to go door-to-door and listen to their neighbors. Restore some old-fashioned campaigning and be the face of the party instead of someone in Washington or Springfield.” – Robin Johnson

A solution, he says, is simple.

“Democrats need to go door-to-door and listen to their neighbors,” said Johnson. “Restore some old-fashioned campaigning and be the face of the party instead of someone in Washington or Springfield. Instead of top-down campaigning of TV ads and social media, use canvassing to listen and understand rural voters, who are often mischaracterized by the mainstream media.”

That approach, said Johnson, won’t necessarily lead to wins in Republican areas, “but they can reduce the margins.”

“This isn’t just my opinion – it’s the advice of dozens of local Democrats who have won in rural and working class districts in the Trump era,” he said. “Grassroots-style campaigning is important in order to listen to what folks are saying and trying to find areas of common ground.”

Can democracy win?

Johnson was connected to Austin through Richard Longworth, who visited Monmouth’s campus in 2009. Austin was featured in Longworth’s book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, which Johnson uses in his “Midwest Politics” class.

“John has since spoken with my classes several times, suggested class projects we have collaborated on, and been a guest on my radio show,” said Johnson.

Austin said a reason behind the May 15 discussion is that “we all need tangible and inspiring examples of where leaders who do want to make a difference in people’s lives – and work to strengthen, not weaken, democracy – win over voters and win elections. Even in regions that more often support polarizing populists and authoritarian strongman wannabes.”

“I’m mildly concerned about the anti-democratic actions from the fringes of both parties but also feel our institutions of democracy have held up pretty well over the years. I’m confident they will do so in the future.” – Robin Johnson

Johnson still believes democracy’s track record will win the day.

“I’m mildly concerned about the anti-democratic actions from the fringes of both parties but also feel our institutions of democracy have held up pretty well over the years,” he said. “I’m confident they will do so in the future.”

Joining Johnson on the panel will be Georgetown University scholars Lucas Kreuzer and Kamil Lungu – a native of Poland – and Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester in England.

Kreuzer and Lungu will share the findings from their new paper analyzing the Polish election and lessons from the Polish experience relevant for democracy defenders everywhere. Westwood brings similar insights into how regional leaders in struggling England geographies not only win and keep office, but rebuild community pride and economic vitality.

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