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Joe Biden's 2020 appeal to the white working class can work. Just ask my dad.

The fact that Biden might be succeeding with white noncoastal voters might surprise some on the actual coasts, but it doesn’t surprise me.
Randy Lewellen fishing with his daughter Erin
Randy Lewellen fishing with his daughter Erin.Courtesy Erin Lewellen

There is a narrative in the American consciousness about who the white working class really is. It’s a narrative that all too often gets caricatured and distorted in pop culture and the media, especially when talking about President Donald Trump’s base.

If former Vice President Joe Biden wants to win in November, he’s going to need members of this often-maligned group, generally speaking, to vote for him. And contradicting some of the mythology, his message seems to be making an impact. New polls in Pennsylvania recently showed Biden up 9 points, fueled in part by whites in the suburbs, and not just those with a college education. Meanwhile in Ohio, Biden continues to push his populist rhetoric, as he has been doing across the industrial Midwest.

A third-generation logger from Springfield, Oregon, my dad raised me in ways that allowed me to eventually become part of the so-called liberal elite.

The fact that Biden might be succeeding with white noncoastal voters might surprise some on the actual coasts, but it doesn’t surprise me. Because one of those voters is my dad.

A third-generation logger from Springfield, Oregon — a town reliant on the timber industry for decades and that limps along in the shadow of college town Eugene — my dad raised me in ways that allowed me to eventually become part of the so-called liberal elite.

The white, working-class heterosexual man is painted with broad strokes as narrow-minded, gripping tightly to the time when their kind unabashedly ruled the world and their opinions were all that mattered. And that portrayal holds some truth — white men without college degrees still prefer Trump to Biden by a wide margin. But the white working class is not a monolith. Plenty of white working-class men consider themselves moderate-leaning Democrats, voted for Barack Obama, wanted Hillary Clinton to break the glass ceiling, occasionally vote Republican and won’t be voting for Trump. Plenty hunt and support gun control, see firsthand from their livelihoods that climate change is real, and teach their daughters to be feminists. That’s Dad.

He worked in one of America’s most dangerous industries, from the too-often deadly work of cutting trees, to loading logs onto trucks, to driving those trucks until his body was literally so broken he had to retire. The key was to keep working, keep providing for his family.

In the 1980s, when new environmental protections stalled work in the timber industry, Dad even moved us to Alaska for a year to take advantage of the incredible amount of logging work available for people willing to live in rough conditions.

The Alaskan “logging camp” was a circle of single-wide trailers around a one-room schoolhouse where my mom taught, a playground and a bear bell to ring when anyone saw a wandering grizzly. Each trailer had its own smokehouse. Groceries were flown in on a seaplane.

Other than my baby sister, I was the youngest kid in the camp, and the boys would pick on me They would call me over to play, then squirt water bottles in my face; I would run back to our trailer crying.

Erin Lewellen and her father.
Erin Lewellen and her father.Courtesy Erin Lewellen

Dad decided to teach me to stick up for myself.

He taught me how to make a fist with my thumb in the right place so as not to break it. Then I practiced punching his massive, grease-stained hands with my 4-year-old fists.

Punching through the hand was critical. It took many tries to learn how to use the force of my whole body without losing my balance. Dad made clear to me that I should only use my new skills when I was being picked on, to defend myself. A few days later, I had my chance. With one punch, I would realize years later, I internalized Dad’s message that I could, must, fight society’s prevailing “boys-will-be-boys” mentality.

At 10, I got a BB gun. Dad insisted I learn my way around firearms. Dad knew that power imbalances grow when one side is ignorant — and would not tolerate my remaining ignorant of weapons that could cost, or save, my life.

I developed my nose for sexism early on, primarily because Dad smelled it first.

I developed my nose for sexism early on, primarily because Dad smelled it first. Like the time I told him about my sixth-grade band teacher. I wanted to play the tenor sax, an instrument almost my height. When I told my teacher, he said the alto would better “suit” me.

At home that night, he asked who else is playing the alto and who is playing the tenor? I didn’t know, but he had a hunch. As I was leaving school the next day, up walks Dad, his logging suspenders over his hickory shirt. He had left the woods early for a discussion with my band teacher, while I waited outside.

A few minutes later, Dad walked out with a clenched jaw and a tenor sax. He’d had a feeling that all the boys were playing tenor sax, and all the girls directed to play the altos. And he was right.

Now, to be honest, I did not always appreciate Dad’s lessons in feminism. When he got me a summer job washing logging trucks because he didn’t believe in “women’s work” or “men’s work,” I politely declined. But I did work in the mill, pulling green chain — a job that Wikipedia defines as “men” pulling lumber off a conveyor belt to place in piles.

Also, Dad’s progressive attitude toward female empowerment had its limits. When I came home with a girlfriend for the first time, he struggled to understand what my sexuality meant. From his perspective, being gay meant life would be harder for me. In my adolescent mind, if he weren’t homophobic, he should have no issue with a gay daughter. But watching him struggle, I eventually learned that even parents who openly rail against sexism, racism and homophobia sometimes need to do their own deep, personal work.

Dad embodies the complexity of these struggles as he continues to evolve, even as the American dialogue on demographics devolves.

He sees both the similarities and differences in the struggles of various marginalized groups. Some of his understanding is rooted in growing up poor and experiencing social mobility. He understands his privilege and also sees how systems are designed to oppress swaths of people, while making a remote few rich. The obstacles he faced help him imagine the obstacles for people of color, for women, and yes, the LGBTQ population. He is not alone but remains largely overlooked. Hopefully Joe Biden has the good sense not to do the same.