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Organizing in Trump country with George Goehl: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with grassroots organizer George Goehl, the director of People’s Action, who is focusing his efforts on white rural America.

How can Democrats win in deep red America? During the midterms, momentum behind progressive candidates in red states garnered national attention — Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. These were no overnight successes. They were the culmination of, among many things, including the tireless efforts of grassroots organizers.

Organizers like George Goehl, the director of People’s Action, who is focusing his efforts on white rural America. Hear how his own story of poverty and addiction helped inform how he works to build across race and place in order to lay the groundwork for radical change.

GEORGE GOEHL: This is why we feel like we've got to be present, because if we're not present, somebody else is, like this is just one little example, a flier we found in North Carolina that says, basically, "Are you addicted to opioids? It's not your fault. You didn't do anything wrong. You deserve help," so quite loving in message. "Please call us, the white knights of the KKK."

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

I hope you had a great holiday. It's great to have you back. We got some great feedback on our last episode, which was our mailbag episode, with the one and only Tiffany Champion. Lots of people very happy to meet Tiffany Champion by voice on the podcast. We had a good time with that. We will definitely do it again.

I'm excited for today's episode, which I think is a fitting kickoff to a year in which we will see the beginnings of the 2020 presidential campaign. We're five or six months, I think, from the first debate, which is insane. Elizabeth Warren has declared that she's running for president. Julian Castro basically has as well. By the time this post, maybe more for all I know. And one of the big, central questions for democrats, for progressives, for people broadly on the center left of American politics is like, what does this coalition look like? Who is in it, who is not in it, who is gettable, who is not gettable? Where do you focus your attention and your energy?

For years, there was this kind of dominant ethos among democratic party operatives, which was the obsession with the swing voter. I watched this play out… Mark Penn, who was famously a strategist for Hillary Clinton was one of the people that was one of the prophets of the swing voter, that there are these people normally, almost always coded as white, suburban voters, who went this way and that, and you could appeal to them if you were a democrat and you were fiscally responsible and tough on crime and you checked all these boxes that made them not worry that you were too much of a lib, and then you can get them to vote for you, and that thinking still exists in the Democratic party, and there's lots of places if you go and look at how those races worked in a lot of the suburbs that happened and went for democrats this year, there was a fair amount of that.

There was a fair amount of getting someone in Orange County, which is not a real liberal place, getting a certain marginal set of voters in Orange County who identify as Republicans or usually vote for Republicans to vote for you because you're not too crazy of a liberal, that kind of going towards the center idea has dominated a lot of the political conventional wisdom in the Democratic party for a long time and I think was a product of a lot of democrats getting their butts kicked all over the place from McGovern through Reagan up to Bill Clinton, so that's one way of thinking about it.

There's a newer school thinking about the democratic coalition that I think is a product of a number of things, post-Obama, the demographic changes in America, and the vanishing swing voter. Where the idea is the country is polarizing, the number of people that bounce back and forth between the parties is shrinking, people have these tribal affections and loyalties, the parties stand for incredibly distinct visions of existential truths about people, like who is an American, basically, who counts, and as such, the key is mobilizing your coalition, getting people enthusiastic. So as opposed to saying to that swing voter, "Here, come over here. I promise we won't bite," saying to the person who is with you, "Heck yeah, I'm going to go out and knock on doors. Heck yeah, I'm going to go make phone calls. I'm going to donate. I'm going to go tell people to register to vote" — getting the marginal person who maybe is registered but only votes every four to six years to vote in this election because they're so amped about you.

That's a whole other way of thinking about how to win elections and I think it's ascending in its dominance and I think has borne some real fruits. I think Beto O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams are two examples of, in some ways, those kind of campaigns in what was inhospitable terrain. Neither won, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Beto O'Rourke in Texas, but both really out-performed the fundamentals. Stacey Abrams coming very, very close to winning as a black woman in Georgia.

The reason I'm setting this up is because... I am generally sympathetic to this latter model, which I think is the ascendancy, which I think is about mobilizing your coalition, organizing and mobilizing your coalition, as opposed to persuading the swing voters. But there's a kind of thing that happens when this "mobilize your people" idea gets taken to its most extreme logical conclusion, which is a kind of writing off that happens. This idea that look, we need to get our people together and we need to motivate them, and we've got to stop worrying about those folks who aren't going to vote for us, and sometimes those folks gets extended to those swaths of the country where those folks live, like Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Idaho, right? Tennessee. Places where there's not a ton of libs, in some cases there's not a lot of young people and people of color and educated professionals that make up the democratic coalition.

So those places don't have much for us. I'm now speaking in the voice of a progressive strategist, and so what are we going to do out there? I think there's two problems with thinking that way. One is that the way that American federal politics works is that we should have progressives running for and winning office everywhere in the country. You can't just write off huge swaths of the country because they don't have the demographic ingredients to make a progressive majority. You've got to figure out, how do you get good policies and good people elected there. But also because I think it overstates the issue, like this is something we're going to get to in this conversation.

Think about a county that is a red county in your mind, let's say in Kansas. Let's say it went for Donald Trump by 40 percent, 70-30. That's deep red. That's a conservative place. Now let's say there's 10,000 people in the county. That's 3,000 people that voted against Donald Trump. That's not nothing. They're out there, and in some ways, those are some interesting folks. It takes a certain amount of independence of mind in that environment. You're voting for Hillary Clinton or you're voting against Donald Trump or you're an out and proud liberal in a county that's 70-30 Trump, it'd be good to know who those folks are.

So my next guest's whole project right now is finding the answer to that question.

In this new era as people think about how you build a progressive majority, progressive coalition, how do you think about the people that live outside of the areas where that progressive majority, the modern, diverse, Obama coalition America that makes up the center left, what does organizing for progressive values look like in places that aren't like that? What does it look like in rural Indiana or rural Iowa or rural Nebraska, places that are predominantly although not exclusively white, places whose voting behavior is very conservative, what does it look like on the ground to think about, imagine, putting in the beginnings of an infrastructure to create progressive change in those places?

My next guest is a guy named George Goehl and who I've known for a long time and I've known him because he came up through this organization called National People's Action which was actually an organization that I worked for back in Chicago a little bit as a contract writer, that I had friends who worked for, that my father was associated back in the day because it's an organization that worked with community organizers and community organization around the country. And community organizing which is something you'll hear about in this conversation is the process by which you get people together to build power to make demands of people in power and change things for the better. And it starts with nothing.

It starts with putting up a few fliers saying, "Come to this meeting we're going to have about the local park," and then you identify leaders and then you start having weekly meetings and then you've got a name for the organization and then you've got meetings with the local aldermen about what needs to be cleaned up in the park and before you know it you're making demands.

That is really difficult painstaking work and it's work that has been underinvested in communities of color for way too long and been way too over-emphasized on white, particularly affluent folks. But what George is trying to do right now in this project you're going to hear about is think about how in the 21st century, in the era of a pluralizing American democracy, in an era where a lot of white people are succumbing to really nasty views about "blood and soil" conservatism and Trumpism and building the wall and sort of essential conceptions of American identity as whiteness, how to go into the places where that view is taking hold and fight it, fight it on the ground, identify the people who reject that view, and build power among them to talk to their neighbors, to proffer a better alternative vision of what the future of America can look like. And I honestly think that's as exciting a political project as anything that's happening because what happens if those places are left to go full Trumpist is terrifying to contemplate and we're already seeing some of the fruits of it.

And then as you will hear, one of the things that makes George really an interesting person to listen to on this topic is he lives it. He is from the backwoods of Indiana. He has been down and out. He has gone through addiction and recovery. He's found himself in a soup kitchen because he was strung out and hungry, and he's built a life back up from that and he's got a real vision into what our politics, what a better version of our politics could look like.

Where are you from George?

GEORGE GOEHL: I grew up in southern Indiana, so first in a little town called Seymour, actually the birth place of John Cougar Mellencamp, or we called him Johnny Cougar, and then a little town called Medora. So this is deep southern Indiana and closer to Kentucky than to Indianapolis. And Medora was a town of at that time about 800 folks. You had to drive 40 miles to get to a town of 20,000, so super isolated. We lived next to the area lumberjack Otis and his wife Flossie, right across the road from the county dump. But growing up, it was good living. My dad would take us down to cross the Medora covered bridge, which people in Medora would tell you is the longest covered bridge in the United States. My brother and I, our basketball hoop was a piece of barn wood put up on a telephone pole, and me and my brother would spend hours dribbling in the grass to try to get a three by three area flat enough of mud so we could actually feel the sensation of dribbling on hardwood.

So we thought it was great and then we moved from there to Nashville, Indiana, which at the time, it might as well have been moving to New York City. I later find out it's only 1,000 people, but had a little more vibrancy there. But Medora is really one of these small towns that's gone through tough times. There was a brick plant that started in 1902, and basically cranked out 54,000 handmade bricks a day for 90-some years, and then it closed, and those were 50 jobs that people really depended on, particularly in an 800-person town, and then-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's the whole town.

GEORGE GOEHL: Right, basically. Then there was a plastics plant that also employed people in Medora and in the region which was Jackson County and that shut down and so there's really not a lot left. I was back there visiting with my dad the other day and finally the last store in the downtown has closed. There's actually nothing left. Nearby Scott County, which is the county over, made national news in 2015. It was one of the communities really hit hard by the opioid crisis, but in this case, in a town of 4,200 people in Austin, Indiana, 190 people contracted HIV from sharing a very small set of needles, and actually one of the most concentrated HIV epidemics in U.S. history. So this is a part of the country that's had a rough go of it, just to give you a sense of what life was like in this part of Indiana.

I remember when the first black family moved to the school district. This wasn't an Alabama civil rights movement moment at school, but it was definitely buzz around school and a lot of chatter, and I remember going home and asking my dad, "Hey, what's this all about? What's all this talk about?" My dad, who grew up in a small town, too, he's like, "Well, son, when I went into the Air Force, I learned a couple things and one of them was there are white guys that are assholes and black guys that are assholes," and then he just stopped talking. And then after a minute he said, "All right. Go back out in the creek and play with your brother," and so I just walked down to the creek, pulled my jeans up, and waded into the creek and just sat there thinking, "What is this all about?"

But looking back, pretty sure that was a better introduction to race than a lot of kids living on Wilson Creek Road got that night.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right, exactly, on the bell curve of things that white rural dad can say when the first black kid moves into school, that's not a bad one. Also a testament I think to the power of the U.S. armed forces as an integrated institution, which has actually been an enduring truth, I think, actually, one of the more genuinely integrated spaces in American life.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. I hadn't even really thought about it like that, but I think you're right and certainly made a difference in my life.

CHRIS HAYES: What was your kind of, I don't know, for lack of a better word, class profile? What did your dad do and what kind of house did you live in?

GEORGE GOEHL: In Medora, we lived in a house that was actually made of a ... It was actually a barn somebody had some vision of turning into a lodge or something and had given up. It was on 40-some acres and my parents decided to figure out how to finish it into a house, so I'd say working class people, but my dad made, and still does, 40-some years later, makes stuff out of metal and sells it, and a lot of that is actually kind of scenes of rural life, a barn or a fence with somebody's bicycle next to it and things like that, and then my mom eventually became a social worker.

My parents busted up when I was around 11 or so, and we moved to Bloomington, Indiana, which has Indiana University as the-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Man, that's beat poetry and reefer and bongo drums.

GEORGE GOEHL: In comparison, without question, and I was angry as hell about it. I was very content living out in the country and that's all I knew, but when we got there, a couple things happened. Like one, it's amazing that moving from Nashville, Indiana to Bloomington, Indiana would make a big difference, but I got made fun of because I said “warsh” instead of wash and I said “crick” instead of creek and a lot of things like that. It had never occurred to me, so it was a lot of teasing and not fitting in, which actually was the beginning of a trying to dial back my rural roots. But this school that we ended up going to was across the street from international student housing, and so this was the housing that international students who had kids stayed in at Indiana University. So suddenly I've gone from running through the woods on three-wheelers to my friends being from Zimbabwe and Malaysia and Nigeria and going over to their house to eat and smelling all this food — like my senses were alive.

It was a huge change in many ways when I look back, and honestly at first, I didn't get it. My mom says I came home after the first week and I'm like, "Mom, some of the kids don't even speak English." Which I can't even imagine saying now, but that's all I knew being from where I was from, and she always tells it like two or three weeks later those were my best friends. And oddly I must've always been an organizer, Chris, because I organized that group to play what I saw as the rich kids in basketball every day at recess, and that was basically my obsession. I would sit in class and instead of paying attention I'd get napkins from lunch and then write down that if Iswan could learn a better bounce pass and if Salvatore maybe got a little jump hook, I'll work on this, and we got beat 31 recesses in a row until we eventually evened the score. And now looking back, I'm like, "If I had any global analysis, I would've formed a soccer team that would've been killing it from day one."

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. They would have run them off the court.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah, but I'm a Hoosier.

CHRIS HAYES: So it's like you, kid from the sticks, and the United Nations of Bloomington's kids against the rich kids of Bloomington playing basketball every day?

GEORGE GOEHL: Yep. That's how it all came together.

CHRIS HAYES: So you stay in Bloomington, you go to high school. How do you get from there to being an organizer?

GEORGE GOEHL: Long story. Angry kid growing up, got into a lot of trouble, and then got really deep into drugs and hard drugs. And eventually one day had really hit bottom and went to a soup kitchen on a place called Pigeon Hill, which is where public housing is in Bloomington. I wasn't expecting to be there, in some ways surprised to be there, but also really glad there was a soup kitchen that had food to eat-

CHRIS HAYES: How old were you and what was the-

GEORGE GOEHL: I think I was about 20 or something. Around 20 I would guess.

CHRIS HAYES: If you don't mind me asking, what was the addiction and how did that start and how did that accelerate?

GEORGE GOEHL: It was really white powder, so it started with methamphetamines, cocaine, and freebasing and even crack. Those were the main, but I was open to lots of ways of feeling different, so that included pills and lots of other things. It was part of a very intense drug culture, clearly full-blown addicted because I'd hit bottom many times and swore I'd get it together and just never seemed to be able to do it until I found the soup kitchen.

CHRIS HAYES: What changed when you went to that soup kitchen?

GEORGE GOEHL: I came a couple times and I just noticed, I was like, "Oh, people that eat here also volunteer," and it might be as simple as grabbing a bucket and a mop and mopping part of the floor or going and taking out a bit of trash or something. And I was like, "I can do that. I should do that," so I started doing it, and then the strangest thing happened. Actually, I should back up.

First, something horrible happened. A friend of mine left me the suicide note and did kill herself, and in that note, she had said, "George, I think you're a really talented person and you're wasting away here, and if anything comes of what I'm about to do, I hope you get your act together." And so I spent a bunch of time obviously wrestling with whether ... I always felt like I got the note. Could I have went and found her and all of these things, and that didn't happen. I didn't find her and she did die. And so at a certain point, the cook in the soup kitchen, Vonesse, asked me if I want to be in a play, and it ends up the guy that cooks food in this soup kitchen on Pigeon Hill in southern Indiana is Armenian, from Beirut, and wants to do avant garde theater. So this is like a massive unexpected turn, and he wants me to play the boy in "Equus," which is a play about a boy ... right? No, you can't make it up.

CHRIS HAYES: You don't know how many lives "Equus" has saved, actually.

GEORGE GOEHL: Right. Is that true? I'm not ...

CHRIS HAYES: Well, I'm sort of half-joking, but it's a great play. It's produced everywhere and it's an incredible piece of work.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. I felt lucky. For somebody that ... I was certainly not the theater kid in high school. Like that was my first introduction. So Vonesse asked me if I want to play this role because of losing Jennifer and what she said to me in that note I'm like, oh, I guess this is the thing. This is the thing in front of me that I could do to be better. And so he gave me ... He made $3.85 an hour and he gave me half of his wage to come in and rehearse. Which actually was fairly hilarious because "Equus" was pretty out there and a lot of violence and yelling and whatnot. And he played the psychiatrist Dysart and I played the kid and we rehearsed in front of all these church volunteers who I'm sure were like, “what the hell is going on here?”

And through that process, I eventually got a job washing dishes. I was still using, like at the kitchen, I was still using as a kind of pseudo employee. But through a long process, got an actual job there washing dishes and then like, cooking a little more of the food, and got super into the people, into helping. People needed me too ... That's what happened. People needed me to show up. So I'll never forget Tommy Five who was 75 years old, developmentally disabled, you know, would urinate on himself many days and pick up cigarette butts off the ground to get enough to roll up a cigarette. When he showed up at the kitchen, he needed me to give him a job, like a mop or a rag to wash off a table, like a way to make meaning of all he was going through.

And it's just tons of experiences like that. I'm like I've got to get my act together. And it took a few years but I got clean at the kitchen and put everything I had into it and it gave me everything I needed to get out of the trouble I was in.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. That is an amazing story. So you get clean there and part of what gets you clean is other people depending on you?

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah, I think so. I think that was it more than anything. It was like I can't show up here wasted from the day before, wasted from what I did in the last hour.

CHRIS HAYES: So what happens next?

GEORGE GOEHL: So three years into it, I look up one day and I'm actually mopping the floor at the end of the day and look out and it's like, wait, this is basically the same group of people eating here as the first day I came in and maybe more, but it looks really similar. And I didn't grow up, you know, I mean, Indiana isn't where you go to get your leftist analysis. And I didn't grow up being taught about structures and systems and all of this. But I knew enough then to be like, okay, nobody's died on our watch from hunger.

But at the end of the day, the reasons people are poor haven't changed either and there's got to be a better way. And randomly, I found "Rules for Radicals" and you know, pulled it off the shelf. It's got a good title. It's red. I pulled it off and I read it. It's actually, you know, this is Saul Alinsky's book about organizing. It's not a great manual on how to do it, but it was enough to teach me that there was another way to move forward.

CHRIS HAYES: So you're working in a soup kitchen and you're looking and you're saying, "We're feeding these people, but nothing's changing." You're a white boy from the Indiana sticks, in the back of a kitchen of the desperate, poor, and hungry in Bloomington, Indiana, who has just gotten clean. And you just happen upon Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" in a bookstore and decide to read it.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yep. It just happens to be true, but yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a hell of a story. Then you got into organizing.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah, basically then started to ask people at the kitchen to sit down. You know, like we started asking questions. What issues are you upset about? Basic organizing questions. What issues you care about, things like that. And then started knocking on doors in public housing. And there was a homeless shelter next to the kitchen. A few of us got good at getting a lot of people together, but we really didn't know strategy and some of the real basics of organizing, we just didn't know yet but we could always seem to get a lot of people together.

And this word got out about this to somebody in Indianapolis. I got invited to a meeting in Indianapolis about tenant organizing. And there was a guy, and he had a three-piece suit on which to me was like major red flag at the time. But he kept saying things like, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. You have to have targets. Winnable issues." All these kind of basics of organizing. And I got back to Indiana and I'm like, I need that guy to come down here.

So called him up and said, look, we got enough money to pay for your gas and feed you. But if you could come down, I can get 20, 25 people in a room and you could break down what this organizing thing is for us, and I think it'll be worth it. And he came down and he did it and it made total sense. And honestly, we were off and running. Built a poor people's organizing, starting winning on issues. And you know, that was a good 20 years ago and haven't looked back.

CHRIS HAYES: Who was that?

GEORGE GOEHL: His name was Mike Evans. I'm glad you asked that because a super important mentor who might not make it in the history books, but had a huge impact on my life. I really don't know what I'd be doing if I hadn't met him.

CHRIS HAYES: And I should give full disclosure here which is that you end up at an organization called National People's Action that my father was associated with when he was a community organizer back in the day, coming up through Chicago and was founded by a guy named Shel Trapp who actually trained directly with Saul Alinsky. So there's a kind of like familial connection here, National People's Action.

You're now the director of People's Action, the People's Action Initiative, which is a kind of like umbrella group that works with a bunch of local community organizing groups across the country that organize on all kinds of stuff. And you've been doing this now for 20 years, right?

GEORGE GOEHL: Yep, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: A lot of National People's Action was based in, and this was true of my father, who was an organizer in the Bronx, you know, based in urban environments and communities of color, poor communities of color, particularly. Places that don't have a lot of social capital, places that like back of the yards in Chicago, which is where Saul Alinsky got his start, where it's like private industry and the government railroads you because you don't have social capital, they don't care about you.

But if you get together and you make demands and you bring some pressure on people, you can start to get wins and you can start to get victories and you can start to change the structures for the people that live in your community, and improve the life of the people around you. And that model has been the ... All sorts of organizations around the country are following it. And the work you're doing now involves that, but it also involves organizing in places that are far from urban centers, right?

GEORGE GOEHL: That's right. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: You're sort of focusing a bit more on, or you have a sort of channel of your organizing that is basically, you know, organizing among white rural folks.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yep, that's right. I mean, we made a decision, really as Trump ascended, before he was even the Republicans nominee and before he got elected president, that it was clear that we needed more organizing and infrastructure building in rural and small town communities. And that we'd ceded that turf to the right for way too long and we were now really paying the price for it in a different way. But it didn't mean we had to cede that turf any longer.

So we made a decision to scale up a project to go out and talk to thousands of people in rural communities. We focused on a set of places. One, were Obama to Trump counties. So, you know, there were 700 counties that voted for President Obama twice. A third of those went to Trump and in many cases, the swings were 20 to 30 percent.

Areas of the country were in economic free fall and people are hurting, and if we are who we say we are as progressives, we care about that and we want to be there. And we also looked for places where there was a rise in visible white nationalist organizing, and wanted to actually be a counter-force in a set of those places. So a couple of quick things about that. We've just finished 10,000 conversations. Many of them on the front porch, some of them at soup kitchens and you know, food banks and churches where we asked a couple of questions, which we could come back to.

And then we've also helped kind of facilitate a mini-migration back home. So on election night 2016, a number of people who are white organizers living in major cities decided, "you know what? I think I've got to go back home and organize my people." And so we've tried to facilitate helping people get back. And in some cases, they're moving to states that, you know, political operatives would be excited about like North Carolina or Wisconsin. And then some of them are moving to states like Alabama and Indiana. It's going to be hella hard to raise money for those places. But regardless, we've helped people do that. So I think we're running the biggest or one the biggest economic and racial justice rural outreach strategies in the country.

We have competition, but the competition is the alt-right, the Klan and the Republican party.

Image: Supporters listen to Doug Jones speak at a rally at Old Car Heaven in Birmingham
Supporters listen to Doug Jones speak at a rally at Old Car Heaven in Birmingham, Alabama on Dec. 11, 2017.Marvin Gentry / Reuters

CHRIS HAYES: So you said two things there. You're focusing on places that were Obama/Obama/Trump counties. Rural, predominantly white. I mean, that's almost definitionally right. So there are no Obama/Obama/Trump counties that are predominantly black. And places where the alt-right or white supremacists, white nationalist are organizing. What do you mean by that? Where's that happening and what's that look like?

GEORGE GOEHL: So Alamance County in North Carolina, huge white nationalist organizing happening there. That was a reason we helped facilitate a migration there. Lots of stuff around Confederate flags and Confederate monuments. Very visible public organizing. And so it felt like we needed to have a counter-force there.

Maybe less explicitly white nationalists, but in Stafford, New Jersey, in this last election cycle, a Make America Great Again slate ran and primaried ... Stafford's like a town of 27,000 people. This Make America Great Again slate ran on a platform that was basically keep immigrants out and the guns in, which is hardly your usual municipal platform. And they beat the incumbent Republicans in every race, mayor on down.

One other thing that we're dealing with is, and this is why we feel like we've got to be present because if we're not present, somebody else is, this is just one little example. And I could send you a copy of it but a flyer we found in North Carolina that says basically, you know, “are you addicted to opioids? It's not your fault. You didn't do anything wrong. You deserve help.” So quite loving in message. “Please call us. The White Knights of the KKK.”

CHRIS HAYES: Holy shit. Holy shit.

GEORGE GOEHL: So they are out organizing like crazy and sometimes it feels like progressives of the left have said whatever, we're moving on. And for us, I guess I'd say three things. First, our orientation toward rural communities should be humanitarian first. If progressives are who we say we are, it's like people are suffering and we care about that.

And then second, we have to be there and inform meaning-making. It's actually bigger than elections but where there's a whole battle for meaning-making and hearts and minds long term. I think we've both got room to go up and I also think we've not hit bottom.

CHRIS HAYES: I think that's a really important point. Like, there's a world in which every rural white county in America votes like a rural white county in Alabama.


CHRIS HAYES: That's a thing that could happen in America's future. And what that would to America's politics and the results it would produce at every level of government are horrifying to contemplate.

GEORGE GOEHL: And I don't think enough of us have sat down and really contemplated what that looks like. You know, you look at that, you know, say you pop open a New York Times map of the last election or the 2016 election and you see that big sea of red. I think we tend to write off that sea of red instead of remember that in most of those counties, 35 and up to 49 percent of people voted Democrat.


GEORGE GOEHL: But I don't know, we have to figure out what we're doing to make them want to do that in the next election and the next election. And I think these are voters that I think we take for granted and at our own peril.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's a lot I want to talk about here. I want to hear what you're hearing out on the ground, and what meaning-making is, and what you think the path is here. But first I want to sort of present the critique that I know people are having in their head right now. And it's one that it's interesting to watch these fights — they’re are both ideological and factional in the broad center left coalition about this exact issue.

I think partly the way that the mainstream press has kind of fetishized the white rural voter in certain ways as an authentic expression of what the actual American will is. And I think also the kind of over-correction of the metropolitan media, the metropolitan-based media saying like, well, we missed it and we got blindsided by 2016 and we have to go talk to Trump voters in Trump country, in Trump country, Trump country. Let's do another Trump country safari.

There's a real strong feeling among a lot of people on the left, I think particularly people of color like fuck that. Fuck that.

GEORGE GOEHL: Right, right.

Image: Conor Lamb
Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa. on March 14, 2018.Gene J. Puskar / AP

CHRIS HAYES: Like, what the fuck? First of all, we won the popular vote by three million people and Lamb gets a vote in the U.S Senate but like, okay, fine. But that doesn't mean that they have some special hold on the American imagination or American popular democracy. And our views are just as valid as theirs. And this whole, like oh, they're suffering economic anxiety. Well, you know, poor black folks on the south side of Chicago didn't vote for some clown, some pseudo-authoritarian clown, so screw those people and stop obsessing over them.

And I hear that all the time and I know you do too. But I'm just like giving you the full run of the spiel to get your response to.

GEORGE GOEHL: Let's see. A few things. I think, and People's Action thinks, like people of color, women, and young people are the center of the progressive moment. And are the future and the leadership and the present. And we think black people and black women in particular are the most dependable part of that coalition. Two, and just to say that in a lot of these frames sometimes people say rural, the other thing people say is white working class. I think it's actually a problematic frame in that we actually are not as dedicated to talking about the black working class or the Latinx working class, so we associate work with whiteness only.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Good call.

GEORGE GOEHL: And so I think that's a big problem that we have to ... You know, I'm fine with us using the term, but let's use it with everybody.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Agreed.

GEORGE GOEHL: Third, we're making progress. You know, whether behind progressive moment of having a deeper analysis around race and around gender and the structures therein. And we shouldn't take the pedal off the gas. We should keep moving forward. And then finally I would say we don't want to over-correct. So over-correcting could be like moving tons of resources that are finally not enough, but moving to communities of color to build infrastructure in those communities to white communities.

We also don't want to center the solution somewhere around whiteness. I think it would be a huge mistake. And I think within that, there could also be a move to basically, let's say, like let's moderate our message and do kind of race neutral work, election work or organizing work in majority white communities. To be honest, we've tried that before and it didn't work too well. So I would say those are all considerations we have to have.


GEORGE GOEHL: And I think what's different in this work and the way we're trying to construct it is we are sending race conscious organizers into majority white areas who are able to actually move people over time. Because I mean, here's what's happening. My take is you've got, all of this is happening at the nexus of capitalism and racism. So you've got a bunch of people who did quite well, or at least quite well compared to communities of color in the old kind of economic order, descending. And so people are descending and they're trying to make meaning of it.

So there's like two main meanings I think people tend to make. Is one is to blame yourself, which I think is kind of one of those outcomes I think we're seeing is like the depths of despair. There's this guy at Johns Hopkins, Andrew Cherlin, that talks about reference group theory. And if you want to understand people and their behavior, understand who and what they're comparing themselves to. And so I think you have a set of white people comparing themselves to a previous generation, and so there's some self-blame and a lot of guilt and shame. And there is a lot of drinking and opioid use. I think it's a real issue. I see it in people I know.

And then the other is to blame others. And the power of other-ing and racism is amazing, and works. And then you have a set of right wing forces stoking that resentment, whether it's Fox News and Rush Limbaugh or new things like Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon and others totally taking advantage of that. And I think our thinking is we want to get in there and be meaning-makers and help people point their anger and their love in the right direction. And if we do that, we're going to have way different results.

But I think the key distinction is being race-conscious. Even if you're organizing in a damn near mono-racial community, it's race-conscious. And then what we do is we find the right moments when somebody starts to say, well, it's the immigrants or it's this or that, is go, "Really?" And move into a conversation around what real structures are here. People come to the conclusion with enough work that we found the enemy and it's not each other. Undocumented immigrants didn't crash the economy. Muslims aren't the ones stashing tons of money in corporate tax havens. And it's certainly not black people peddling opioids in rural America.

CHRIS HAYES: That's for damn sure.

GEORGE GOEHL: It's like big banks, it's big pharma, it's the tax-dodging CEOs. And so if we work with people enough around that analysis, I think people move to a different place.

CHRIS HAYES: I think the key thing, that thing you said about we've tried race-neutral before, like the old method and I would even say this is the Alinsky method is you go into a community and you're organizing these people, these white folks because this company is going to leave town, and you want them to not leave town. Or they're going to build a dump somewhere. And you're organizing around that. And you're in the meetings and yeah, they're dropping the N-word left and right, and you're just kind of bracketing that. You're like, "Not cool, not cool, but okay. We're on the same page on the dump, on the town dump. We're on the same page on the jobs leaving."

And that's been a method. I mean, the idea was like you work from commonality, you work your way out. And what I'm hearing from you is like, no, you got at that when the person says the thing about the immigrants. Specifically and affirmatively as the point of the organizing.

GEORGE GOEHL: Exactly. I was definitely trained in the model like keep people focused on the thing we're trying to solve versus digging in around the race issues. And so it does require the people that are doing this work, so you know, we've done these 10,000 door knocks. I would say a third of the folks that answer the door are just like, pleased as punch to have somebody with our world view knock on their door, because it never happens in these rural communities.

CHRIS HAYES: You mean like liberals, basically, or non-conservatives, basically?

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah, yeah, non-conservatives. Whatever rural liberal looks like, those folks are like, "Hell yeah."

CHRIS HAYES: Right, because your point is ... This is always the thing you got to remember. The red county in one color, it went two-thirds, one-third. Like the one-third of the people are still there. You knock on their door. They're like, hey, awesome.

GEORGE GOEHL: Awesome. And they're like ... I think they've become over the last 10 to 20 years also more closeted in their politics, less likely to put the Democratic sign up. I think it's become really hard to be a liberal or a progressive in some of these communities. So, then it becomes closeted, and you certainly don't build power in that way.


GEORGE GOEHL: I would say, on the other end, a third of the doors we knock on are either just super-conservative or full-blown racist, and that comes out on the doors ... Our organizer's just like, "Move to the next door. We don't have enough resources to deal with this." Then there's a group in the middle that's, I would say, the exhausted majority of people that are just kind of like over it, and not really paying attention, and just cynical about politics and engaging in civic life. And then another group that totally would come to a meeting around stopping corporate agriculture or around expanding healthcare and say something dog-whistle on the doors. The organizers are trying to make a decision, like, "Okay, let's get this person to the meeting and get them engaged, but we're going to come back to that." You know what I mean?

Then there's political education. Again, we're in the weeds of organizing. We get people in fights, and they start winning, and they're in a multi-racial context, and people change. We see it all the time. People change.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean? Describe that.

GEORGE GOEHL: So, Jeremiah Jenks is a seventh-generation Appalachian resident, grew up very poor, has struggled with addiction, been incarcerated. When the family separation crisis hit at the border, he felt moved by that, but he had historically thought the immigrants were the enemy and they were out to get his job. That was what he was raised to think, and he believed it.

But he had been washing dishes with some Mexican dishwashers who were migrants and sent money back home. He had joined this organization down home in North Carolina. Through that kind of political education and the conversations, he thought about ... He once got arrested because he was driving his wife to work on a suspended license. He didn't have enough money to make bail, so he was locked up for three months. His daughter, who he's very close to, had to have surgery, and he was not able to get out and be there with her. It was a pretty serious surgery, and he was a mess around it.

All of that together combined for him to, like, know what it felt like to be separated-


GEORGE GOEHL: ... from his kid and to feel powerless around it. He ended up fighting like hell to come to the border. His flight got canceled, as an aside, but we got him on the stage at the Families Belong Together March on June 30 ... certainly the only white Appalachian man on stage that day ... and he told this story to 50,000 people. It's gone big on video and whatnot. He's just one example of somebody that started in a very different place and is now an advocate for migrant rights.

CHRIS HAYES: I think part of the weirdness of the political moment we're in is that we have these categories and these sort of shortcuts. They can be demographic, or there tend to be the shortcuts of polling internals. Because, I think, partly the success of alt-right, or white nationalists, or sort of white-nationalist inflicted Trumpism, people lose sight of the fact that people's identities aren't fixed.

GEORGE GOEHL: That's right. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Their politics aren't fixed, and primacy of what they think is the most important thing about them and their relationship to others and who they view as the enemy and who they view as an ally, those aren't fixed either. But they also don't change on their own. They change through active engagement, and someone's got to supply that.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. I mean, I think it will take a mix of things. We've got to be present in more places, without question, to have this ... or we would not know Jeremiah and would not be able to make that happen. We also are trying to figure out what is the media overlay in some of these communities that gives people other alternative ways to make meaning of what's happening, because one of the challenges we'll face is: People will get involved in our organization locally, start to have an awakening, but then they go back into a Fox, Rush, Hannity, Bannon surround sound. That's hard to push back against.

But we see people shifting all the time, and one of the areas we're focused on is immigration, because we think it's one of the most divisive ones right now.

CHRIS HAYES: What's surprising you? You've had these 10,000 conversations, and I imagine there's data, notes, stuff that sort of get passed up, and you guys are talking about, and analyzing, and thinking about. You're keeping this going. What are you learning? What's surprising you?

GEORGE GOEHL: Let's see. I mean, healthcare is the number one issue, far and away. I don't know if I would've guessed that two or three years ago. But healthcare is the number one issue, far and away, and actually quite similar whether male or female. Clean water, number two.


GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. Really, the reasons are often different. It could be fracking a pipeline, agricultural runoff, but clean water is huge. Then, this isn't surprising, but opioids and addiction has tended to be number three.

I mean, in many ways those issues make sense. They're also issues that cut across to urban communities. I mean, clean water shows up when we knock on doors in urban cities, in suburban, exurban areas, and rural areas. I actually think it's one of the great uniters and a super-interesting issue, in that even conservatives believe government should play a role in making sure our water's clean. So, I think there's a lot of opportunity there.

I'm surprised by how hungry the existing Democratic voters are to engage to build organizations. It was like they were waiting for us to knock on their door. Then they're showing up and doing things really quickly and at scale.

Demonstrators protest the Trump administration's immigration policies during a "Families Belong Together" rally in Houston
Demonstrators protest the Trump administration's immigration policies during a "Families Belong Together" rally in Houston, Texas, on June 30, 2018.Loren Elliott / Reuters file

Back to the Families Belong Together moment and issue ... On June 30 that was the big expression. There were 750 demonstrations, or rallies, across the country. The media never really covered this, but half of those happened in counties that went for Trump, and lots of them happened in very small town and rural communities.

One example is Eldora, Iowa, which is in the only county in the state in Iowa that has a contract with ICE, which actually is what helps keep their jail open. The jail would probably have to close without that. Julie Dunn is a resident there, and she's not proud of having the only deal cut with ICE in the state, and so she organized this rally in this town of 2,600 people. Eight of the people that showed up, she knew, and four she didn't, but actually kind of a risk, maybe, in a county that went 66 percent for Trump. It made the front page of the Eldora News, however big that is.

Then she decided to take it further, and we organized these country cookouts around the country that were designed to get families together to talk about family, to talk about family separation, and then to pass the hat for families that needed money to post bail and bond at the border. Lots of rural folks signed up to organize those cookouts, and people organized friends and family to show up. Even, in Julie's case, her husband, who's a Trump voter, he still ran all the errands for the cookout. He went and got the charcoal, and the ice, and all of that.

So, even at some of these cookouts, Trump voters came, in large part because their wife told them to. I think it's really fascinating that you could say the biggest expression in rural America against the Trump agenda was on family separation ... I think there were more mobilizations on that than anything else ... and kind of an amazing story. I'm always surprised it didn't get covered that way.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, it's funny. I was upstate in Ulster County, which is partly rural, but there's liberals around towns like Kingston, and New Paltz, and places like that. They had a really big showing on that day. I was up there in Kingston and kind of couldn't get over it. I mean, this was hundreds and hundreds of people outside the town hall on a sweltering ... I think it was 96 degrees. I remember I was out there with my three kids in the shade, and my middle son David being like, "Why are we here? What are we doing?"

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah, sure. Yes. Oh, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: ... like, squirming around. It was like, "Another 10 minutes, buddy. We'll go get some sandwiches."

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. My daughter's like, "Man, Trump means we have to carry a lot of signs." So, yeah, same thing.

CHRIS HAYES: I also wonder how you put this together with your own biography or how you think about it. I mean, growing up where you grew up, and battled addiction, and knowing that that's a thing that, I don't think it's crazy to say, a record number of people living in rural America are currently doing. It's probably the worst it's ever been, at least since we've been keeping data, of people that are living far from metropolitan centers, far from a ton of economic activity, and into the midst of battling an addiction.

GEORGE GOEHL: That's a good question. I mean, I know my addiction at least started out of a lot of pain and trauma. We didn't use that word back then. I wouldn't know what that meant. So, I can have a lot of empathy for the fact that clearly people are hurting, and trying to make meaning, and not feeling good about themselves, and feeling isolated and separated, and I want to fix that. So, I would say, that being one.

Then I'm blessed somewhere, I feel like, to have ... There's not many people like I know that grew up in rural parts of the country, then moved and lived with kids from all across the globe, and then moved to Chicago. I've had incredible race mentors for the last 20-some years, and if you include my friends back from playing basketball, another decade before that.

So, I feel lucky to be constantly being schooled by, particularly, black women around race and helping sharpen my analysis, but also having a sense that we also need to do this work in rural America, which to me both has to happen humanitarian-wise; it has to happen politically. Even when organizing white people, I think of it as racial justice work. I think of it as maybe the most important racial justice work I can do as a white man.

CHRIS HAYES: Explain more.

GEORGE GOEHL: Well, Malcolm X said, "Well-meaning white people, we need you to go to the front lines of where racism is, and it's in your community. We got this. Your folks are acting out. Go there." So, I feel like, as a white man and also as somebody that grew up in the kind of communities that are definitely voting very much against racial, economic, and gender justice, I've got an obligation to help figure out how to move other white folks to go take on that work.

Whether it's popular or not, it has to happen. In doing that, I think we're freeing up a lot of space for leaders of color to lead in communities of color. So, it feels like a twofer that's needed to happen for a long time. But, popular or not, it just feels so certain it has to happen.

CHRIS HAYES: I want you to talk more about this idea of making meaning, because I've been sort of puzzling that over. It's a very profound phrase. I like it a lot, but I'm not quite sure I understand what it means.

GEORGE GOEHL: I guess I think, like, there's so many changes globally ... Let's just say, in people's lives right now there's just so many changes, and so much is changing right in people's communities, but also throughout society, whether it's tech, or changing demographics, the future of work, all these different things that are shifting. Who's going to help people make meaning of why that is happening, and what it means, and honestly, who's responsible?

I think in many ways that the right has had a significant meaning-making machine designed to help people come to certain conclusions around why these shifts are happening, who's behind them, and why the conditions in your life are worsening. If we don't have meaning makers in communities ... I would say that in any community ... I mean community leaders, faith leaders, business leaders, education leaders, but also media and communications and other content, things will not go well for us.

We've focused a lot on white people, but there's a real struggle. Particularly in rural Latino communities have been more likely to ... definitely voted for Trump in most cases at a much higher level than they did for Romney. Certainly people in a lot of rural Latino communities in the Southwest do not have a progressive immigration world view. So, I just think the project of helping people make meaning of things, it's the job of an organizer, but I think it's actually probably the most important project in America right now.

CHRIS HAYES: I've got to say that in some ways I have found this one of the most hopeful conversations we've had, because a lot of times we bang our head against structural impediments. Do you feel hopeful doing this work?

GEORGE GOEHL: Doing this work? Yeah. I mean, when we're doing this work, oh, yeah. The stories of change, the stories of new organizations being built by these folks migrating back home, the transformation of individuals. The transformations go both ways.

I was in a room the other day with an African-American woman in Alamance County, North Carolina, where there's been this uptick in white nationalist activity. It's a room of other rural and small town folks, majority white. She says, "I never plan on getting involved in anything. Then this down-home North Carolina organizer knocks on my door, and I think, 'You know what? My son's black. Life's going to be hard for him. I'm going to go to a meeting.'"

She gets involved and starts to see change happen. Then she sits back in this meeting, where we're reflecting together, and she's like, "I didn't plan on getting involved, but I sure as hell didn't plan on getting involved with a bunch of white people." She's like, "But you all are really trying to sort this out. Like, I'm watching you guys asking questions, making mistakes, but you are trying to wake up. I will never bunch white people all into one group again because of this experience."

This is happening at scale in different places around the country. I do think us talking today helps. I'm afraid this is the best-kept secret in the world right now, and we have to figure out how to bring it out into the light. There's not been a lot of media coverage of this work. The media we talked to once, they're like, "Send us the Obama-to-Trump voter." There's an over-obsession over the Trump-to-Obama voter.

I'm interested in the Obama-to-Trump counties. There are different dynamics there. I guess I'm just saying, the stories of people building across race in place, I think, are being undertold, and if people heard them, they would be as hopeful as I am.

CHRIS HAYES: George Goehl is the director of People's Action and People's Action Institute. He's someone I've known for a long time and does incredible work. His wife, Ai-jen Poo, who runs Domestic Workers Alliance and also does really incredible work, you may have heard of as well. It's so great to have you on, George. Thank you.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. Thanks, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my thanks to George Goehl, director of People's Action, which is a national organization that's doing the kind of work we talked about and a lot of other work as well. If you want to, you can check out their work. We will link to it in the transcript.

As always, we love to hear from you. You can tweet us #WITHpod or email We got fantastic feedback from all of you on the Mailbag episode, which I guess is kind of meta-feedback. It was feedback on the feedback. Maybe we'll have our next Mailbag episode devoted solely to feedback on the first Mailbag episode. So, we can just talk about the last Mailbag episode on the next Mailbag episode.

It's been great to hear from all of you. Really, we're super-gratified. We'd love to hear from you. Keep the suggestions coming. Keep the feedback coming.

Featured links:

"Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals," by Saul Alinsky

People's Action

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