The Amish people are known for having a lifestyle that is simple without many modern amenities, such as shunning electricity and using horse-drawn carriages instead of cars, though that is slowly changing as the pressure of modernity presses in on them and draws young people away. They are also known for having a strong sense of community, valuing personal relationships and trust. I recall how a long time ago, we went for the first time to an Amish furniture store in rural Ohio (the Amish produce extremely well-crafted wood furniture) and bought several items. When it came time to paying for them, we discovered that they did not take credit cards. But the owner said that that was not a problem, just to take all the stuff and send him a check later.
The idea of a store owner trusting a customer whom he had never seen before and did not live in the area to pay for goods later was utterly surprising to us and since then, I have always had a positive view of the community even when I learned later that the insularity did not always have good effects, especially the discouraging of children going to school beyond their late teens.
Ryan Grim tells the story of Annie Weaver, an elementary school teacher in the Amish county of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who loved what she saw as the wholesome values of the people amongst whom she lived. So she was stunned to discover that the community had voted strongly for Donald Trump in 2016, someone whom she considered the polar opposite of everything that she thought her Amish community stood for.
THE MORNING AFTER the presidential election in November 2016, Annie Weaver, like millions around the country, was in a stupor.
“I remember coming to work that day and I stopped at the Wawa and I didn’t even make eye contact with people, because I couldn’t believe this was the world that we lived in,” she recalled.
An elementary school teacher in Chester County, Weaver, 52, had spent the fall watching the oafish Donald Trump stumble toward Election Day in a mix of horror and amusement, confident that the country at large, and particularly her community, would reject the man. “We’re such a Christian community, a community that looks out for each other, I thought, who values character way more than I guess a lot of people did,” said Weaver.
Sitting in church that weekend, she felt betrayed. The values being professed by the congregation were a lie. Looking around at her longtime friends and fellow parishioners, she wondered, how did you vote for him? After a lifetime of ministry, including missionary work in Japan, she left her church.
Grim describes a fascinating story of how she and other people in the area have been galvanized by Trump’s election to get involved to challenge Trump’s policies such as the Muslim ban and the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. These new activists have coalesced around a group known as Lancaster Stand Up (LSU).
Weaver first encountered LSU after she saw on Facebook that it had organized a gathering in Lancaster Square to protest the Muslim ban. Two thousand people packed the square, making it one of the largest protests in Lancaster City history.
The activists have targeted local races and issueswith some success.
Last November, Democrats picked up seats all across the state, but the party did particularly well near King’s district. In Lancaster City, Democrats swept the council, winning all four seats with a historically diverse slate of relatively progressive candidates.
In Manheim Township, a historically conservative area where Weaver canvassed for LSU, Democrats won all 6 school board seats. Dianne Bates, a progressive millennial, won her Borough Council race in arch-conservative Millersville. Elizabethtown hadn’t had a Democrat on the town council since the 1970s, but last fall they elected an IBEW member, Bill Troutman.
The energy being built around electoral organizing was soon channeled in a new direction when LSU organizer Michelle Hines noticed an item about the local prison in the paper. The county, it appeared, was preparing to outsource its prisoner re-entry program to the for-profit prison company Geo Group. For the last decade, a coalition of nonprofits had worked to find housing and jobs for inmates released from prison. But they would be shut out of the new profit-driven approach — depriving parolees of a wide array of support.
In November, that “social base” was effectively rallied into a standing room-only crowd, which bombarded the Lancaster County prison board with objections. “The profit motive works wonders when it’s focused on mattresses, farm machinery, and investments,” Franz Herr, a volunteer with the coalition, is quoted as telling the board. “It oversteps its moral bounds when it becomes a tool for extracting profit from the servitude of human beings.” Facing an unexpected amount of public pushback, the board shelved the plan.
I wrote about Lancaster recently when a shocking viral video showed a police officer repeatedly tasering a man who was seated on the ground. As Grim reports, that incident prompted the LSU to demonstrate against police brutality.
LSU organized an emergency demonstration the next day on the steps of the old courthouse. The victim, Sean Williams, 27, watched from the side, “overwhelmed by the support,” as the local news put it.
“I appreciate it, everybody coming. I love Lancaster and I’m happy for everyone being here,” he said.
The mayor released a video of herself expressing concern over the incident, and the district attorney vowed to look into it. The issue of police brutality was hardly solved, but for the first time, it had been publicly checked.
The activists have rallied around Jess King, the progressive Democratic nominee against the incumbent Republican congressperson Lloyd Smucker. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the redrawing of districts because the earlier ones had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans. While the new ones shift some of them to be more Democratic, the district in Lancaster actually has become more Republican, making it a tough race for King to win but they are not fazed.
Leaders of both the campaign and LSU separately argued that the way to break through in a place like Lancaster was to lead with strong, progressive values, but not get bogged down in lefty jargon.
Health care is a dominant topic of conversation, and both Weaver and Gregg have found a ready audience for King’s solution: Just let everybody into Medicare, and make Medicare better.
When Obama ran for president, especially in 2008, he created a formidable grass-roots organization. But like many Democrats before him, once he won he did not build on it but let it wither away and Hillary Clinton made little effort to resurrect it or create her own, choosing instead to run a national, top-down campaign.
Bernie Sanders, despite losing the race for the nomination, has tried to build on the local activist network he created under the name of Our Revolution that has helped with the organization of local progressive movements. That kind of movement that does not focus on just presidential politics but connects with people on all levels right down to very local issues is what is needed for long-term political change.