The spirit of America is strong; the state of our union is fragile.
That is my conclusion after 100 days driving 14,128 miles through 34 states as an independent candidate for President of the United States.
I met with over 1,000 people individually and in small groups. I mostly stayed away from big cities and college campuses. I had learned on two short campaign trips before this long one that very few Americans understand there are independent candidates running for office so I got in the habit of putting out my hand while I said: “I am Dr. Lynn Kahn, Independent candidate for President of the United States – Independent – not Republican, not Democrat – Independent!”
Almost everyone I met shook my hand and I usually got in two more sentences: “My platform is Fix Government, Build Peace and I have a 7-Track plan to do just that. I start by cutting one trillion dollars of waste out of federal agencies and then redirect those dollars to jumpstart jobs and better serve our communities.”
Yes, a few people laughed and walked away; most wanted to hear what I had to say and tell me their stories. That’s how I came to believe our spirit is strong, our union is fragile and my 7-Track plan to Transform America by Transforming Government will save our nation from a downward spiral and forever war.
I left Maryland on August 12 and drove through West Virginia and Pennsylvania for meetings in Ohio then stayed with friends in Indiana and Illinois. I drove through Wisconsin and stopped in Minnesota then went west across most of North Dakota and down into South Dakota where I stayed for a while. Then I drove south along eastern Wyoming until I found the interstate to cross into Utah for scheduled meetings in Nevada.
I stayed with friends in Northern California and family in Southern California then moved on to Arizona where I had some of the most intense conversations of my whole journey. On Day 32, at a biker bar and old-style diner in the high desert, I truly began to understand the deep and widespread anger of We the People at our government and all politicians.
I drove back north to Utah to talk ballot access: the rules, numbers of signatures and detailed requirements are different in every state, of course. I took 3 days to drive back down to Arizona, stopping often to hike and clear my head, balancing the personal journey with the listening tour and the crash course in ballot access technicalities while admiring the stunning beauty of America.
More than once, when pausing on a hiking trail or scenic overlook, strangers would talk to me about the glory of God reflected in multi-colored canyons and mountains. These uplifting moments were always deflated by the many stories I heard from Native Americans about broken trusts, broken treaties, environmental damage, horrific health care, failed education systems, substandard housing, corruption, incarceration and assaults of all kinds.
After a few side trips for car maintenance, I left Arizona and drove into northern New Mexico and across the Texas panhandle to meetings in Oklahoma. Then I tore down south through Texas until I found the power and serenity of the Gulf Coast visible for mile after mile as I crossed southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
I spent nine days in Florida reconnecting with high school classmates and reinventing government colleagues, talking almost daily about the Constitution and only once about climate change. I finished the updated version of my platform Transform America by Transforming Government.
I left Florida with oranges in the back seat and drove up the east coast – Georgia, South Carolina (detouring around flooded out highways), North Carolina and Virginia. I paused in Maryland to catch up with my son and finish my article on Transforming Veterans Affairs then drove north through Delaware, New Jersey, and into upstate New York.
In the quiet of the Adirondack Mountains, I finished my article on Veteran Suicide and Moral Injury, spoke with my communication and ballot access teams, and prepped with policy advisers for radio interviews in Virginia and South Carolina.
I rounded out my 100 days on November 19 after a quick trip across Vermont for meetings in New Hampshire then drove through a piece of Massachusetts for lunch in Rhode Island then northwest through Connecticut and back to upstate New York.
I talked with and listened to veterans, teachers, students, activists, lawyers, first responders, nurses, nursing assistants, artists, writers, musicians, inventors and entrepreneurs, chefs, cooks, sales clerks, hotel and motel staff, architects, engineers, traditional builders, sustainable energy builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, small and large business owners, corporate executives and nonprofit directors, retirees touring America in recreational vehicles, millennials hiking and biking across mountains and valleys, lots of young parents and single moms, lots of people struggling with college debt or unpaid healthcare bills, and folks worried about our damaged democracy and the future of America.
I always tried to ask, “What one issue do you want me – as a presidential candidate – to focus on?”
Two themes stand out. The good news is that I heard over and over again – even when followed by angry or traumatic personal stories – “I love America.” Our identity as Americans and our love of freedom is easily expressed.
The bad news is that there is much more pain and everyday struggle across our nation and deep in our communities than politicians and journalists generally speak or write about. To say We the People are frustrated with our government is an understatement.
There is anger bordering on rage about the appalling waste of taxpayer money and the broken promises of every single one of our federal departments. There is disgust about Wall Street still trampling on the good will of Main Street. Whatever government or politicians or conventional media announce -- there is no trust, no respect, no belief and no faith.
I kept hearing about “government corruption” and “government lies.” I have concluded that these beliefs reflect the difference between official numbers and true stories:
- The report says 48 million Americans including 15 million children live in “food insecure households.” The stories I heard from teacher after teacher were that the #1 issue in our classrooms is hungry children.
- The study says student loan debt has reached $1.3 trillion. The stories I heard were about debt not jobs, government-funded harassment and rules that forbid refinancing even when loan payments steal from food budgets.
- The officials say 100 Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare facilities are under criminal investigation. The stories from perfect strangers are filled with pain: “Why do I have to beg for what was promised to me?” or “22 veterans commit suicide every day – doesn’t anyone care?”
The stories behind the numbers matter to individual communities. Every small town knows which high school athlete lost a leg in Iraq and they know how well he and his family are doing with his depression and difficulties finding work.
Many communities know why local schools stay open over spring break – so children won’t go hungry for nine days.
Every driller I talked to in the Dakotas knew about the 2011 oil rig explosion that killed 21-year-old Brendan on his first day of work and forced the amputations of Michael’s legs and that two years later depressed and unemployed and without compensation, Michael killed himself.
They all know there are no federal safety standards for the oil and gas industry and that most work goes to subcontractors so no one has health insurance, retirement plans, family leave, or any other kind of benefit.
When government pronouncements are so disconnected from reality for tens of millions of Americans, the logical conclusion is that “government lies all the time.” That is why 75 percent of Americans believe our government is corrupt and only 19 percent trust our government to do the right thing.
I understand this. Years ago, I stopped believing government’s unemployment numbers including the current headline rate of 5 percent unemployment. If we include people who have not looked for work in the past four weeks or have given up looking for work or are not working the number of hours they want – what is called the U6 rate -- that unemployment number is 10 percent.
Even that blurs the reality of 15.7 percent unemployment for those 16-19 years of age and out of school or the 15 Native American tribes with unemployment over 80 percent.
Now I no longer believe government numbers about poverty and I believe the headline rate of 14.5 percent poverty significantly underestimates reality. We have to look indirectly to find the truth:
- 51 percent of students in public school are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
- 45 percent of homeless people are employed
- 40 percent of all workers are now “contingent workers” – temporary or on-call workers or contractors with no benefits – all more likely to live in poverty.
- 62 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck
I believe the true poverty rate in America is 34 percent – those living below 200% of the official poverty guidelines. That means 100 million Americans live in or near poverty. They are tired, frustrated, angry, depressed and resigned to their fate.
And low-income neighborhoods have schools with the fewest resources and so 75 percent of lower income children cannot read, write or do math at grade levels. The everyday reality of income inequality means 100 million Americans live in or near poverty with no resources to move up.
At the same time, the government reports keep rolling out with official numbers that make no sense to most Americans who now believe they are being lied to about employment and poverty, education and healthcare, about veteran benefits and Native American treaties, safety nets and homeland security, about war and the true costs of war, about law enforcement and the tragedy of mass incarceration, and about the poisons we pump into our air, water, land and food.
And so I say this to all those policy wonks and opinion writers out there, go visit reality. When you ask why are so many people drawn to politicians who voice anger and now hatreds, when you wonder why so many Americans want to close our borders to refugees and immigrants, and when you dismiss the Americans who do not understand the science of climate change – start with the answer to these questions:
- What will we do about the schools with one science book for every 300 children?
- Why do we allow foreign corporations to raise their flags on American resources and pay slave wages to our citizens?
- Whose hungry child will you feed first?
We cannot be the most powerful democracy on the planet when there is so much damage and mistrust here at home. Transforming Government is the only way to strengthen the fragile state of our union and build on the powerful sprit of America. That path begins with honesty and is lined with integrity.