Why I’m Running for CongressNews at Home
tags: Congress, politics, David Benac
David Benac is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Michigan’s Sixth Congressional District. He is an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University.
I am historian teaching at a public university and I am running for Congress. My career as a historian is infrequently a point of discussion. Those with an appreciation for history and higher education presume that my knowledge provides a unique opportunity to understand the broader context of current events. Those who tilt towards the anti-intellectual simply dismiss my training as “Piled Higher and Deeper” (Ph.D.) and presume that I must be out of touch with “real Americans.” People often ask me why I am running, but almost never ask how my professional life can coincide with this new, overtly political, public image.
Historians abandoned the quixotic pursuit of objectivity in their work decades ago, but still cling to the perception. In our classrooms, our public statements, and our social media we still strive to maintain our position of intellectual authority by remaining free from perceptions of bias. I know that broad statement ignores many individuals at various stages of their careers who are the exception, and in recent years it has become professionally acceptable to take a vocal public stand on important issues.
My professional journey, viewed with the advantage of hindsight, is a direct line from the idealistic undergrad seeking pure knowledge to my present, which finds me challenging a hard-right member of Congress who has spent over three decades in office. The writings of Bill Cronon, Carolyn Merchant, and Richard White revealed the connections between the history of the American West, Native Americans, and the environment. My own experience of growing up on a homestead and working in my dad’s small sawmill eventually merged with my academic work. I found myself researching and writing about rural communities and their connections to the forests and the land on which they depended. It may not have been inevitable, but it was not long until I identified exploitative corporations as cancers that ate away at the communities and the landscapes where they took root.
After graduate school I decided to devote my career to public history. It was the ability of public history to serve as a tool of community revitalization and empowerment that attracted me. I found ways to use oral history, historic preservation, cultural resources management, and heritage tourism to amplify the voices of individuals and to bring awareness to community needs and resources. When I did this, no one questioned whether I was exhibiting bias or exerting undue influence over individuals.
Parallel to my professional career was my increasing concern over the direction of our political and economic systems. When I moved to Louisiana in 2003, I had a sporadic record of activism that stretched back about a decade. Hurricane Katrina wreaked devastation on New Orleans and revealed the effect of decades of governmental neglect of infrastructure, a failure to effectively plan for the safety of the people, and an absolute lack of leadership. It was the people of New Orleans who rose together after the storm to rebuild the cultural and social ties that hold communities together. The power of people saved the city. That is when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killed another 13 people, and rained destruction on the region. The ecology and the cultural and economic practices that defined the region for generations has yet to recover.
New Orleans had been my home for a decade and I had become deeply involved in the community, but the chance to return to my home state brought me back to Michigan in 2013. I left the Gulf South, the site of the largest offshore oil spill in US history, and relocated to Kalamazoo, a wonderful community that happens to be the site of the largest inland oil spill in US history. Enbridge’s pipeline carrying tar sands oil ruptured and spilled its toxic contents into the Kalamazoo river at the same time that BP’s oil rig was spewing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Neither one of these corporations faced consequences that have changed their behavior. The ability of such destructive corporations to pay their way out of any real responsibility forced me to become actively involved. No perception of objectivity is justified in the wake of such irresponsibility.
The answer to my question of what to do next appeared when Senator Bernie Sanders declared that he would run for the presidency. I had followed Sanders’s career since he voted against the war in Iraq, a stance that I believe was a rare demonstration of leadership by an elected official. I knocked on thousands or doors, made thousands of phone calls, and helped organize other volunteers in the region. We demonstrated the power of grassroots activism. Sanders won our Congressional District with 57 percent of the Democratic vote in the primary election and his victory in Michigan proved the viability of his campaign. Sanders recognized my commitment to his campaign when he chose me as one of three people to represent him on the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee when they met in Orlando last July. Unfortunately, the actions of the DNC’s leadership demonstrated what I had long feared: the Democratic Party was just as beholden to corporate donors and dark money as the Republicans.
I left Orlando with a commitment to join the effort to reform the Democratic Party from within and, in the process, to save our democracy. Since that time, I won election as Vice-Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Environment Caucus and District Coordinator for the Michigan Democratic Party Justice Caucus, joined as one of the first members of the working group of Our Revolution Michigan, co-founded Organize West Michigan and the Kalamazoo Earth Day Committee, and worked with many other community groups. After months of people encouraging me to do so, I decided to run for Congress in the spring of 2017 and launched my campaign on May Day.
My life has changed since the announcement. A PAC funded by the Republican Party submitted a FOIA request for my employment records. I find myself quoted directly by reporters and bloggers to whom I have never spoken. People I have never seen walk up to me at the local food co-op and ask me about my stance on immigration. Strangers tell me in person and via email that I need to shave my beard so that voters will like me more. People share their personal stories and welcome me into their homes and communities. The level of public scrutiny I had grown accustomed to as a faculty member has been magnified many times over.
What will not change is my understanding of the teaching historian or the purpose of history in society. As a history teacher I strive to provide students with the tools for success in life. History teaches us to actively seek the best possible information, to critically assess the value, reliability, context, and significance of that information, and to effectively communicate our discoveries. It is not my job to reduce students’ opportunities for critical thinking by closing off options, even if I think those options are incorrect. The history teacher must create a semi-transparent, but impermeable wall between personal belief and in-class lessons. My students can know what I believe, they can watch a stump speech, or look at my social media, but that perspective will and must remain off campus.
Applying the tools of the historian to the political arena I often find myself falling back on one of my favorite little books, John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History. He posits that we can view time as an X, with the ever-expanding triangle to the left representing the past and the ever-expanding triangle to the right representing the future. In this diagram an infinite number of points, representing discrete events, exist on both sides. The practice of history demands that we develop the skills to link the discrete events of the past into a linear representation. When we carry that line into the future we discover the likely trajectory that will follow. History does not predict the future, but without it we have no ability to understand the present or to understand the significance and outcomes of our actions.
I am both terrified and emboldened when I consider the present in the context of past events and eras. There are few points in our nation’s history when the stability of our democracy, our economy, and our society has seemingly faced such dire threats. Coincidentally, there are few points in our nation’s history when we have seen such an upward trend in citizen interest and activism. I believe that we are situated at a crucial point in time. Where we go from here will determine whether we slide further towards an oligarchy that crushes our rights and elevates corporations, or if we will choose to stand united and demand that our government, economy, and institutions be reshaped to place the dignity, rights, and health of the people first.
I encourage you to follow the campaign at:
I do not accept corporate or Super PAC contributions so your support is crucial. You can donate to the campaign via Crowdpac or Act Blue.
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