INTERVIEW

Does this North Carolina candidate's viral video have a winning lesson for Democrats?

Charles Graham on his widely-viewed video about standing up to the Klan — and why it's the message Democrats need

By Chauncey DeVega

Published December 8, 2021 6:30AM (EST)

Charles Graham (Photo courtesy of the Charles Graham For Congress Official Campaign )
Charles Graham (Photo courtesy of the Charles Graham For Congress Official Campaign )

Many of the policies advocated by Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress are very popular — even among Republicans. Most Americans support the specific proposals on child care, parental leave, education, Medicare expansion, and strengthening the social safety net contained in Biden's Build Back Better package as well as the recently-passed infrastructure bill.

But Democrats are consistently unable to tell a compelling story that engages public emotion or clearly communicates how their policies would directly improve people's lives. Moreover, because the Democratic Party is a coalition rather than a hive mind, its candidates and elected officials lack message discipline and often end up fighting among themselves rather than focusing on their primary goals: advancing progressive policy changes, defending democracy against the current Republican onslaught and, last but not least, winning and holding political power.

The Democrats' dilemma is made worse by the mainstream news media, which has consistently buoyed up the Republican Party by normalizing its lies, failed policies and generally sociopathic behavior. Even with the country teetering on the edge of a full-on collapse into authoritarianism, the media remains addicted to "both-sides-ism" and related false equivalencies, Beltway horserace journalism and other practices that served to aid the Republican assault on American democracy.

In a recent column for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank summarizes these failures:

In 2020, Trump presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid-19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent white supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the "big lie," the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office.

And yet Trump got press coverage as favorable as, or better than, Biden is getting today. Sure, Biden has had his troubles, with the delta variant, Afghanistan and inflation. But the economy is rebounding impressively, he has signed major legislation, and he has restored some measure of decency, calm and respect for democratic institutions.

We need a skeptical, independent press. But how about being partisans for democracy?

The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians. …

Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It's time to take a stand.

In total and for a variety of reasons, the Democrats have failed to develop a brand they can use to rally their own supporters and win new ones. By comparison, for decades the Republicans have shown themselves to be masters of storytelling and branding. While Republican policies are widely unpopular, generally speaking, this success in creating a brand and narrative around "conservative" ideology has made their party the dominant force in American politics since the 1980s.

RELATED: Can the real lessons of Virginia rescue the Democrats in 2022? It's definitely worth trying

Charles Graham is a six-term Democratic state representative who has served since 2011 in the North Carolina General Assembly. He is now challenging Rep. Dan Bishop, the Republican incumbent in North Carolina's 9th congressional district. Graham is a member of the Lumbee tribe, and the only Native American member of the North Carolina legislature.

In early October, Graham announced his candidacy for Congress with a remarkable campaign video focused on the Battle of Hayes Pond in Robeson County, North Carolina, in 1958, where an alliance of Native Americans, Black people and white people united to defeat an attempted raid by the Ku Klux Klan.

Graham's campaign video offers a powerful example of exactly the kind of storytelling Democrats should deploy. It is personality-driven, sincere and emotional. It emphasizes the human struggle for dignity and a better life, the importance of unity to solve shared problems, and offers a straightforward narrative of heroes and villains. Without being overly didactic, it also foregrounds the importance of interracial alliances in the struggle for social justice. 

Graham's campaign video has been viewed at least 5 million times since its debut in early October. It features Graham's narration: "Hundreds of normal folks deciding to stand together against ignorance and hate. A piece of forgotten history worth remembering, especially today. In Washington, lies turn to violence. And the biggest lie is that America is at war with itself — that you can't trust your neighbor, that they want something that's yours, that you must live in fear of them. But the people who stood up at Hayes Pond refused to be afraid."

That section of the video is interspersed with images of Trump supporters attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6. Graham then continues: "Sometimes we're called upon to put things right, like Hayes Pond in 1958 and America today....These folks didn't set out to make history. They just answered a neighbor's call."

Charles Graham's campaign video echoes the findings of author and legal scholar Ian Haney López, who argues that creating "race-class narratives" is the most effective way for Democrats to defeat Republicans and the fascist movement.

In a new essay for Medium, López writes that his argument is supported by the empirical evidence:

In focus groups and poll testing I and others have done over the last three years, we've probed the power of race-class narratives like this one: "we need to pull together no matter our race or ethnicity. We have done this before and can do it again. But instead of uniting us, certain politicians make divisions worse, insulting and blaming different groups. When they divide us, they can more easily rig our government and the economy for their wealthy campaign donors. When we come together by rejecting racism against anyone, we can elect new leaders who support proven solutions that help all working families."

López reports that message "was more convincing to all respondents — white eligible voters included — than the right's dog whistle fear message," and also performed better than messages that focused primarily on racial justice or that delivered a "colorblind" progressive message. "In other words, research suggests that a fusion race-class message is the most persuasive political message available today, right or left."

RELATED: Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

I recently spoke with Charles Graham about the genesis of his viral campaign video, why he thinks it resonates so widely and how it reflects his core values and upbringing. He also discussed his worries that America is being torn apart by hyper-partisanship, a lack of shared values and widespread loss of faith in the electoral system and democracy.

Toward the end of this conversation, Graham explained how his values about the importance of community, public service and human dignity are reflected in his policies, and especially in his call to better support home health care workers, educators and others who work to build and strengthen communities.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling? How are you making sense of what's going on in this country?

I have been blessed throughout my life. I've got children who are successful and I have a successful business. I have been able to serve the state of North Carolina for six terms in the North Carolina General Assembly. There are some things that really bother me, and that's the state of our country and aspects of where the country is at in terms of some of the social and political challenges. It is really depressing.

I try to figure out how can I make a difference. I am trying to do the right thing by making my community a better, safer and more prosperous place. That's where I get my sense of being and making sense of how I fit into this world.


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How do you reconcile the good things you've seen and experienced with all the suffering so many people are experiencing right now? 

I'm a man of faith. I put a lot of energy into things that are right. Seeing the people out there who are suffering, who are confused and can't make ends meet, it just seems like our world is being pulled in so many directions. For the most part it seems like we're in a trajectory of hopelessness. Personally, I put a lot of confidence in my creator, asking him to give me the strength every day to do the right thing, to keep me focused and grounded. I have a feeling of comfort that allows me to do some outreach and help and encourage others. 

What was your calling to be in public service?

Me and my brothers and sisters were taught to be responsible. And of course that carried over to my high school career where I had some great male role model teachers, men who were genuine and were respected in the community. I wanted to be a professional baseball player, and I had a lot of support from those individuals and that carried me through college.

After I left college, I wanted to be like those folks who encouraged me. I wanted to be someone who could encourage others, someone who could be a role model for other youth. I wanted to be in the teaching profession. And the only way I could enter into the teaching profession was to work with the disadvantaged.

That's how I got my start. I worked with children who were physically and intellectually disabled. I really was empowered by that work. These kids looked up to me. They wanted me to protect them. They wanted me to be a teacher that respected them. I really got a lot of inspiration from those kids.

I went into education administration after that. I used my experiences and my relationships with teachers, educational professionals and administrators to try to develop a better life for people who are disabled. I continued that throughout my career. My passion has been to help those who are hopeless.

When I went into the General Assembly in 2011, I had that same attitude. I wanted to be there as a voice for the people. I don't look at myself as a politician, so to speak. I see myself as a human services individual who can help and bring goodwill to the community. That's the way I've always operated.

How can we make America a more humane and better society?

We're looking at people now through such a hyper-partisan lens. As I look at the community I live in, it has in some ways drifted away from those values that I was raised with and the close relationships that tied the community together.

People are just drifting away from "We the people" in the community. I believe they are more focused on ideology and that is really, I think, tearing our country apart. It is a sad situation.

We've moved away from how to love each other, how to take care of those folks in our communities, regardless of who they are, their color, their gender. We're just moving so far away from those ideas and it's tearing our country apart, our communities apart, our states apart. Now we talk about red state, blue state, purple state. It's not the way I was raised.

What did you learn from your parents and other family by working on a farm?

I grew up during the era of segregation. In the community I was raised up in, we had a restroom for the whites, we had a restroom for Black people and we had a restroom for the Indians. So we had three separate restrooms.

We were taught to have lots of respect for our neighbors, law enforcement, the ministry and our family. I was primarily raised in an indigenous community. We didn't go outside the boundaries of the indigenous community too much. But within that community, it was nothing but respect, generosity, love and caring for each other.

Our school community was the same way. Teachers communicated with parents, parents communicated with teachers. If there was a discipline problem in school, there was a consequence for that when you came home. Our community had a sense of value and trust and respect. Many of those things we've lost along the way.

What was the genesis of your campaign video about the poor people in North Carolina, Native American and African American and white, who stood up to the KKK in 1958 when they wanted to burn a cross and attack Robeson County? That video has been watched millions of times — why is it resonating with so many people?

I was interviewed by the producer of the video. We talked about my community and how I was raised, how the Lumbee people survived through tough times, through wars and attempts to not have us federally recognized. But during that period of time, I keep going back to this of sense of community. Our people, the Lumbee people and the African-American people in my community during the time when I was growing up, we had a mutual respect and trust for each other.

As shown during that campaign video, it was really neighbors helping neighbors, neighbors answering calls for help from their neighbors. That's basically what happened during that time. African-Americans and the Lumbee people realized there was a problem in the community. There was trouble coming, and those neighbors saw that. They did not flinch in terms of the need for us to protect our human dignity. We have to protect our community. We have to protect our property.

If the Lumbee community and the African-American community did not stand together on that night in January of 1958, I can't imagine what the consequences would have been. Potential lives being lost; property damaged and destroyed.

Those guys who went out on that night to stand up against the Klan, we're talking about men who had fought in the world war. They had fought in the Korean War. These were strong and determined men who said, "No, that won't happen in our community." It was really a story of determination and people having a strong urge and will to fight another war on that night if they had to — and they did.

For you, what were the real strengths of that video? I see it as something other Democrats can learn from.

I was not acting, I was speaking from the heart. I was a young boy at the time. I remember growing up years after that, listening to those folks who knew what was at stake, and having a lot of pride as they talked about turning back the Klan.

What I want the viewers of my new video to feel is a sense of community. A feeling of neighbors helping neighbors and not turning their backs on each other. During difficult times we stand united, and we work together. We are having some of those difficult times right now, when neighbors don't trust neighbors. This is a sad time we're living in.

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It was really not a political ad, to be honest with you. It was not a political announcement. That's what the producer wanted. He said, "I want something unique. I don't want just a typical campaign ad." I want to help our country heal and be united. That was the message.

When did you realize that you had something special in the campaign ad, that it was hitting folks emotionally?

When I read the first draft of the script, I wasn't sure if I wanted it to be that strong and that powerful. I felt that considering the state of the country right now, it might be too divisive to a certain degree. We did some minor edits, not a whole lot. But I keep looking at that video and it still moves me. I felt like this is the right thing to do. This is the right thing to say.

As we look at the state of our social issues, at the state of politics in this country, at the divisions that we have, I think the video said exactly what I wanted it to say about me as a person — and about the people who defended the community against the KKK.

I am a member of the black working-class. Where I grew up, we would ask folks, "Who made you? Where'd you come from?" In that spirit, where did your values come from?

Yeah, well, down here we say, "Who's your people?" And that says a lot. It speaks volumes. I would say it was many things. Many people throughout my life have influenced me, but I have to go back to my roots and my family. The late 1960s to the 1970s, when I was in my formative years, I was trying to figure out, "What do I want to be? What do I want to accomplish in life?" It just brings me back to how I was raised.

My father left me when he was 47 years old. He left me when I had just turned 20. He taught me so much during the years that he was in good health. He worked a public job and we as a family worked on the farm and sharecropped. This was not just my immediate family, but my extended family as well, that worked together on those farms during some very difficult times.

We knew that in order to have the things that we were lucky enough to have, such as clothes to go to school, food on the table, we had to work hard to have those things in life.

It just brings me back to my father. It brings me back to my mother. It brings me back to my grandparents, very respected people. I didn't want to do anything to hurt my family's reputation. I had a good family, and they were very respected people in the community. Those years back during those tough times is what made me. It's what I am today, a hard-working man.

How are your values reflected in the policies you support?

I look at a given policy and my first thought is, will this make our community more whole? Is this going to make our community coalesce around something that is going to be good and valued? Would this be good for educators? Is this good for our health care workers? Would this bring value to their lives? Is this policy going to be good for people?

My mother was a home health care worker for many years. For many folks, especially for the indigent, the elderly, the homebound and others in dire need, home health care workers are like family. My mother has told me stories about how you form relationships with people, and how she and her colleagues will maintain those relationships even if the state stops paying, or the person's money runs out. They'll still stop by and see those folks and sit with them. They're their friends, in some cases almost their family. What are we going to do for those brothers and sisters, those home health care heroes? What are your ideas, in terms of public policy?

They are special human beings. They're making a sacrifice. The pandemic has really highlighted that. Those folks are heroes. Health care workers, whether they are public or private, need to be rewarded with a living wage, an income they can be proud of. At this point in our lives, home health care workers need to be making no less than $15 an hour. They need to have benefits. They need to be encouraged in many ways to continue doing the level of work they do because they are unsung heroes.

I always say that our teachers are nation-builders. They are inspiring children every day. As a matter of fact, during this term in our legislature, I insisted that we pay our custodial workers, our cafeteria workers, our bus drivers a minimum of $15 an hour. They make sure those children get to school. They make sure the children are fed and nourished.

The same thing is true of our health care workers. They are a companion to that individual that they're working with and they're doing it because of one reason: They love what they do. They know they're touching someone's life in a way that's going to make that person's day meaningful and enjoyable in a special way.

When people reach out to you and they say, "I'm tired. I don't feel like anything matters anymore. My vote doesn't matter. I'm feeling hopeless," what do you tell them? How would you get them back into the fight?

We have a lot of that. Yes, we do. How would I get them back? I have talked to people with that same mindset, that same attitude. "It's not going to do any good. Why should I even go out and vote?"

I say to them, "Well, just look around you. If you see individuals in your community that are going without, that are feeling hopeless, that are actually not supported within their community. If you see crime, if you see all kinds of things that have an adverse effect on how we live every day," I say to that individual, "go out and express your desires by using the vote."

The vote is the most powerful thing you have at your disposal. You should use that and encourage your community to use their power. I try to encourage people, "Start looking at how you personally can make a difference. If we get everyone looking at how they can make a difference, then we have a movement, and that's what it's going to take."


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Charles Graham Democrats Elections Interview North Carolina Race-class Narrative