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Democratic Sen. Jon Tester On 'Winning Back Rural America'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go back to politics for a few minutes. And if you watched the political conventions, both parties made a point of showcasing people who they said had crossed party lines to support their nominee. But the Democrats took it to a new level, using every night to showcase voters, veterans, former officeholders and others who said they voted for President Trump in the 2016 election but wouldn't do it again and were crossing party lines to vote for a Democrat.

That's a group that Montana Senator Jon Tester knows well. In fact, you could argue he was President Trump's top target in 2018. The president not only took shots at him on Twitter but campaigned in the state multiple times. But Tester prevailed in a state that the president had won handily just two years before. Now Senator Tester has a new book where he talks about what it was like and what he thinks other leaders can learn. But he puts a special focus on how all political leaders can better address the needs of rural voters. It's called "Grounded: A Senator's Lessons On Winning Back Rural America."

And Senator Jon Tester is with us now from his farm in Big Sandy, Mont., to tell us more about it. Senator, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JON TESTER: It is absolutely great to be with you.

MARTIN: Clearly, the premise of the book is that the lessons that you've learned representing your constituents and also basically just living the life that you've led has lessons for other people, for leaders, you know, more broadly. But you do seem to be particularly concerned that Democrats have lost the ability to speak to rural voters or at least are perhaps writing off this constituency. I mean, at one point, you talk about - you recount a talk that you gave to progressive advocates at the think tank the Center for American Progress.

You said in part, quote, "rural Americans appreciate hard work, and they appreciate talking truth. Unrealistic promises of things like totally free colleges or jobs for everybody at a living wage doesn't make sense in rural America because it doesn't make sense." I mean, are you sure? I mean, there are lots of ideas that people have had, lots of sort of policy ideas that people have talked about over the years that at one point didn't make sense but then subsequently do make sense.

TESTER: Look, I don't have a crystal ball on all this. I just know that when you talk about issues in rural America - and I'm not sure - I think they probably do this in urban America, too - you play it back to your life and what you know. And if you can't make sense of it, then you better figure out either a different way to talk about it or you have to move on. And what I see politicians doing a lot in rural America is, number one, they tend to pigeonhole people and think that maybe they aren't the smartest people on earth when, in fact, they're just as smart as anybody else, maybe that they're not as motivated when, in fact, they're just as motivated as anybody else.

And quite frankly, because of those kind of things, politicians tend to talk to them - and by the way this is both parties. This isn't just Democrats or just Republicans. They tend to talk to them in a way where they're kind of lecturing them like a professor would lecture a class in a university when, in fact, if you really want to bring people from rural America along - as I pointed out in the book, we've got two ears and one mouth - act, accordingly. Listen. Listen to what people saying. Listen to what they're really saying because there's a lot of things that they're saying that are absolutely policies of the Democratic Party.

MARTIN: But I have to ask you, though, that, you know, obviously, the premise of the book is that these life lessons and these - the way you learn to resolve political disputes and differences with your neighbors is something that everybody can learn from. I think, in principle, certainly, people - I'm sure that most people believe in that. But part of the difference in a community like yours is that it is small. It is intimate. People do know each other. They have the opportunity to form these kinds of relationships. While Montana is diverse, it's not as diverse as a number of other states. Do you think that those same relationship-based politics can work in places that are really different, where people don't have the same kinds of relationships?

TESTER: Look, I think - at a time where we're struggling as a country for equal justice under the law, I think it's the time where we need to make sure that it works. We need to make sure we're listening. We need to make sure we're putting ourselves in other people's shoes when it comes to solutions to problems in this country right now with equal justice. And I will tell you that I think if we don't listen with both ears and we don't take what people say to us seriously and try to find solutions to move this country forward, I think we're in trouble as a nation.

MARTIN: We've seen a lot of polling coming out as we always do in an election year. And one of the things that stands out is just how polarized a moment we are in that - there's a poll that came out last week that said that supporters of President Trump and Senator Biden are even more divided on a lot of the key issues than the voters were four years ago when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were running against each other. I mean, we've seen all these polls that say people would not want their child to marry a person of a different political party. And I just think that a lot of people have sort of a sense of sadness about this sense of the division that they sense in the country right now. Do you have some thoughts about that?

I mean, one of the things about your book is it's very hopeful. I mean, you don't pull any punches about some of the political fights that you've had. And you're very kind of honest about your perspective. But is there something that you would point to for people who feel a sense of despair about the - kind of the divisiveness that we see in our public life right now?

TESTER: Make no mistake about it. I am deeply troubled by the division in this world. When I go to a town in Montana and somebody sees me wearing with - wearing a hat that may not be of a Democratic Party and turn their head and look away or stick their thumbs down, that bothers me. That bothers me greatly because we share much more in common than we do in difference. And the fact is if we can have those good debates, those good discussions and compromise and come up with policies and ideas that satisfy both sides - and by the way, that's what they used to do. And they don't - and we don't anymore, and we need to start doing that.

And we also need to have leaders who don't divide. I'm telling you that I don't want to get into all this stuff. But when I hear the president going to say something on TV or on radio and he says some of the things he says, when I witnessed what he did to somebody - who, by the way, had more inclination to work with him than work against him ever, myself and the United States Senate - division does not help this country get great. And until we have leaders who work to unite, we're going to have difficulties in this country, you know? Developing policies work good for everybody.

MARTIN: Jon Tester is a senator from Montana, serving his third term. He is a Democrat. His new book "Grounded: A Senator's Lessons On Winning Back Rural America" is out on Tuesday. And he was with us from his farm in Big Sandy, Mont. Senator Tester, thank you so much for talking to us.

TESTER: Thank you very much. I certainly appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERNEST GONZALES' "WHILE ON SATURN'S RINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.