Truckers, Tractors, and Ukraine: What Do They Tell Us About Democracy?

By D.G. Mawn, Madhawa Palihatihiya, and Prabha Sankaranyaran 

Amidst pictures of the new war in Ukraine, the U.S. is anticipating photos of truck convoys arriving in the Washington D.C. area, protesting many issues including vaccine mandates. Ukraine’s democracy is under assault just as in the U.S., we are seeing democracy in action: people organizing to use their voices.

But it’s complicated. Things always are in a democracy. Convoy organizers announced participation of thousands, but trucker reality – a need to work and the in-progress lifting of mandates – is sapping those numbers. Some outside interests are supporting the convoys for their own political reasons, eroding protest credibility. But most importantly, the organizers have promised to remain peaceful. 

This moment conjures thoughts of “Tractorcade.” In 1978, after a catastrophic collapse of American agricultural prices, thousands of farmers from across the U.S. drove their tractors to the capitol. They were asking for pricing parity policy to enable farmers to earn a fair wage, and for country-of-origin labeling to promote American produce. 

Like the current truck convoys, Tractorcade, too, was complicated. The tractors snarled traffic, caused disruptions, and angered Washingtonians. 

But in time the seeds the farmers planted through voice and action sprouted, and those in power began to listen. Small economic and political changes began to take place. “Every day, we were given a folder and it contained a senator and congressman,” notes Don Kimbrell, a farmer who drove his tractor from the Texas Panhandle to D.C., in an interview with AgWeb. “We’d go right to those offices and ask to be heard. Some gave us an ear and some didn’t.”  

The civic story widened. A blizzard paralyzed the capitol, and the farmers used their tractors to dig Washington out. To express gratitude, Washingtonians invited farmers to their homes for dinner. The seed of change now expanded their field and people heard the message and offered their voice and help.

Recalling the impetus for Tractorcade, David Senter, an American Agricultural Movement (AAM) founder, said “When you have desperate men losing family land or watching their children’s future slip away, they can turn to violence really fast. Instead, AAM gave farmers an outlet and they knew they weren’t alone—otherwise American agriculture was going to see bloodshed.”

Looking now at the trucker convoys, we see the heightened political tensions and polarizing narratives accompanying them. 

What was offered by American leadership in 1978 — the will to listen, learn, request, and respond to those gravely impacted by the price collapse — needs to be offered today. Therefore, on February 17, the TRUST Network, a collaborative body of leading national, regional and local leaders focused on peace building, social justice, and democratic engagement called for our current political and economic leaders to:

1) Acknowledge the legitimate grievances associated with the return of the economy since the pandemic. 
2) Acknowledge truckers’ contributions to society and the economy.
3) Acknowledge that these times of a continuing pandemic and ongoing need to balance public health concerns with commercial and individual livelihoods has brought about changes that, while intending to be helpful, have had unintended consequences.
4) Ensure that the true voice of the trucking industry is being heard and not drowned out by the destructive behavior of some using the situation for individual gain; destructive violence is an unacceptable violation of the law and will not be tolerated.

As opposed to the crushing of democratic will now being attempted in Ukraine, we must and should seek ways to seed constructive social conversation. We should plant seeds of listening and learning, hearing and helping, recognizing and recalibrating. In doing so, we’ll embrace this moment for democracy.

D.G. Mawn is President of the National Association for Community Mediation and CEO of Intuitive Synergies, a consulting firm that supports systemic change via cultural intuitiveness and power differentials.

Madhawa Palihatihiya is a researcher, lecturer and practitioner in conflict resolution, and Senior Fellow at the UMass Boston Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development.

Prabha Sankaranyaran is President and CEO of Mediators Beyond Borders International, co-leading MBBI’s partnership with Rotary International.  All three convened the Trust Network in 2020 as the first national civilian early warning, early response platform for political violence.