Needed: A Rural Strategy
Helen Waller is feeling lonelier these days. She names the families that have moved off farmsteads along the road where she lives in McCone County, Montana. There are so few folks left that the post office's route drivers deliver mail only three times a week. And when Waller makes the nineteen-mile drive to Circle, the nearest town, she notices that it is emptying out as well. The old hospital is now closed, as is the "junior department store." "I remember when I was a girl, going to town to buy a pair of shoes was a big deal," recalls Waller, a lifelong resident of McCone County. "Now, I can't get shoes in Circle. I used to laugh when people said there might come a day when there was no one left out here, but I don't laugh anymore. I just get angry."
Waller's anger, which is echoed on the front porches of farmhouses and around the cafe tables of the upper Midwest and the Great Plains, is not directed at neighbors who have left the area of eastern Montana where her family settled after World War I. Still farming at age 69, she is well aware of how hard it is to make ends meet in these parts. What angers Waller is a sense that the deck keeps getting stacked against rural America by powerful corporations and by politicians of both political parties who pay more attention to promised rural panaceas--like free trade and a bigger-is-better attitude toward farming--than to the painful realities of the countryside. "I ask myself: How can people in Washington let this happen?" she says. "I wonder if it's because they've gotten so used to measuring everything in economic terms that they don't recognize that behind all these numbers from all these forgotten places, there are people who are hurting."
The hurt Waller describes is a political force Democrats must reckon with if they hope to regain the White House and Congress in 2004. Less than a quarter of America's population now lives beyond this country's cities and suburbs. But even as their percentage of the national population dwindles, rural states still elect two US senators each, and more than fifty US House members represent predominantly rural districts. The electoral votes of even the least populous state can decide close national elections. In 2000, for instance, Al Gore fell just three electoral votes short of winning the presidency. That means that the electoral votes of a single rural state--such as Helen Waller's Montana, where rural support for the Democrats tumbled in 2000--could have rendered Florida's disputed electoral votes inconsequential.
Polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters about access to healthcare, education and the jobs that have gone missing since George W. Bush became President. But rural voters also bring unique demands to the table--for constraints on agribusiness conglomerates, new approaches to trade policy and a renewed federal commitment to rural development. The ability of Democratic candidates to answer those demands with significantly more populist responses than did their predecessors in 2000 and 2002 will determine whether the party has a chance in 2004.
"A lot of Democrats at the national level continue to look at where the concentrations of population are. They want the most bang for their buck. States that are less populated look, at first glance, like they aren't worth the investment," says North Dakota Progressive Coalition director Don Morrison. "What they haven't quite figured out is that there are two places in America where you see the most pain, the most economic injustice: the inner city and rural America. Democrats win the inner cities, and they could win the rural areas. But first, they have to recognize that there is pain out here. Then, they have to make it a whole lot clearer that they're going to do something about it."
The prosperity of the 1990s never reached most of rural America. During that decade, 676 of the nation's 3,141 counties lost population, and the worst population losers were in what is still referred to as America's heartland. More than 60 percent of the counties in the Great Plains have experienced depopulation so profound that an area the size of the original Louisiana Purchase again qualifies for the "frontier" designation that the US Census Bureau gave remote regions before the great waves of settlement in the nineteenth century.