Needed: A Rural Strategy
This isn't a case of people leaving because they don't like country life, says George Naylor, a Greene County, Iowa, farmer who recently became the president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "The people I know who've given up felt sick about it. But they couldn't go on living in poverty." Poverty rates are now higher in vast rural stretches of the Great Plains than in America's big cities; nine of the nation's ten counties with the lowest per capita income are found in farm states west of the Mississippi. Twenty-seven percent of rural workers earn a wage that is insufficient to lift a family of four out of poverty. Rural hospitals are closing. Medicare and Medicaid payments are getting squeezed. Incomes for the vast majority of farm families remain stagnant. Free-trade initiatives like the North American Free Trade Agreement have been so unsuccessful in delivering a promised boom for family farmers that the federal government is now setting up a Trade Adjustment Assistance program to help farmers displaced by trade deals that were supposed to assure their prosperity. And the same free-trade policies that have failed farmers have devastated the small manufacturing concerns that once allowed farm couples to stay on the land by providing work--and health benefits--to the spouse who worked "in town."
"Rural America is being eviscerated by contract farming, by the loss of control of the food chain, by the lack of rural healthcare, by trade policies that are particularly destructive to rural economies," says Representative Marcy Kaptur, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Kaptur is angered that many in Congress, including fellow Democrats, fail to understand the small "d" democratic value of having a countryside populated by farmers and small-town residents who keep control of the nation's food supply in diverse hands. It is not just a romantic attachment to old ways of farming that causes Kaptur to fear rural depopulation. Rather, she says, something fundamental is lost as rural folk who considered themselves stewards of the land are replaced by sprawling factory farms that treat the landscape as a commodity to be dosed indiscriminately with chemicals and despoiled with livestock "waste lagoons." Democrats must recognize, Kaptur says, that "rural America is hanging on by its fingernails. There's a sense of urgency in the countryside. It's real, it's volatile."
Such urgency was once the stuff of political legend. In 1896, a 36-year-old Nebraskan named William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for President with an appeal to farm-state frustration. Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech and his alliance with the independent populists began pulling Midwest and Plains states voters away from Republican moorings some had clung to since Civil War days and toward the Democrats. That process culminated in the election of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal restored a measure of prosperity to Depression-worn farm states. When that prosperity came, the Republicans reasserted themselves. But the recession of the late 1950s wrenched farm-state voters back to the Democratic fold and sent South Dakotan George McGovern, Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy, Idahoan Frank Church and other young liberals to the Senate, where they transformed not just farm policy but the Democratic Party. As recently as 1986, when Democrats retook the Senate six years into the Reagan era, they did so by electing a fresh crop of senators from recession-ravaged farm states that included South Dakota's Tom Daschle, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and, four years later, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone.
Today, the party of Bryan has a hard time speaking to rural America. Since 1988 support for the Democrats among rural voters has dropped from 56 percent to around 36 percent. In the early 1990s the Congressional Rural Caucus had eighty-eight Democratic members to fifty-four Republicans; less than a decade later, the breakdown was eighty-four Republicans to fifty-eight Democrats. "If we were to write off the [partisan shift in the] rural vote as simply echoing national trends, we'd miss a seismic shift in American politics," says veteran pollster Bill McInturff. Yet, for the most part, Democrats continue to stumble in the countryside. Things aren't quite as bad as in 1999, when Representative Patrick Kennedy, head of the party's campaign to retake the House, was quoted as saying Democrats had "written off" America's rural areas in their 2000 strategy. But the party still strays from the economic populism that can counter Republican appeals based on social issues like abortion and opposition to gun control. Out on the Plains, liberals joke about the gay man who worried about coming out of the closet for fear that he would be thought a Democrat.
After the 2000 presidential election, colored maps showed that while the East and West Coasts and inland metropolitan areas were blue for Gore, the vast majority of the country was red for Bush. In the West, you could walk a line from Mexico to Canada and not set foot in a single county--let alone a single state--carried by Gore. Bush won 59 percent of the rural vote, compared with 46 percent for Republican Bob Dole in 1996 and 40 percent for Bush's father in 1992. "It should have been a wake-up call for the Democrats," says National Farmers Union president David Frederickson. "But they went right into the 2002 campaign and made a lot of the same mistakes."
Kaptur says that's because the party has been peddling gimmicks rather than populist substance. "Most of the people who run the Democrat Party, like [Democratic National Committee chair] Terry McAuliffe, they're city people," she says. "They think it's just a matter of tinkering with the party's image." Democratic consultants have created a mini-industry that tells candidates to go "country" by sponsoring NASCAR teams, joining the NRA or fuzzing positions on abortion or gay rights to mollify social conservatives. Rural folks just laugh. "You can be ardently pro-choice and support gay rights and still win rural areas if you have an economic message," says Rhonda Perry, a family farmer who is program director with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "I don't think too many people in rural Missouri sit up nights worrying about gay rights. But they do sit up nights worrying about how they are going to keep the farm or how they are going to get health benefits after the meatpacking plant shuts down."