Needed: A Rural Strategy
If Democrats want to speak to rural America, they should start listening to the Rhonda Perrys and Helen Wallers. They'll learn quickly that bland, one-size-fits-all "rural strategies" are losers. The corporate owner of a 4,000-cow factory farm in California has different demands from the family that milks 100 cows in Wisconsin. Companies like Monsanto and Tyson are not "partners" of wheat farmers trying to keep genetically modified seeds out of North Dakota, or Missouri hog farmers who want to use antitrust laws to prevent meatpacking companies from cornering markets. Wal-Mart has a different vision for rural America from mom-and-pop stores on Main Street. And while a Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement might open foreign markets for agribusiness, it will collapse prices for family farmers here and abroad. "It's about making choices," says Waller. "Most of the time the choices are between what the agribusiness companies want, which is to rig the markets so they can make money, and what's good for rural communities."
The late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota battled in the last Congress for a national ban on livestock ownership by meatpacking companies. If enacted, it would have prevented the development of monopolies that kill competition and drive small farms out of business. Their initiative failed, with key Democrats, like North Carolina Senator John Edwards, opposing it. As he seeks the presidency, Edwards is now trying to position himself as a champion of rural America, but he has taken hits for being on the wrong side of what Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich says should be "a defining issue in this campaign."
Just as the meatpacking industry should be prevented from monopolizing livestock industries, agribusiness corporations should be prevented from monopolizing farm subsidies. Under the $249 billion, ten-year farm bill President Bush signed in 2002, two-thirds of farm subsidy payments go to the top 10 percent of farm-subsidy recipients. More than 50 percent of the conservation funds paid for by the bill go to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which provides subsidies to corporate factory farms that are major polluters. More than $100 million goes to trade promotion schemes that are often boondoggles.
Democrats must understand that trade is a big rural issue. Just as NAFTA, most-favored-nation trading status for China and other trade deals fail to benefit family farmers, they also have caused deindustrialization that hits rural America particularly hard. Maytag is moving factories to Mexico from Midwestern towns where, for decades, it has been the prime employer. Textile mills, long prime employers in the rural South, can't compete with firms that pay a fraction of their wages; this year's collapse of Pillowtex Corporation closed sixteen plants and eliminated more than 7,500 jobs, mostly in North Carolina and Virginia. "Farmers used to be able to ride through the rough times by taking a job at the machine shop. Now, in a lot of places, the machine shop is closed," says Niel Ritchie, head of the League of Rural Voters, a farm-labor coalition that is organizing a November 15 presidential forum in Iowa. "You can't talk about rural development without talking about trade."
Ritchie thinks some Democratic candidates are starting to get it. While Joe Lieberman still echoes discredited talk about trade as a cure-all, Kucinich and Dick Gephardt recognize that rural voters see through the claims of free traders. Edwards stumbled on the livestock-monopoly issue, but Kucinich, Gephardt and Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, champion anti-monopoly measures. And while Dean is often portrayed as the darling of the East and West Coasts, his "Farmers and Ranchers for Dean" campaign has made progress in states like Iowa and North Dakota. "Dean's from a rural state and he's gotten through to a lot of people by talking substance on our issues," says North Dakotan Morrison. "Substance is the key. Rural voters don't want sympathy, they want something real from Democrats."
Offering rural voters something real--in the form of a populist alternative to the Republicans--may be the greatest challenge that Democrats face in the 2004 campaign. But it is also the greatest opportunity. "Politics is the name of the game, isn't it? Politics decides whether we can stay in business, whether there's a future for our children and grandchildren here," says Helen Waller, as she looks out across the wheat fields of eastern Montana on a fall afternoon. "There's a lot of us who take this all very seriously because we know what is at stake. I just wish the politicians would take politics as seriously as we do."