Can a progressive populist movement be built in the rural areas and small towns of America’s heartland that Donald Trump dominated in 2016? This week, People’s Action—one of the largest multiracial people’s organizations in the country, with 48 member organizations in 30 states—launched a major initiative to do just that. Instead of writing off red counties in rural and small-town America, the project aims to counter Trump’s fraudulent right-wing populism with a progressive populist movement built from the bottom up.
The “Rural and Small Town Organizing Strategy” will target 72 counties in 10 states across the heartland and the south. Trump carried 62 of those counties in 2016; 28 were “pivot” counties that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then went to Trump in 2016. They are located in key swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Carolina. People’s Action (where I am an advisor) and its member organizations will have organizing efforts up and running in all 72 counties by the end of 2018—and sustain growing community organizations through 2020 and beyond. Unlike traditional grassroots organizing efforts, this initiative will be identifying new leaders, and supporting insurgent candidates from the start.
The moment is right. Trump’s success testifies to the desire of voters in these areas to shake things up. More and more Americans are coming to understand that the economy has been rigged against them, and that our politics have been corrupted by big money. Rural and small-town America have taken some of the hardest hits: jobs lost, plants closed, water fouled, family farms crushed, the relentless spread of the afflictions of despair—divorce, suicide, depression, addiction.
Trump and Republicans consolidated their hold on these regions largely by playing a race-bait politics of resentment, blaming “those people”—blacks, Latinos, immigrants, limousine liberals—for what has been lost. But Trump’s embrace of traditional Republican gospel—tax cuts for the rich and corporations, attacks on health care, Social Security and education, and a rollback of environmental regulation and worker and consumer protection—betrays his populist posture.
George Goehl, director of People’s Action, grew up in a rural, working-class family in Indiana. He argues that the potent race-bait politics of the Republicans isn’t invulnerable. Contrary to stereotypes about rural America, these counties, while predominantly white, include African-American communities, Native American reservations, and areas with significant immigrant populations. These counties are only about 14 percent less diverse than the rest of the country. People’s Action will seek to build an economic populist movement across lines of race, bringing people together to fight for their shared interests.
Is this possible? Kischa Peña, an African-American mother of two who is helping to build the group Down Home North Carolina, personifies the potential. “After the 2016 election, Charlottesville…I had all but given up on white America. In September 2017, I met Down Home. I was skeptical of building a multi-racial poor and working class power structure in Alamance County of all places,” she said. “But here I am eight months later, more hopeful than ever…. We can win this fight by being open to having difficult and transparent conversation, by actively listening to each other’s stories, realizing that we have more in common than we do that separates us, and seeing those shared issues as opportunities to build the power that we all know our families deserve.”