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.”
The promise of this strategy is illustrated by its stark contrast with politics as usual. Establishment Democrats tend to write off rural areas as hopeless, giving new meaning to the term “redlining.” Brigid Flaherty helped start Down Home North Carolina by organizing volunteers to knock on over 4,000 doors in rural communities. They entitled their report on the work “No One’s Ever Asked Me Before” because that is what they heard time and time again at the door.
Traditional electoral campaigns gear up for a few months and then pack up when the election is over. They sell the candidate—often selected for the ability to give or raise big bucks—like a commercial product, complete with branding, poll-tested ads, and sculpted messaging. They rely on large donations from deep-pocket donors to meet the rising costs of campaigns. Not surprisingly, they have little success in persuading voters to change their views, so they focus on targeting the sympathetic. That leads the party to write off districts and counties where “we have no chance.”
People’s Action’s movement politics is fundamentally different. It seeks to build enduring grassroots organizations that can enlist citizens to lead the effort to fight on common concerns. It will rely on local volunteers and small donations. It will rally people not around a party or a candidate, but around a bold agenda that addresses real needs. Movement politics will recruit and help train leaders from the local community. It will take the time to listen and to educate, building a narrative grounded in local culture and language. And movement candidates will be free to name names, to call out true culprits, to say what is what. The differences are telling.
Because they intend to stay and build, People’s Action member groups began the project by listening. Volunteers from member organizations knocked on more than 5,000 doors and documented nearly 2,500 individual conversations through phone banks, door-knocking, and in-person surveys at events and churches.
What they found, summarized in their report “The Promise of a Progressive Populist Movement,” shouldn’t surprise given the economic distress afflicting these communities. Residents were understandably suspicious of a government that doesn’t serve them and a politics that doesn’t speak to them. But they are not in the thrall of conservative ideology. They express more support for basic bread-and-butter reforms—health care for all, raising the minimum wage, improving public education, better access to mental health and addiction treatment, clean water—than for conservative proposals like cutting government regulation or deporting more immigrants. They are more likely to blame a government corrupted by big money and big corporations for their problems than to blame immigrants or the poor who are dependent on government programs.
As Brigid Flaherty reported from her talks, “No one ever asked me to deny a living wage; no one ever asked me to give tax breaks to billionaires and multinational corporations; no one ever asked me to transfer wealth off of the backs of working people or allow big money to influence our election.”
George Goehl recognizes that the challenge of “unifying a multi-racial poor and working class coalition is real. But know this: We have found the villain in this story and it is not each other.”
The initiative is organizing now, engaging rural communities in issue campaigns and races up and down the ballot in 2018. The plan is to keep growing into 2020, consolidating a real force in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and in swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
This will puncture the sterile national Democratic Party argument that it should simply write off these districts and voters. (After all, Hillary won a plurality of the popular vote, as we’re often reminded.) The fierce resistance to Trump should suffice to sweep Democrats into control of the House. A better candidate in 2020 would take back the White House.
Traditional electoral campaigns can ride electoral waves or charismatic candidates to win elections, but there are perils in writing off the vast majority of counties in the country. A charismatic leader like Barack Obama could forge majorities in two presidential elections, yet preside over the loss of both houses of Congress and some 1,000 state legislative seats.
The only way to build the enduring progressive majority needed to make the fundamental reforms we need is to build—from the bottom up, across lines of race and region—a broad populist movement of poor and working people mobilized around an agenda for change. Traditional politics doesn’t even attempt to do this. People’s Action’s new organizing project provides a serious strategic test on how to get this done.