How the Democrats Can Take Back Rural America

How the Democrats Can Take Back Rural America

How the Democrats Can Take Back Rural America

Party leaders must take direction from actual rural Democrats and independent progressives.


Millions of Americans poured into the streets of Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities on January 21, 2017, raising a mighty outcry against the newly inaugurated Donald Trump and the policies of the Republican Party. But this national show of resistance—which has only grown louder as the president has confirmed the worst fears about his agenda—isn’t merely an urban or blue-state phenomenon.

“Resist Now!” was the defiant message on one of the handmade signs carried by dozens of activists in rural Walworth County, Wisconsin, on January 19, as they marched through the streets of Elkhorn, the county seat, to oppose President Trump. “Health care for all! Education for all! Equal pay for all! Workers’ rights for all!” chanted Ellen Holly, a veteran educator who helped organize the march. “An America that is for all of us!”

The multiracial, multi-ethnic crowd cheered speeches in English and Spanish. They pledged to defend immigrants and the LGBTQ community and a woman’s right to choose. They promised to block Trump’s agenda as well as that of their own congressman, House Speaker Paul Ryan. They did it all in Elkhorn on the night before Trump’s inauguration because, Holly said, “We couldn’t wait to start resisting. We thought about going to Washington, but we knew we needed to be here, to say: ‘We are ready to do this!’”

Holly is not alone. There are millions like her, and they are the base of progressive politics in rural America. They want a bold opposition to Trump and to politics as usual. They’re not looking for bland centrism, empty talking points, or a condescending “listening tour” by elite politicians who never really listen. And if they are called to action, they will rally others like them, they will build a progressive base, and they will turn out at election time.

This is something that Democrats need to recognize as they prepare for 2018. It is folly to allow vast swaths of rural America to become no-go zones for the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Tom Harkin, and Paul Wellstone. And it would be political malpractice of the worst sort to think that Democrats can retake the Senate and the House, much less prevail in statehouses across the country, without a bold plan for renewing their party’s fortunes in small cities, towns, and farm country. Appealing to “swing voters” isn’t the only way to revitalize the Democratic Party in rural America; developing smart, progressive policies that engage rural activists, and investing in the mobilization of base voters, actually matters more.

Unfortunately, Democratic leaders are having a hard time wrapping their heads around this critical mission. Matt Barron, a veteran activist from western Massachusetts, quit the party this year, arguing that “Democrats at the DNC, DCCC, DSCC, and in the congressional steering and policy committees are brain-dead when it comes to supporting and endowing rural electoral infrastructure.”

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean embarked on a 50-state strategy when he headed up the Democratic National Committee a decade ago. But that strategy pretty much disappeared after Dean left the DNC chair in 2009. Since then, Democratic strategists have become addicted to one-size-fits-all campaigns that have focused on narrowly defined themes intended to turn out just enough urban and suburban voters to win. “They talk about the messages that worked in very urban areas, where you have a million people or more. But they don’t know how to talk about ordinary people,” said Nancy Larson, a veteran Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party official, activist, and former candidate, regarding the 2016 election. Top Democrats have heard plenty of complaints like that, but for the most part they’re still searching for a quick fix that will repair all the damage from the long years of what Barron refers to as “not showing up.”

What Democratic leaders fail to understand is that the problem isn’t based in rural America; it’s based in their own negligence and ignorance. Otherwise intelligent politicians and pundits keep arguing about whether the party needs to remake itself to win back older white working-class voters who have been backing Republicans since the days of Ronald Reagan. But they’re way off base: Democrats don’t need some grand plan to sweep the rural precincts where the GOP has historically done well. Trump wasn’t the first Republican to win rural America—John McCain won the vast majority of rural counties in 2008, though he was wiped out by Obama nationally. The Republican advantage in the Senate has for years been based on the party’s strength in rural states. What Democrats need is something much simpler: an agenda for winning back regions that once elected senators like Tom Harkin and Russ Feingold, and to do well enough in the rest of rural America so that the combination of urban, suburban, and rural votes tips in their party’s favor.

This doesn’t require a lurch to the center, which would suck the energy out of a party that in many parts of the country is already running on fumes. The devastating defeats in 2014 and 2016 have left too many top Democrats imagining that rural America is so socially conservative that the party must trim its ideological sails in order to compete. But they’re forgetting that voters in South Dakota have rejected bans on abortion in the past decade; that Wisconsin was the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in both public- and private-sector employment, housing, and all public accommodations; and that in 2012, Minnesota was the first state to reject a ban on same-sex marriage.

Democratic leaders get lost in reveries about reconnecting with the rural “white working class,” forgetting that 25 percent of African Americans live in small cities, towns, and rural counties; that the Asian-American population of rural communities grew by 37 percent between 2000 and 2010; that the Hispanic population of rural communities grew by 46 percent during the same period; and that 54 percent of Native Americans live in rural counties. Few DC Democrats bother to acknowledge that rural millennials embraced Bernie Sanders with the same fervor as their college-town counterparts.

Democrats who should know better frequently fail to recognize that progressive groups like the National Farmers Union and the National Family Farm Coalition have educated their members for decades about the need to expand access to health care and to defend rural schools—and that pressure from rural voters has played an essential role this year in getting GOP senators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins to break ranks with the Republican leadership on these issues.

“The Democratic Party ceded rural America to the Republicans quite some time ago,” said Vickie Rock, chair of the Democratic central committee of Humboldt County (population 16,528), speaking to Roll Call last year. “They invested nothing, they built no bench. They don’t even send out signs anymore, which is a staple of rural politics.”

I saw the crisis firsthand in 2016—not just in the party’s draft platform, which initially devoted just 80 words to farm policy and rural development (as compared with almost 1,100 in the document that peanut farmer Jimmy Carter ran and won on in 1976), but on my visits to dozens of rural counties. Everywhere I went, I heard complaints about Hillary Clinton signs that never showed up—or, worse yet, distant party bureaucrats who wanted local activists to charge farmers for the privilege of having a Clinton sign in their fields. This might sound petty to folks who have never measured political trends by driving down country roads, but the fact is that yard and barn signs are a huge deal in much of America. When I saw Obama signs on barns in rural Iowa in the summer of 2007, I realized there was more to his campaign than just the “audacity of hope.” When I saw Sanders signs popping up along New Hampshire roadsides in the spring of 2015, I was pretty sure a political revolution was brewing.

Democrats haven’t just lost touch with the priorities of working-class Americans in small cities and towns—although that in itself is a very big deal in an age of globalization, digitalization, and automation that has left so many people behind. They have also forgotten how to campaign in regions that election experts refer to as “swingier” than metropolitan regions. Speaking of rural voters in Upper Midwest states like Wisconsin, where Democrats surged in 2006 and ’08 and collapsed in 2014 and ’16, pollster Paul Maslin notes that these voters “have been continually disappointed for economic and other reasons. They have tended to react increasingly strongly against whoever seems to be in power. It is almost like a pendulum gaining force.”

But swinging that pendulum back to the Democratic side will take more than just a quick trip to the bucolic Shenandoah Valley village where, this past July, the party unveiled its vaguely populist “Better Deal” agenda. That foray inspired an all-too-familiar headline on Bloomberg BNA: Farmers Groups Await More Details From Democrats on Rural Agenda. Years of neglect and disengagement by Democrats at the national level have inspired a lot of skepticism even among voters inclined to back the party. Some may have strayed to Trump in 2016, but a lot of them simply didn’t bother to turn out.

When I was in Walworth County on the night before Trump delivered his bombastic inaugural address, I ran into plenty of folks who were on board with the new president. A few Trump fans jeered the hearty resisters who marched through the rain that night. No surprise there: Trump carried the county with 57 percent of the vote versus Clinton’s 37 percent, in a general election in which exit polls found that small-town and rural Americans split 62 to 34 percent for the Republican.

Democrats were not merely beaten in the countryside last fall. They were crushed, with support for Clinton falling to just 30 percent in the most rural areas. Clinton lost counties that had voted for George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis as well as Obama. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where Trump’s narrow victories gave him the numbers he needed for an Electoral College win, a massive rural swing to the GOP line sealed Clinton’s fate. Walworth County gave Trump a 10,153-vote advantage out of 51,391 votes cast. That accounted for almost half of the Republicans’ statewide margin of 22,748 votes.

Walworth County offers a prime example of the rapidly diminishing Democratic fortunes in rural America. In 2008, Obama received 48 percent of the county’s vote. In 2012, he still attracted 43 percent—while Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic Senate candidate, took 42 percent. Those were not wins, but the rural vote, combined with a strong urban majority, was more than sufficient to deliver statewide victories for the nation’s first African-American president and first openly gay senator. What happened? The overall turnout in Walworth County was down a bit from 2012, but the decline was unevenly shared: Trump received 99 fewer votes than Mitt Romney had in 2012, while Clinton had 3,802 fewer votes than Obama.

Obama’s numbers were not the best ever for Democrats in rural areas, but they provide a good benchmark. In his days as an Illinois state legislator and later as a US senator, Obama took his cues from National Farmers Union leaders and paid a good deal of attention to rural issues—and, as a result, he ran well in Wisconsin and other places. Exit polls in 2008 gave him 45 percent of the vote from small cities, towns, and rural areas; in 2012, Obama still took roughly two-fifths of that vote.

In 2016, everything changed. While Trump lavished attention on rural areas, the Clinton campaign disengaged from them. It was a terrible miscalculation. Had Clinton maintained the same level of non-metropolitan support that Obama enjoyed in 2012, she could have won several more states and closed the gap in the Electoral College.

There are plenty of explanations for Clinton’s underperformance. She was a victim of sexism and of relentless character assassination in the right-wing media, which is omnipresent in farm country (tractors have radios, and a lot of them are tuned to Rush Limbaugh). But the Clinton campaign didn’t effectively challenge these attacks, and that cost her dearly. Clinton needed to be on the stump in battleground states, not just to make a physical connection with swing voters but to energize the Democratic base. As Bernie Sanders—who visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in rural South Dakota, joined a union picket line outside a cornstarch plant in eastern Iowa, and highlighted his embrace of the Immokalee workers on Florida’s tomato farms during his 2016 primary campaign—put it: “People want you to get out to where they live, where they are struggling to get by. They’re not satisfied just to see candidates on television, and they shouldn’t be.”

That’s one concept Trump understood. He maintained a frenetic campaign schedule through the fall and frequently traveled long distances for rallies in small-city arenas and on county fairgrounds. Among his last campaign stops in 2016 were Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin—not exactly small towns, but the media centers for vast farming regions. Trump got just as much national TV time as he would have for big-city rallies, but he also got credit for reaching out to voters who do not live in metro America.

Clinton never campaigned in Wisconsin after the April primary, and she focused on Michigan only in the final days of the campaign. I started hearing Democratic activists on the ground in both states express their concerns around Labor Day. When I asked about the response they received from Clinton’s national campaign staff in Brooklyn, these activists told me they were assured that the people in charge had data proving that everything would be fine. As Donnie Fowler, who has managed winning campaigns in some of the toughest states for Democrats, explained to Politico, Clinton’s managers “believed they were smarter, which they weren’t. They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”

But Clinton still won 34 percent of the vote outside metropolitan areas, and even in places where she stumbled, other Democrats ran well. For instance, while Clinton lost Kentucky’s historically Democratic Elliott County by a staggering 45 points, openly gay Senate candidate Jim Gray carried it with ease. This should tell Democrats that rural America is far more diverse and dynamic than most pundits and pols recognize.

Instead of poring over reams of “big data” in DC, or looking for a book that explains why rural voters feel neglected, Democrats need to get out more. They can begin by taking several steps:

§  Democrats must recognize that rural voters are a necessary part of any serious strategy for improving the party’s fortunes. Congressional Progressive Caucus first vice chair Mark Pocan is a Wisconsin Democrat whose district includes two counties that backed both him and Trump. As Pocan explains, because of the gerrymandering of House districts and the Senate’s bias toward small states, “it’s pretty clear that a lot of the districts we need to win are in rural America.” And that goes double for the state legislative districts that Democrats must carry in order to have a voice in the redistricting process after 2020.

§  Trump’s failures with regard to rural America must be incorporated into the broader Democratic critique of his administration and the GOP-controlled Congress. Trump, who didn’t even bother to name a secretary of agriculture until the day before his inauguration, has shown shockingly little interest in the concerns of the people who elected him. His policies are making small-town voters anxious about the future of rural schools, rural hospitals, and the rural economy. When Trump’s budget plan was released in May, Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, declared: “Clearly, this budget fails agriculture and rural America.”

§  Democrats must address rural concerns in their broader party initiatives. The antitrust agenda that they’ve begun to embrace has particular resonance for rural America, where big agribusiness and big-box retail chains call far too many shots. If chemical companies and corporate seed companies start to merge, says National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson, “we’ll have fewer choices. So that means there will be less competition and fewer things to compete over, and that’s not a good thing. It’s not good for any of us in agriculture.”

§  Democrats must get beyond the stereotypes about rural voters. Yes, there are plenty of gun-toting, socially conservative Trump enthusiasts. But there are also struggling single mothers looking for some help when it comes to educating their kids, maintaining access to health care, and addressing the ravages of the opioid epidemic. There are African-American farmers who want the Agriculture Department to have their back. There are Latinos, many of them immigrants, who are revitalizing small towns and sustaining farms across the Midwest. These are the rural, small-town, and small-city voters whom Democrats need to focus on—along with progressive farmers, union members, and all of the other constituencies that could dramatically boost the rural turnout for them. “Any farmer will tell you that trying to harvest a crop without applying any nutrients to the soil is a fool’s errand,” Matt Barron explains. “In politics, failure to extend any care and feeding to the grassroots results in poor harvests of votes.”

§  Party leaders must respond to—and take direction from—actual rural Democrats and independent progressives. Grassroots activists have been begging for help and calling in warnings for years. They’ve urged the party to practice an adversarial style of populism that takes the side of small farmers who work from dawn to dusk; of workers worried about layoffs at the machine shop; of teachers who pay for school supplies out of their own pocket because state aid has been cut; of Main Street business owners who can’t cut costs enough to compete with Walmart and Amazon. They’ve been “listened to” by party leaders long enough. Now they need progressive policies to champion, candidate visits to organize, resources to keep the local party headquarters open. And some signs.

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