If Democrats want to be competitive again in rural America, they will need to go bold—as bold as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the New Deal era. That’s when FDR and his party swept to victory in states where Democrats now struggle to stay in the running.
Fools may counsel compromise and caution as a strategy for reaching out to rural voters, but that’s absurd. The answer is not to imagine that dialing down progressive messages about economic and social and racial justice will somehow change the hearts and minds of Trump voters. The answer is to speak to the needs of all voters—and all potential voters—in vast stretches of America where poverty, disenfranchisement, and disconnection are serious concerns. Instead of dumbing down the message with centrist claptrap, Democrats should be giving young people, people of color, and struggling farmers and workers who live beyond the boundaries of the suburbs a reason to vote—and the information they need to get engaged in changing the politics of their hometowns, their counties, their states, and their country.
Where to begin? Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is proposing a strikingly bold, and strikingly smart, plan to close the digital divide that, according to a 2017 FCC report, has left 26.4 percent of people living in rural areas—and 32.1 percent of people living on tribal lands—without access to minimum-speed broadband Internet access.
The 2020 Democratic presidential contender’s plan can best be understood as a 21st-century version of rural electrification.
Rural electrification was the response of the Roosevelt administration in the mid-1930s to the reality that electricity was widely available in urban America but hard to come by in small towns and farm country. With Executive Order 7037, FDR created the Rural Electrification Administration. In 1935, a year later, Congress approved the Rural Electrification Act, and federal dollars began to flow to the member-owned electrical cooperatives that wired the countryside. Jobs were created, lights were switched on, and so were the radios that carried Roosevelt’s fireside chats to millions of additional Americans.
The great investments of the New Deal in all corners of America ushered in a radical transformation of lives—and, for a time, politics. Woody Guthrie sang of how “your power is turning our darkness to dawn.” The idea of public works projects undertaken not to enrich stockholders but to empower citizens has returned to the public debate as the 2020 presidential race takes shape. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has spoken frequently about the brilliance of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights,” and he had outlined contemporary commitments to realize its promises regarding health care, education, and housing. A number of contenders are referencing the first New Deal when they discuss the Green New Deal.
What Warren is talking about extends the go-big discussion with a focus on one of the most vital infrastructure needs of rural America. This is not another rehash of the unfulfilled promises of political charlatans who prattle on about finding a meeting ground where Republicans and Democrats can agree to bid out contracts to road builders. This is the serious vision of using the power of the federal government to achieve a measure of regional equity.
Warren recognizes the digital disconnect, and also that “we’ve faced this kind of problem before. Prior to the late 1930s, private electric companies passed over rural communities they felt offered minimal profit opportunities, leaving the families living there literally in the dark. Just like the electric companies eighty years ago, today’s biggest Internet service providers (ISPs) have left large parts of the country unserved or dramatically underserved.”
Just as the New Dealers responded 80 years ago with a big plan for rural electrification, the 2020 Democratic presidential contender is responding with a big plan for rural broadband. Warren is barnstorming across the first caucus state of Iowa with a promise to develop an $85 billion federal grant program for nonprofits and local governments that seek to build independent fiber networks and provide low-cost broadband Internet services. “I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford,” she declares. “That means publicly-owned and operated networks—and no giant ISPs running away with taxpayer dollars.”
The specifics of Warren’s plan are spot on. They recognize the need to sustain not-for-profit and public institutions—as opposed to the corporations that have neglected, and frequently failed, rural America. (And that have failed plenty of urban centers, which suffer from their own digital divides.)
The Office of Broadband Access that Warren wants to establish to manage the federal grant program would require that
only electricity and telephone cooperatives, non-profit organizations, tribes, cities, counties, and other state subdivisions will be eligible for grants from this fund—and all grants will be used to build the fiber infrastructure necessary to bring high-speed broadband to unserved areas, underserved areas, or areas with minimal competition. The federal government will pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants. In exchange, applicants will be required to offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area.
Warren also promises to:
Make it clear in federal statute that municipalities have the right to build their own broadband networks. Many small towns and rural areas have turned to municipal networks to provide broadband access in places that the private market has failed to serve—but today, as many as 26 states have passed laws hindering or banning municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure to protect the interests of giant telecom companies. We will preempt these laws and return this power to local governments.
Warren’s “I Have a Plan for That” politics, with its faith that the breach can be repaired if the profiteers are elbowed aside, echoes the blend of technocratic idealism and practical economics that was championed by Roosevelt and Henry Wallace—the 32nd president’s secretary of agriculture and eventual vice president. She’s talking about putting the Democratic Party back on the right side of rural America, and of history, when she recognizes that “both corporate America and leaders in Washington have turned their backs on the people living in our rural communities and prioritized the interests of giant companies and Wall Street.”
Elizabeth Warren won’t win over all rural voters. No Democrat, or Republican, will. And that’s not necessary. What Democrats need to do is to hold their own in the rural countries that can tip closely contested “battleground states” one way or the other on Election Day. There are plenty of voters in farm country and in this nation’s small towns who have been waiting for a long time to hear a Democrat say, as Warren does, that “our failure to invest in rural areas is holding back millions of families, weakening our economy, and undermining our efforts to combat climate change. It’s time to fix this.”