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.”