Lexington, Kentucky—There was a time when Kansas was a hotbed of populist sentiment, organizing, and politics. Now it has Sam Brownback, the governor who seems most determined to answer the question, “What do you give to the man (men) who has everything?” Kentucky and West Virginia, where thousands of miners fought for and won critical battles for better wages and justice in the workplace, are now deeply “red,” even including most of their Democratic legislators. North Carolina—a beacon of hope for progressives in a region otherwise overwhelmingly and increasingly right-wing—abruptly flipped in 2012 and is now a model pupil of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Why have rural communities moved so far to the right? Why have farmers, miners, drillers, loggers, and a host of other working folks become so enthralled with the antigovernment, anti-environmentalist, and antilabor pundits and politicians? Many folks, of course, have written extensively about this, including Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?; Pity the Billionaire) and Joan Walsh (What’s the Matter with White People?). We know from Frank, Walsh, and many others at least some of the reasons, from the relentless propaganda of Fox News and conservative talk radio, to the right’s timely and well-funded co-opting of public anger over the economic crash and bank bailouts of 2008–09. Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s recent book, provides further detail, a chronology of how such a comprehensive, patient plan to change the narrative was developed and funded. And multiple commentators have taken advantage of the presidential campaign season to highlight how the Democratic Party has steadily moved towards Wall Street and away from working people, at least since Bill Clinton. In short, we know a good bit about how the right has achieved such power and influence over the past 40 years, including shifting the so-called political center to something Ronald Reagan would embrace.
But there’s another, much-less-discussed factor in this shift: the near-complete absence of the “rural” among the priorities, policies, and leaders on the other side, i.e., in the progressive movement. By rural, I mean the people, their communities, the predominant livelihoods, and the culture and language of these places. The plain fact of the matter is that, excepting recent transplants from the cities, most rural people see progressives as elitist, dismissive of their concerns, largely ignorant of both their problems and their contributions to the nation. And too often, living “in their head” rather than getting their hands dirty. Unfortunately, this is mostly correct. As Dee Davis, founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies said to me, “If I’m stuck in a ditch on the side of the road, is a progressive going to jump into the mud and help me push, or is he going to go home and issue a white paper?”
Examples of the invisibility of country people and their concerns within the progressive agenda abound. The 2015 “Good Jobs for All” report, for example, begins with a call for “an aspirational agenda” that will “galvanize a broad-based coalition…that will put the voice and agenda of struggling Americans at the center of a new national debate.” In the more than 50 pages that follow, many good and thoughtful policy proposals are put forth. But the words “farm,” “farmer,” and “agriculture” are never mentioned, and “rural” is alluded to only once or twice, in the context of USDA programs. Mind you, there are plenty of “struggling Americans” living in the countryside. While there’s good stuff in this report, somehow the authors don’t even think of country people when they imagine a “broad-based coalition.”