For Democrats, the Road to Victory in 2020 Runs Through Rural America. This Report Offers a Road Map

Joseph Bullington January 30, 2020

This graphic shows a county-by-county breakdown of the 2016 presidential election results. The counties that went for Donald Trump are colored red and the counties that went for Hillary Clinton are colored blue.

It’s just over three years since the 2016 elec­tion and it has become unset­tling­ly nor­mal in lib­er­al cir­cles to dis­miss rur­al Amer­i­ca” as Trump coun­try” and look else­where for Demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­toral hopes―like the Trump-dis­sat­is­fied suburbs.

A refresh­ing report­from the advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Peo­ple’s Action, com­posed of 48 mem­ber groups in 30 states, starts from the oppo­site premise: If Democ­rats want to regain power―and this goes for the Pres­i­den­cy and the Sen­ate as well as state governments―they have got to fig­ure out how to win in rur­al parts of this coun­try. The ques­tion, as we bar­rel toward the 2020 elec­tions, is how. The People’s Action report, which is titled Win Rur­al: How to Build a Pro­gres­sive Pop­ulist Polit­i­cal Move­ment in Rur­al and Small-Town Amer­i­ca,” offers the begin­ning of an answer.

Why Dems Need Rur­al Voters 

In 2016 in rur­al coun­ties, there was a mas­sive defec­tion of vot­ers who had sup­port­ed Barack Oba­ma in 2012 to Don­ald Trump. Between 2012 and 2016, the report notes, rur­al areas became more Repub­li­can by about 11 per­cent­age points, a change that swung some rur­al states, won Trump the elec­toral col­lege, and cre­at­ed the coun­ty-by-coun­ty elec­toral map of which Trump is so proud―a hand­ful of blue islands sur­round­ed by a sea of red. While the map does not show the over­whelm­ing man­date Trump evi­dent­ly thinks it does, nor is it as insignif­i­cant as CNN’s Chris Cil­liz­za would have us believe.

What the map Trump so loves real­ly shows is that there are large areas of the coun­try where not that many peo­ple live,” Cil­liz­za writes. And in those less pop­u­lat­ed areas, Trump won. That’s it.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that’s not it. And if Democ­rats think it is, they should get ready for four more years of Trump. What the map shows is that 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hilary Clin­ton lost near­ly every rur­al coun­ty in the coun­try. What­ev­er one’s opin­ion of the elec­toral col­lege and the extra weight it gives to less-pop­u­lat­ed states, that is our elec­toral real­i­ty and it’s hard to imag­ine that a can­di­date could lose so bad­ly in rur­al parts of the coun­try and still win the presidency.

Win­ning back enough rur­al votes to win the pres­i­den­cy, though, is not as daunt­ing as it might sound. As the People’s Action report points out, Of the more than 136 mil­lion votes cast in the 2016 elec­tion, 77,744 votes in three states―Michigan, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wisconsin―effectively decid­ed the elec­tion.” That’s why Peo­ple’s Action affil­i­ate groups are focus­ing their cam­paign­ing in 100 coun­ties, includ­ing 37 piv­ot coun­ties,” in 15 key states.

The report puts it this way: There is a clear path to shift­ing the bal­ance of pow­er in those com­mu­ni­ties in a way that would pro­found­ly impact the future of those states and the entire country.” 

The report also reminds us, how­ev­er, that win­ning the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, while impor­tant, is not enough. As of this year, Repub­li­cans have gained con­trol of the leg­is­la­tures and gov­er­nor­ships in 21 states, com­pared to the Democ­rats’ 15 states―and so Repub­li­cans wield dis­pro­por­tion­ate pow­er to draw U.S. con­gres­sion­al dis­trict lines in ways favor­able to their party. 

The 2020 elec­tion,” accord­ing to the report, will be crit­i­cal in shap­ing redis­trict­ing fights over the next decade and it will be vital­ly impor­tant to have tar­get­ed races in rur­al areas to pick up addi­tion­al seats in state leg­is­la­tures that will draw maps for the next decade in most states.”

Final­ly, the report argues that rur­al peo­ple are not only a means to an elec­toral end but an essen­tial part of a broad­er peo­ple’s movement:

Over the past cen­tu­ry, from the New Deal to the civ­il rights move­ment, near­ly every suc­cess­ful move­ment that sought to expand polit­i­cal free­dom and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty was built upon broad coali­tions between urban and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. This report pro­vides a path towards a new great majority’―multiracial, work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties across rur­al, small-town, sub­ur­ban and urban areas―with the pow­er to cre­ate a pro­gres­sive pop­ulist move­ment that can trans­form the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can politics.”

A Rur­al Strategy

Assum­ing one decides not to aban­don hope of win­ning over rur­al vot­ers, how should one go about it?

The lib­er­al polit­i­cal and media elite has ago­nized over this ques­tion. Their response to the 2016 elec­tion reminds me of some­one wok­en in the mid­dle of the night by a pound­ing on the door: Who the hell is out there and what do they want?!”

They, of course, being rur­al Amer­i­ca,” though to the lib­er­al estab­lish­ment they rarely become more con­crete than that. Rur­al peo­ple, and their feel­ings and needs, have been large­ly lost behind a car­i­ca­ture of rur­al America”―a way of con­tain­ing in a sin­gle phrase a mys­te­ri­ous, unsal­vage­ably-Repub­li­can region pop­u­lat­ed by vicious racists and under-edu­cat­ed bigots.

One of the gifts of the Peo­ple’s Action report is that it is based on more than 115,000 con­ver­sa­tions in 15 states with actu­al rur­al vot­ers. That means count­less hours of hard work by can­vassers, who report­ed­ly knocked on more than 392,000 doors. It also means rur­al vot­ers emerge a bit from the haze of car­i­ca­ture and turn out to be a rather com­plex, diverse and polit­i­cal­ly-move­able lot.

Even post-2016 vot­ing trends don’t sup­port the rur­al Amer­i­ca” car­i­ca­ture. For exam­ple, the 2018 midterm elec­tions were wide­ly inter­pret­ed in the media as fur­ther evi­dence of the right-ward shift of rur­al voters―further evi­dence, as one writer put it, that Amer­i­ca is in a cold civ­il war.” Accord­ing to People’s Action, though, this read­ing miss­es a crit­i­cal part of the story”―namely, that in 2018 rur­al areas became about 7 per­cent­age points more Demo­c­ra­t­ic, often by larg­er mar­gins than sub­ur­ban areas. The shift was par­tic­u­lar­ly strong among sin­gle white women, who moved Demo­c­ra­t­ic by about 17 points, and young white vot­ers, who shift­ed left by about 16 points.

One of the things that both­ers me most about our nation­al dis­course around rur­al peo­ple is the assump­tion that vot­ers lead and polit­i­cal par­ties mere­ly fol­low. By this way of think­ing, rur­al Amer­i­ca” has led the Repub­li­can Par­ty toward the white nation­al­ist right―not the oth­er way around.

The People’s Action report, to the con­trary, finds that the right wing has aggres­sive­ly, and often suc­cess­ful­ly, tar­get­ed rur­al peo­ple. And it lays a large share of the blame on Democ­rats and the left: The lack of invest­ment in pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture and the inabil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate around shared val­ues has led to a vac­u­um that has been occu­pied by extrem­ist forces that do not rep­re­sent the inter­ests of rur­al communities.”

In a New York Times op-ed, People’s Action Direc­tor George Goehl put it this way: In front-porch con­ver­sa­tions, the most com­mon thing we hear is, Nobody ever asked me what I think.’ That’s a prob­lem. Because white nation­al­ists are fill­ing that vac­u­um. They’re orga­niz­ing around people’s pain and using racism to help make sense of chang­ing eco­nom­ic con­di­tions and racial demographics.”

To rem­e­dy this short­com­ing, the report rec­om­mends long-term invest­ment in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and vot­er-engage­ment infra­struc­ture in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and build­ing pol­i­cy agen­das that speak to rur­al needs and val­ues. And, con­trary to the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom con­tained in the rur­al Amer­i­ca” car­i­ca­ture, that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean mov­ing to the polit­i­cal cen­ter or right.

The report finds that pro­gres­sive pop­ulist poli­cies are pop­u­lar in rur­al Amer­i­ca”: Through deep lis­ten­ing cam­paigns con­duct­ed by People’s Action and in polls com­mis­sioned by groups like RuralOr​ga​niz​ing​.org, rur­al res­i­dents con­sis­tent­ly demon­strate broad sup­port for pro­gres­sive mea­sures like free col­lege tuition, Medicare for All, and increas­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15/​hour. Polling also strong­ly sug­gests that small-town vot­ers feel the sys­tem is rigged for the pow­er­ful and wealthy and a clear major­i­ty of rur­al res­i­dents believe that Con­gress is giv­ing tax breaks to the wealthy instead of invest­ing in rur­al areas.”

The report makes the point, how­ev­er, that it does not work to paper over racial divi­sions by talk­ing only about shared eco­nom­ic inter­ests. No, the tried-and-true fas­cist tac­tic of har­ness­ing people’s suf­fer­ing and direct­ing it against a racial oth­er must be met head-on, with a nar­ra­tive that explains how through­out his­to­ry the pow­er­ful have stoked racism and immi­grant-bash­ing to sow divi­sion, direct class anger away from them­selves and so hold on to power.

Accord­ing to the report, There is grow­ing evi­dence that race-con­scious pop­ulist nar­ra­tives res­onate deeply in rur­al and urban com­mu­ni­ties.” Let’s hope so.

The report goes on: Rur­al com­mu­ni­ties share many con­cerns with urban and sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties, but rur­al prob­lems need spe­cif­ic solu­tions. Rur­al and small-town com­mu­ni­ties also need to know that can­di­dates and cam­paigns have an under­stand­ing of their expe­ri­ences and have a clear plan to improve their lives.”

We must remem­ber that rur­al Amer­i­ca” is not one thing. If you dri­ve the back high­ways through, say, major­i­ty-white Gran­ite Falls, N.C., or through major­i­ty black Wilcox Coun­ty, Ala. or through the Coeur d’Alene Indi­an Reser­va­tion in Ida­ho, you’re going to meet rur­al Amer­i­cans who’re fac­ing prob­lems that are in many ways sim­i­lar but in many ways different.

No report can offer a one-size-fits-all plan for how Democ­rats can win in these rur­al places. But, in a time when much of the lib­er­al elite has writ­ten off rur­al Amer­i­ca as a prob­lem to be worked around, People’s Action offers a vision in which rur­al Amer­i­cans are a key part of a people’s move­ment for a bet­ter, more free, more equal world. The report also offers a stark reminder that for Democ­rats the road to vic­to­ry, to beat­ing Trump, runs through rur­al America.

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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