A Rural New Deal Could Help Progressives Win Rural America

Championing rural and working-class communities is how progressives can build the trust needed to defuse culture war weapons wielded by the Right.

Anthony Flaccavento

Economic changes and federal neglect have hollowed out rural communities in recent decades. Too often, progressives have looked the other way, or worse. Shutterstock

He greeted me as I pulled into the parking lot of the small Russell County, Virginia restaurant in April 2012. I was running for Congress as the Democratic nominee; he was a retired coal miner and United Mine Workers member who’d been to a few of my campaign events already that spring.

What do you think about that bombshell Obama just dropped on us?” he asked. When I looked uncertain, he got specific. You know, gay marriage.” In the frenzy of campaigning, I’d forgotten the big news that President Obama had just publicly stated his support for same sex marriage. What do you think?” I asked.

It’s an abomination!” he began. Says so in the Bible.” He went on to say how he thought it was unnatural, that marriage was to be between a man and a woman, that it just wasn’t right. 

As Dannie spoke, we continued walking towards the big room in the restaurant where folks were gathered to hear my stump speech. When he’d finished, I said, Yeah, I know it makes some people uncomfortable. But the main thing I get from the Bible is that we’re supposed to love each other. Especially folks that are different from us, that are hard for us to love.”

He pondered that for a moment. I suppose you’re right,” he said, his scowl fading. Well, I guess they’re just born that way anyway.”

In the span of a country-paced walk of a hundred or so feet, this conservative retired miner moved from the conviction that homosexuality is an abomination against God to an acceptance that this was simply who some people are, and that he was called to love them, as they are. Why? It wasn’t that I said anything particularly brilliant. Rather, Dannie was willing to consider what I had to say because he trusted me. He knew I’d been on the picket lines with thousands of his fellow miners during the Pittston strike two decades earlier. He knew I’d fought for fairer black lung rules and had worked to support small businesses and jobs in communities like his. He believed I cared about him and his community, and the trust that flowed from that opened the door for him to reconsider a deeply held belief. 

This is the kind of trust that we progressives, liberals and Democrats have lost with so many rural and working-class people in recent decades. 

Over the past 40 years or so, bad trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the corporatization of farming have hollowed out once thriving rural communities. The federal government, meanwhile, has failed to invest adequately in rural infrastructure and community development. And, too often, progressives have looked the other way — or worse. In that vacuum, right-wing media and politicians have preyed very successfully on rural despair and anger. Besides the enormous harm it has done to those communities, this failure by progressives and the resulting loss of trust has brought our politics to an ugly stalemate, precluding the possibility of bold, and desperately needed, action on climate change, wealth inequality, racial justice and more. 

While many on the Left argue about whether it’s culture or economics that has driven the rightward shift among rural voters (which, by the way, long predates the Trump era), those of us who live in these communities know it’s both. We can rebuild this lost trust only by championing rural and working-class communities. This does not mean putting economic issues above cultural ones — it’s how we build the kind of bedrock trust that allows us to actually change minds on things like gay marriage and transgender rights, to defuse these culture-war weapons that the Right has wielded so devastatingly.

What might happen if millions of people, our fellow citizens in the countryside, began to believe that we progressives understood their frustrations, that we had their back? Might the politics of resentment,” as Kathy Cramer has described it, lose some steam when we stop dismissing the grievances of rural people and instead invest in the health of their communities and the strength of their economies? 

The Rural Urban Bridge Initiative, which I co-founded, is teaming up with the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) in hopes of finding out. Together, we developed the Rural New Deal, a broad template for federal action designed to reverse decades of economic decline and cultivate long-term rural prosperity and resilience through federal investment in bottom-up solutions. 

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The Rural New Deal rests on 10 pillars, which each contain specific policy recommendations. While rural-focused, many of the recommendations would also benefit people in cities and suburbs. For example, the second pillar, Reward Work and Ensure Livable Wages,” calls for a federal jobs guarantee with livable wages, expansion of effective training and apprenticeships for displaced workers, eliminating unfair barriers to unionization and supporting small businesses who struggle to pay fair wages. The third pillar, Dismantle Monopolies, Empower and Support Local Business,” would provide support for independent businesses, including cooperatives, while taking on extreme corporate concentration through aggressive anti-trust action, reducing corporate subsidies and challenging the unbridled power of private equity.

While the Rural New Deal is a non-partisan call to action, it is rooted in a progressive economic vision. PDA Director Alan Minsky puts it this way: Addressing the problems and concerns of rural America isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s essential for the health of our nation. Too many progressives have ignored rural and small-town America for too long. The Rural New Deal will change that.” 

Most of the recommendations put forward in the Rural New Deal are rooted in real world experiences of progressive action. Within the fifth pillar’s call to rebuild small town centers is the recommendation to provide low-cost capital and training and support tailored to young entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color.” We took inspiration for this point from the success of Fuerza Local, an entrepreneurship training and support initiative focused on Latina and Latino entrepreneurs in Arizona. Local First Arizona launched Fuerza ten years ago to create an alternative to the predatory lenders preying on aspiring entrepreneurs of color. The results have been remarkable: Nearly 900 people have graduated from the program, the majority going on to launch or expand a business, creating more than a thousand jobs and generating nearly $25 million in sales.

Pillar four, which focuses on building rural infrastructure, recommends support of community-based value chains’” that enable small farmers to reach larger markets. This would dramatically expand a model that’s already working in my own community in southwest Virginia, where a food hub” called Appalachian Harvest links small farmers to mid-size supermarkets seeking to buy organic produce, value added food products and, most recently, medicinal herbs. Now in its 23rd year, this food hub has helped hundreds of small farmers — many of whom were formerly tobacco growers — find markets for their healthy foods and increase the financial and ecological health of their farms.

Might the ​“politics of resentment" lose some steam when we stop dismissing the grievances of rural people and instead invest in the health of their communities and the strength of their economies?

One of the Rural New Deal’s most radical assumptions is that rural people just might be the best positioned to know how to solve their communities’ problems. For years, people across rural America have worked to regenerate their communities, revitalizing traditional occupations while embracing new economic strategies. Others are forging effective solutions to everything from the opioid epidemic to the affordable housing crisis. Yet those in power have almost completely overlooked these community-based solutions. Far too many of our national leaders — including some Democrats — have bought into the myth of trickle-down economics, investor-driven trade agreements and a free pass for corporations that shutter factories, drive up land prices through speculation and squeeze family farmers and small businesses. This suck up” economy has been catastrophic for workers and communities across our nation but especially in rural places.

But there’s good news: The Biden administration has taken substantial steps to reverse 40 years of destructive neoliberal policies through major investments in infrastructure, agriculture, rural broadband and U.S. manufacturing. What’s more, Biden’s aggressive anti-trust actions have begun to reverse the tide of corporate concentration in every part of American life. And the recent changes enacted by the National Labor Relations Board will help ensure workers can no longer be intimidated or indefinitely stalled in their quests to unionize. 

The Rural New Deal would build on these recent developments, expanding the scope and depth of rural investment and prioritizing community-driven solutions to the economic, ecological, housing, education and health problems that plague our rural areas. Rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all prescription from Washington, the Rural New Deal would strengthen local efforts to build more diverse economies and healthy communities. It will help end decades of rural disinvestment and cheap resource extraction that has hollowed out much of the countryside, concentrated wealth and political power among the few, and built the foundation for the politics of resentment that is tearing our nation apart. 

In her book, The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee writes that the plutocrats … seek to keep the economic rules exactly as they are” in order to cut off any sense of empathy white people who are struggling might develop for also-struggling people of color.” Or retired coal miners might develop for gay people.

We start by rebuilding trust, which will happen only when folks believe we care about people like them, in places like theirs,” as Kathy Cramer puts it. The Rural New Deal provides the opportunity to do just that. City and country, suburb and small town — we’ll all benefit from more prosperous and self-reliant rural communities. And we might just turn the tide against the plutocrats who’ve helped divide us.

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Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer, author and rural development consultant in southwestern Virginia and the executive director of the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative.

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