A Rural Progressive Platform: To Fix Stuff Democrats Have to Stop Being Stupid

Anthony Flaccavento September 26, 2017

A ship full of corporate Democrats takes on water.

It always amazes me how so many of us fight to ensure that we keep doing the same thing, even when it clear­ly doesn’t work. Two exam­ples stand out.

The first is trick­le-down eco­nom­ics” — the idea that if we just cut the tax­es on the wealthy and big cor­po­ra­tions, we’ll free them up to inno­vate, invest and cre­ate wealth, which will then trick­le down to the rest of us. This idea has dri­ven our eco­nom­ic debate and poli­cies since Ronald Rea­gan brought it front and cen­ter in 1980. It’s the essence of Pres­i­dent Trump’s tax and eco­nom­ic plans. The prob­lem is, it doesn’t work. Nev­er has.

The 1950s through the ear­ly 1970s saw sus­tained eco­nom­ic growth and widen­ing pros­per­i­ty in the Unit­ed States. Dur­ing that peri­od, cor­po­rate tax­es were at 50 per­cent and the top tax brack­et on the rich was more than dou­ble what it is now. Dur­ing those same years, not only did the econ­o­my grow sub­stan­tial­ly, but the main ben­e­fi­cia­ries of that growth were work­ing peo­ple and the mid­dle class, whose incomes and wealth grew far more, pro­por­tion­ate­ly, than those of the rich.

Since then, through near­ly 40 years of tax-cut­ting trick­le down, the results have been stark­ly dif­fer­ent: An econ­o­my that’s near­ly three times big­ger, with extra­or­di­nary increas­es in over­all wealth, yet the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans tread­ing water or going back­wards. Trick­le down hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t hap­pen. But that hasn’t shak­en the con­fi­dence of its many proponents.

The sec­ond exam­ple is: the strat­e­gy of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. (I’m a Democrat).

Once aligned with labor unions and work­ing peo­ple, with help­ing the poor and vul­ner­a­ble, with fight­ing for rur­al as well as urban pros­per­i­ty, it has steadi­ly mor­phed into the par­ty of the elite, the high­ly-edu­cat­ed, the tech­ni­cal­ly-com­pe­tent and the well-to-do. As an alter­na­tive to the Repub­li­cans’ full-on embrace of the rich and pow­er­ful, we Democ­rats have been a mis­er­able fail­ure. Our mes­sages and our mes­sen­gers — with too many words and too much nuance — have fur­ther befud­dled and alien­at­ed so many peo­ple. That’s espe­cial­ly true in South­west Vir­ginia and oth­er pre­dom­i­nant­ly rur­al parts of the state.

Ronald Rea­gan sells trick­le-down eco­nom­ics” back in 1981. (Image: Wikipedia)

For a moment fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Trump, it seemed that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty might be ready for a lit­tle soul search­ing; that giv­en not only Clinton’s elec­toral loss, but the decade-long hem­or­rhag­ing of Demo­c­ra­t­ic seats from state hous­es to Con­gress, it was time for some can­did self-exam­i­na­tion; that if regions (like the Fight­ing 9th here in Vir­ginia) began to receive sus­tained atten­tion, resources and respect, we might rekin­dle the pro­gres­sive streak that had once been a part of its politics.

You’d think. But much like the con­tin­ued embrace of trick­le down in spite of its demon­stra­tive fail­ures, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty con­tin­ues to mar­gin­al­ize large swaths of the coun­try, includ­ing the 9th Dis­trict of Vir­ginia and count­less oth­er rur­al communities.

It was in this con­text that Michael Hud­son, a vet­er­an and IT guy from Blacks­burg, Va., and I reached out to a small group of South­west Vir­gini­ans last Decem­ber in hopes of chang­ing the debate. Pro­gres­sive 9th” as we call our­selves, also includes farm­ers, stu­dents, small busi­ness own­ers, school teach­ers, aca­d­e­mics and activists, from eight dif­fer­ent coun­ties, span­ning much of the district.

Vir­gini­a’s 9th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict has been in the south­west­ern part of the state for over a cen­tu­ry. These are the state’s dis­trict bound­aries as defined after the 2010 Cen­sus. (Source: U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Survey)

As described in the August 28 Roanoke Times edi­to­r­i­al The Rur­al Lib­er­als,” this group has writ­ten a Rur­al Pro­gres­sive Plat­form, released in June. We wrote it to con­front the fail­ings of both par­ties, but also to assert that what we most val­ue — a healthy land­scape, mean­ing­ful and dig­ni­fied liveli­hoods, and strong com­mu­ni­ties — are pro­gres­sive” val­ues in the truest sense of the word.

The plat­form is nei­ther com­pre­hen­sive nor pre­scrip­tive. We’re not seek­ing endorse­ments. Rather we offer it as a dis­cus­sion starter — to begin to rethink not only our lan­guage, but our under­stand­ing and priorities.

You’ve prob­a­bly heard it said that the def­i­n­i­tion of insan­i­ty is doing the same thing over and over, but expect­ing a dif­fer­ent result.” Like push­ing trick­le-down poli­cies that have failed for four decades; like Demo­c­ra­t­ic strat­e­gy that ignores the very com­mu­ni­ties we need to win back. I don’t know if that’s insan­i­ty, but I’m pret­ty sure it’s flat out stupid.

For Democ­rats want­i­ng to trans­form their par­ty, rather than give up on it — like many of us in Pro­gres­sive 9th — the plat­form could be a good place to start. For inde­pen­dents and oth­ers who just want more hon­est and pro­duc­tive debate, it might also be of interest.

(“Rebuild Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty? Start in Rur­al Amer­i­cawas orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Roanoke Times and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.)

Below is the Rur­al Pro­gres­sive Plat­form, draft­ed in June 2017 by south­west­ern Virginia’s Pro­gres­sive 9th, unedit­ed and in its entirety:

A Rur­al Pro­gres­sive Plat­form must be built upon three cen­tral ele­ments: land, liveli­hood and com­mu­ni­ty. Over gen­er­a­tions, these three pil­lars of rur­al life have shaped the economies and cul­tures of much of the coun­try­side; they have forged our com­mit­ment to self-reliance and belief in hard work. Though much of rur­al Amer­i­ca has changed great­ly over the past sev­er­al decades, land, liveli­hood and com­mu­ni­ty con­tin­ue to shape the way we see the world, our­selves, and there­fore our politics. 

What fol­lows here is a frame­work for Pro­gres­sive Val­ues with­in a rur­al con­text, par­tic­u­lar­ly that of Cen­tral Appalachia. It fre­quent­ly uses us” and we”, not to stereo­type or dimin­ish oth­ers — them” — but because we write from our own expe­ri­ence, in our own words. This plat­form is not intend­ed to be com­pre­hen­sive, but should be under­stood as a back­ground doc­u­ment from which rur­al pro­gres­sives can devel­op more focused and ful­ly devel­oped posi­tions, or plat­forms bet­ter suit­ed to their par­tic­u­lar regions. It is accom­pa­nied by a one-page sum­ma­ry, which we hope will help spread the ideas more widely.

Our land

In south­west Vir­ginia, our forests pro­vide lum­ber for build­ing, wood for heat­ing, deer and turkey for food and gin­seng for a lit­tle bit of cash. Cat­tle and sheep graze on lush pas­tures, while nar­row strips of bot­tom­land have grown tobac­co, pro­duce and home gar­dens. Creeks and rivers offer bass, trout and perch, as well as irri­ga­tion for crops. And under­neath all of this, in some parts of our area has been coal, which his­tor­i­cal­ly pro­vid­ed well-pay­ing jobs and a good chunk of the tax base for many local services.

In Kansas, they have prairies; in Louisiana, bay­ous. Though each place is dif­fer­ent, rur­al regions share a sense that nature is part of how we meet our needs, feed our­selves, cre­ate jobs and liveli­hoods. That the moun­tains, forests, val­leys and streams are a prac­ti­cal part of our lives and economies. No doubt this is at least part of why we look at a chain­saw or a rifle so dif­fer­ent­ly from most city folks. Yet it’s also true that many urban com­mu­ni­ties have begun to revi­tal­ize and rebuild their own land base, whether as com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, farms or pub­lic parks. The time is right for rur­al and urban folks to come togeth­er around the idea of work­ing land­scapes that respect the envi­ron­ment while help­ing peo­ple meet their needs.

Our liveli­hoods

There are envi­ron­men­tal­ists” in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and small towns across Appalachia, the Mid­west and every oth­er part of the coun­try. Nev­er­the­less, because the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment has emerged most strong­ly in cities or sub­urbs, its focus has been on pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment, more so than using it well to meet people’s needs. It often seems that envi­ron­men­tal­ists for­get just how much every­one depends upon the food, mate­ri­als and ener­gy that pri­mar­i­ly come from rur­al areas, thanks to the work that rur­al folks do. Rais­ing food, cut­ting logs, min­ing coal or min­er­als, drilling for gas — these are some of the jobs we do, along with the mechan­ics, the welders and car­pen­ters, the engi­neers and the truck dri­vers that fin­ish the work and get these prod­ucts to mar­ket. If we seem to resent peo­ple telling us how to man­age our land, it’s because we do a lot of the work that enables so many oth­ers to eat well, be warm and live comfortably.

Of course our jobs are far more diverse now, and many rur­al peo­ple no longer even raise a gar­den, let alone work in the out­doors. But the sense of liveli­hood’, of tak­ing care of our own needs through hard, some­times dan­ger­ous work, of being self-reliant, that sense is still strong in most rur­al peo­ple, still part of what we believe and what we want. We’re encour­aged to see that an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple in cities, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple, are yearn­ing to work with their hands, to learn how to raise food or live clos­er to the land.

Our com­mu­ni­ty

In rur­al places, fam­i­ly and neigh­bor­li­ness are the start­ing point for com­mu­ni­ty. And church. Small towns and rur­al places, like many big­ger cities, have seen com­mu­ni­ty erod­ed by emp­ty store­fronts, con­sol­i­dat­ed schools, addic­tion and more. Even so, we still tend to set down roots in our place, so when we’re told to just move to where the jobs are’, we think it’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make. We believe that a car­ing local com­mu­ni­ty offers the best means to sup­port and help our neighbors.

It’s true that too often we’ve not wel­comed peo­ple who look or act dif­fer­ent­ly from our norms. But not always. After 911 and Kat­ri­na, many first respon­ders trav­eled from rur­al towns to New York and New Orleans. For years, the UMWA offered help to Chi­nese min­ers in their strug­gles to make their coalmines safer. We can be neigh­bor­ly to oth­ers, far away. But we need to believe that our own com­mu­ni­ties are val­ued and respect­ed, not dis­missed or ridiculed.

If land, liveli­hood and com­mu­ni­ty are cen­tral to rur­al iden­ti­ty and cul­ture, what would a pro­gres­sive plat­form look like in these places? How should it be dif­fer­ent from the pro­gres­sive ideas and lan­guage that we usu­al­ly hear? What are some exam­ples of pub­lic poli­cies to sup­port these values?

Rur­al Pro­gres­sive val­ues and the land

We love the land and all it has to offer. How­ev­er, we want peo­ple who don’t live from the land, who expe­ri­ence nature most­ly through tourism or recre­ation, to under­stand this: It’s hard to make a liv­ing from the land with­out harm, with­out impact. Farm­ers under­stand this, as do fish­er­men, hunters, log­gers and min­ers. Those of us who farm, fish or hunt see our­selves as good stew­ards, because we know that our liveli­hoods depend on healthy land.

If we’re going to do a bet­ter job sus­tain­ing the envi­ron­ment while still meet­ing people’s needs, pro­gres­sive poli­cies must make part­ners of those who live from the land, rather than just reg­u­lat­ing and restrict­ing what hap­pens in the coun­try­side. Pro­gres­sive poli­cies should make major invest­ments in the most promis­ing rur­al sus­tain­able busi­ness­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly in com­mu­ni­ties his­tor­i­cal­ly depen­dent on coal. Rebuild­ing local economies so that peo­ple can care for them­selves and their fam­i­lies should be as much of a pri­or­i­ty as pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment. We need to see that we are tru­ly in this envi­ron­ment thing togeth­er, shar­ing the chal­lenges equally.

Pol­i­cy examples:

  • Increased invest­ment in sus­tain­able farm­ing, fish­ing, forestry research and prac­tices, rather than sub­si­dies for cor­po­rate farm­ing, fish­ing, and for­est products
  • Sup­port for the RECLAIM Act and rein­vest­ment in coal communities
  • Invest­ment and tax cred­its for com­mu­ni­ty wind ener­gy, solar gar­dens and oth­er renew­able ener­gy that also pro­vides rev­enue to local com­mu­ni­ties, in com­bi­na­tion with a mod­ern­ized elec­tric grid that sup­ports dis­trib­uted energy
  • Envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions that are scale appro­pri­ate’, ie less bur­den­some on small to mid-sized farms, busi­ness­es and manufacturers

Rur­al Pro­gres­sive val­ues and livelihoods

We say with­out hes­i­ta­tion that work­ing men and women must be at the cen­ter of a Rur­al Pro­gres­sive plat­form and must form the foun­da­tion of the broad­er pro­gres­sive move­ment. Work­ing folks in rur­al Appalachia and urban Bal­ti­more might look dif­fer­ent, but in city and coun­try alike work­ing peo­ple often do work that is phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing, work that requires a prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence, and jobs that so many oth­ers have come to take for grant­ed. We think it’s long past due that rur­al and urban work­ers share in the wealth our work cre­ates, and be respect­ed by politi­cians with their actions, not just their words.

We come from gen­er­a­tions of resource­ful peo­ple, folks who were poor but didn’t know it” because they made the most out of what they had. A Rur­al Pro­gres­sive plat­form should thus be built on respon­si­bil­i­ties at least as much as rights, with poli­cies that help peo­ple help them­selves, and build on our strengths and assets.

Pol­i­cy examples:

  • An end to poli­cies that under­mine orga­nized labor
  • Increase in Earned Income Tax Cred­it, and oth­er sav­ings vehi­cles for low­er income and work­ing folks;
  • Poli­cies and pro­grams that build the wealth of work­ers, includ­ing cooperatives
  • Asset-based’ eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment that address­es real com­mu­ni­ty needs, rather than sub­si­dies for big box­es and out­side corporations
  • Free com­mu­ni­ty college
  • Col­lege edu­ca­tion with­out oner­ous debt, in part through reduced uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tive costs, and income-based loan repayment
  • Dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased inter­net access, includ­ing pub­licly owned options

Rur­al Pro­gres­sive val­ues and community

We’ve not yet giv­en up on com­mu­ni­ty — real com­mu­ni­ty, built around a place. We need pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic, tax and trade pol­i­cy that sup­ports healthy, self-reliant local com­mu­ni­ties, instead of polices that suck the life out of our busi­ness­es, homes and down­towns. Strength­en­ing local com­mu­ni­ties should be a cen­tral goal of pro­gres­sive poli­cies.

Pol­i­cy examples:

  • Tax incen­tives for region­al man­u­fac­tur­ers and oth­er busi­ness­es that com­mit to long- term local employ­ment, rather than sup­port­ing cor­po­ra­tions who off­shore jobs.
  • Reg­u­la­to­ry relief for com­mu­ni­ty banks, and sup­port for cred­it unions and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment finan­cial institutions
  • Expan­sion of rur­al health clin­ics, addic­tion treat­ment and pre­ven­tion, and incen­tives for doc­tors and health prac­ti­tion­ers to work in rur­al and under­served communities

Rur­al cit­i­zens believe in fair­ness and under­stand that some peo­ple start with advan­tages that ordi­nary peo­ple just don’t have. After all, Jesus hon­ored the wid­ow, who gave in spite of her pover­ty, and rebuked the Phar­isees, who gave only from their sur­plus. It seems fair, then, to ask more of those with wealth and priv­i­lege, to oppose poli­cies that fur­ther their eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal pow­er, and to pro­tect and care for those who are struggling.

Pol­i­cy examples

  • Dra­mat­ic changes in cam­paign financ­ing and lob­by­ing laws to elim­i­nate the extra­or­di­nary influ­ence now exer­cised by the wealthy and big corporations
  • Full sup­port for vet­er­ans’ health, men­tal health and job training
  • Long-term sup­port of Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare, by requir­ing the wealthy to pay into the sys­tem on all their earn­ings, as work­ing and mid­dle class peo­ple already do
  • Tax­ing div­i­dends, cap­i­tal gains and oth­er unearned income at the same lev­el as earned income, so that we all pay our fair share
  • Main­tain­ing full rights and pro­tec­tions for all peo­ple in our coun­try — who are, after all, our neigh­bors — regard­less of race, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or ability. 
Antho­ny Flac­caven­to is an organ­ic farmer in Wash­ing­ton Coun­ty, Va., and author of Build­ing a Healthy Econ­o­my from the Bot­tom Up: Har­ness­ing Real World Expe­ri­ence for Trans­for­ma­tive Change. His con­sult­ing busi­ness, SCALE, Inc, works with com­mu­ni­ties around the world to help build health­i­er, more sus­tain­able economies.
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