Yes, Trump lied to rural voters and also stoked racism. And yes, extreme partisanship and identity politics where you can’t reach the other side’s voters no matter how good your message are both real things.
But not all Trump voters were racists or fools. And it’s dangerous for Democrats to keep complaining that rural voters are unreachable and then using that as an excuse to write off rural voters, mostly white people but also some people of color too.
Some Obama voters in swing states switched to Trump in 2016 because Democrats didn’t do much for rural communities during the eight years Obama was in office and they didn’t expect Hillary Clinton to do anything differently. And they voted for Trump again in 2020, despite lots of broken promises, for the same reason: lack of faith that the Democratic candidate, in this case Joe Biden, would make any moves on the issues they cared about.
And it wasn’t about cancelling gun control, cancelling immigrants, or cancelling Covid face masks. It was about real economic issues that have been key to rural communities for years.
“Rural people want to share in America’s prosperity, but the economic divide between rural and urban America has widened,” writes Bill Hogseth in Politico. A Democratic organizer in a swing county in the swing state of Wisconsin that went for Trump both times, Hogseth doesn’t think that Democrats lost his area for lack of campaigning. Instead, it was for lack of action to help rural economies.
“Small-business growth has slowed in rural communities since the Great Recession, and it has only worsened with Covid-19. As capital overwhelmingly flows to metro areas, the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations: low-wage retailers like Dollar General or agribusiness firms that have no connection to the community,” writes Hogseth.
Rural voters want real help, Hogseth contends, on key economic issues:
- Family Farms vs Agribusiness. Rural wealth is still, as it always has been, in farming, but families who grow food keep falling further and further behind big agribusiness. “Farmers’ share of every retail food dollar has fallen from about 50 percent in 1952 to 15 percent today.”
- Broadband Access. Nearly a third of rural Wisconsinites lack broadband internet. But they need it to start businesses and during Covid, even to let their kids participate in school.
- Healthcare. If you have to make money off of keeping people healthy, then don’t run a hospital in a rural area. Nearly 200 rural hospitals have closed since 2005. “In my own county, there are zero ICU beds, even as Covid infection rates surge. Our profit-based health care system is failing rural people.”
- Mental Health. Even more heartbreaking, rural people commit suicide at higher rates than those in cities or suburbs. It’s not just a lack of psychiatrists and therapists. “It is also about an inescapable feeling of failure and an overwhelming sense that there is no future here.”
Obama Showed Little Interest in Rural America
While Obama was president, aside from passing Obamacare, Democrats did little or nothing to address these concerns. In particular, when they had power in Washington, Democrats helped manufacturers send production overseas and supported big agribusiness mergers just as much as Republicans did. Those policies helped the party’s big business donors but they hurt small farms, killed jobs and hollowed out rural communities.
And now, Democrats are falling into their usual pattern of blaming white rural people for voting for Trump. But Hogseth thinks they can do better.
“My fear is that Democrats will continue to blame rural voters for the red-sea electoral map and dismiss these voters as backward. But my hope is for Democrats to listen to and learn from the experiences of rural people. The signs of desperation are everywhere in communities like mine. A landscape of collapsed barns and crumbling roads. Main Streets with empty storefronts. The distant stare of depression in your neighbor’s eyes. If you live here, it is impossible to ignore the depletion.”
Democrats rightly focus on the needs of women and people of color, but they should also care about the white working class.
Democrats might not be in thrall to Exxon and Koch Industries as Trump was. But Team Blue has to answer to their own plutocrats from Goldman Sachs to Google, along with plenty of agribusiness donors to Biden and Democrats in Congress.
No surprise, the party establishment spends too much time catering to the needs of rich people, whether in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. There’s a chance now for the Democrats to forge an alliance between working people in cities, especially black and brown voters, and working people in the country, mostly white.
To win back Obama voters who defected to Trump, Democrats will need to start talking about what rural voters want, and not just dismissing them as racists and rubes. At least Trump did that, though he delivered precious little of what he promised.
Democrats need to do better. After they make promises to rural voters, they need to follow through with real solutions on family farms, rural broadband, hospitals, and mental health.
That’s going to mean that Democrats are going to need less Bill Clinton (NAFTA and welfare cuts) and more FDR (New Deal and rural development).
Biden’s USDA Pick is a Bad Sign
It’s not a promising sign that Joe Biden just named as his pick for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He was Obama’s agriculture secretary too, serving for eight years.
Texas left-wing populist Jim Hightower was no fan of Vilsack the last time around, because Vilsack was just another in a line of USDA leaders who deferred to big agribusiness companies and acted as if the “job has first and foremost been to keep these moneyed interests content and in charge, effectively handing control of food and rural policies to them.”
Hightower thinks the position is important, since the USDA has big powers to restore fairness and opportunity across the countryside:
It has major anti-monopoly authority; has its own banks; controls huge rural development and housing programs; runs the food stamp, school lunch and other nutrition programs; has responsibility for food safety and pesticide regulations; directs the Forest Service and numerous conservation, wildlife and other environmental policies; has sweeping civil rights and labor rights responsibilities; is mandated to serve consumers and the poor; wields a $151 billion annual budget; has some 100,000 employees and more than 4,500 offices across America and abroad; and — most powerfully — has a secretary with broad authority to be a national advocate for the people against the corporate plutocracy now controlling policy.
Even traditional Democratic constituencies among civil rights groups are complaining about Vilsack. For example, as Politico reports, Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, a coalition of Black growers and producers from key Southern states working to raise awareness on issues faced by Black farmers, is not a fan of Biden’s ag pick.
Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period…When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that. It’s very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limited resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives.
If Biden’s going with Vilsack, then it will be up to other Democrats to save the party’s rural policy from its own corporate bosses. Otherwise, in four years, rural voters may again turn swing states like Wisconsin away from the party and towards another Republican demagogue who mouths rural-friendly promises, even if they’re all hollow.
If that happens, don’t blame white rural voters. Blame Biden and other Democrats who just won’t learn.