Democrats Used To Dominate Rural Districts-- Why Has That Changed So Drastically?

Mark Mellman is the worst kind of Democratic Party operative you can find-- a conservative who wound up rising to power in the wrong party. Head of the viciously anti-progressive outfit, Democratic Majority for Israel, he wrote in Hits today that "After four years of Donald Trump’s severe intellectual and emotional impairments on daily display; after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the beginning of a “racial reckoning;” after Trump fought to take health care away from millions; after majorities acknowledged Trump was a serial liar and a racist who put himself first and didn’t care about people; after impeachment, COVID-19, a quarter million dead, an economy reeling; and after a $14 billion campaign, precious little changed [from 2016]... Trump’s share of the popular vote actually inched up 1 point over 2016, while Joe Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s percentage by 3.1 points, with support for third parties obviously receding... Lots of Americans who believed Donald Trump was a lying racist, who failed in responding to COVID, voted for him anyway... But why so little movement after such massive Trump failings?"

Good question. But absolutely idea how to answer it. as though this were important, he noted that "Despite John Kasich, Cindy McCain, The Lincoln Project, Bill Kristol, Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens and Former Republican National Security Officials for Biden, Trump garnered a larger share of the GOP vote than any Republican presidential contender in the history of exit polling." His answer-- the answer much of the Democratic establishment adheres to-- is that "Partisan sclerosis has deadened the body politic. Nobody saw it coming because nobody recognized, nobody modeled, just how unresponsive we’ve become to everything but the pull of partisanship."

There are also real life answers that have more to do with real life Americans and the failure of the Democratic Party. Hacks like Mellman refuse to look at them-- because they do not support the status quo or status quo ante his life is based on-- but not looking at them just guarantees that the Democratic Party will continue to disappoint and fail.

Bill Hogseth, chair of rural Dunn County, Wisconsin (Menomonie area), wrote an OpEd for Politico Magazine this week, Why Democrats Keep Losing Rural Counties Like Mine. He places the fault of Trump's victory there squarely on national Democrats-- like Mellman-- who have failed communities like his.

In 2016, Dunn County Democrats voted overwhelmingly against the establishment candidate in their primary, giving Bernie a massive 4,272 (63.5%) to 2,421 (36.0%) win over Hillary. Ted Cruz beat Trump there there-- 46.3% to 41.1%. In the 2016 general, Trump beat Hillary 11,487 (52.1%) to 9,025 (41.0%). Before Hillary every Democrat who ran from 1976 (Jimmy Carter) won-- with one exception, Reagan's reelection campaign in 1984. even Dukakis beat George H.W.Bush by double digits. In 2018 Dunn County gave Democrat Tammy Baldwin and the local Democratic congressman big victories but this year, Trump beat Biden 13,173 (56.0%) to 9,897 (42.1%), a big increase for Trump.

Hogseth wrote that what he saw in Dunn as the 2020 election approached "might surprise those who assume there’s no such thing as progressive organizing in rural areas. Starting in 2018, participation in the Dunn County Democrats surged. Membership grew by 30 percent. Our ranks of volunteers tripled. Local fundraising expanded. We opened a headquarters early in the election cycle, and laid out clear goals and a timeline, focused on local organizing and engaging new people to encourage them to vote Democratic, both on the presidential ticket and in state Legislature races." His excitement grew as he saw "more and more people who had never been involved in political organizing stepping forward."

[G]ood organizing was not enough to win Dunn County. In November, Trump voters turned out in force, even stronger than they had in 2016. Despite all the work we did as Democrats, there were more Trump yard signs than four years ago; more flags in support of the president flew from more flagpoles and pickup trucks. It wasn’t just Dunn County. Roughly two-thirds of rural voters across the country cast their ballots for Trump. Any election results map you look at offers a bleak visualization of the political divide between rural and urban voters: a sea of red dotted with islands of blue.
Why did Trump do so well with rural voters? From my experience, it’s not because local Democrats failed to organize in rural areas. Instead, after conversations with dozens of voters, neighbors, friends and family members in Dunn County, I’ve come to believe it is because the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experiences. The pain and struggle in my community is real, yet rural people do not feel it is taken seriously by the Democratic Party.
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.
Rural people want to share in America’s prosperity, but the economic divide between rural and urban America has widened. 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.
The source of our wealth is in the things we grow. But today, those things get shipped off into a vast global supply chain, where profits are siphoned off and little remains for us to save or invest. Farmers’ share of every retail food dollar has fallen from about 50 percent in 1952 to 15 percent today. Corporations control more and more of the agriculture business-- from the seed and fertilizer farmers buy to the grain, milk and meat they sell-- sucking out profits instead of giving farmers a fair price or a fair shot at the market. Every day, small farmers are squeezed: They can either expand their operations and take on more debt in an attempt to produce more, or close their business entirely because of chronically low commodity prices.
The digital divide is also real: About 28 percent of rural Wisconsinites lack high-speed internet, which stifles rural economic growth. Working from home or starting a new business is next to impossible in today’s economy without high-speed internet. Kids can’t learn from home without it either.
Rural health care is a disaster. At least 176 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, the majority of them in the past 10 years; it’s generally not profitable for hospitals to operate in low-population areas. Wisconsin has not been hit as badly as other states, but those hospitals that remain open in rural parts of the state are scaling back services and struggling to retain doctors. 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.
Rural people in Wisconsin are dying by suicide at rates higher than folks in suburban and urban parts of the state. This is not just a matter of poor mental health services—many rural counties lack a single practicing psychiatrist. It is also about an inescapable feeling of failure and an overwhelming sense that there is no future here.
The sad thing is none of this is an accident. It is the result of decades of policy decisions-- by Republicans and Democrats-- that deplete our communities.
Rural voters appreciated Obama’s repeated campaign promises to challenge the rise of agribusiness monopolies. But as president, he allowed for the continued consolidation of corporate power in the food system. His Department of Agriculture balked when it came time to enforce anti-monopoly rules such as those in the Packers and Stockyard Act, and failed to enforce Country of Origin Labeling, which would have allowed independent farmers and ranchers to better compete within the consolidated meat industry. The Obama Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission presided over a series of corporate mergers in the food and agriculture sectors, including the Kraft-Heinz and JBS-Cargill mergers. Taken together, these moves signaled that his administration did not have the backs of family farmers.
This is a large part of why Trump won Dunn County decisively in 2016 and in 2020. I have spoken with supporters of the president who were well aware of his shortcomings or admitted to disliking his leadership style, but who nonetheless believed he was willing to stand up to “elitist” Democrats and fight for citizens like them. For years, rural people have heard they are voting “against their own self-interest” when they elect Republicans, or that they vote the “wrong way” because they are uneducated. These are arrogant and damaging messages that are not easily forgotten. The reality, as I saw in my conversations with voters this year, is that many rural people have lost trust in the Democratic Party.
It was not for a lack of effort that the Biden campaign was unable to connect with rural voters this year. In May, Biden convened a virtual “rural roundtable” in western Wisconsin to show the candidate listening to stakeholders about rural economic development, health care and the crisis in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, brought on by chronically low milk prices. Nor was it for a lack of policy proposals: The Biden campaign released an exhaustive “rural plan” for anyone to read. All of these political gestures, however, are filtered through the lens of what political scientist Katherine Cramer calls “rural consciousness”-- including a perception that cities are where decisions are made, culture happens and resources flow, and that rural communities are not in control of their own futures. Even as a kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden was seen as a creature of an establishment that has marginalized rural communities for decades.
Trust is earned slowly. It can’t be earned back with campaign slogans or TV ads. When people feel left behind, they look for a way to make sense of what is happening to them. There is a story to be told about rural America, yet Democrats are not telling it. That leaves an opening for other stories to be told to fill the vacuum-- stories that villainize and divide us along racial, geographic and partisan lines. That is the story Trump told, but it’s the wrong one. The real story is that rural people feel our way of life is being sold off. We see the wealth of our sweat and soil being sent away to enrich executives, investors and shareholders.
For Democrats to start telling a story that resonates, they need to show a willingness to fight for rural people, and not just by proposing a “rural plan” or showing up on a farm for a photo op. Rural people understand economic power and the grip it has on lawmakers. We know reform won’t be easy. A big step forward for Democrats would be to champion antitrust enforcement and challenge the anticompetitive practices of the gigantic agribusiness firms that squeeze our communities. In his rural plan, Biden pledged to “strengthen antitrust enforcement,” but the term doesn’t appear until the 35th bullet point. For rural voters, antitrust enforcement is a top priority, and it should be coupled with policies to manage oversupply in commodity markets, so farmers can get a fair price. Another step forward would be an ambitious federal plan, in the spirit of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act, to bring high-speed internet to every corner of America.
What rural voters want is a glimmer of hope that things will change. They want politicians who see a future for rural communities in which food production is localized, energy is cheap and clean, people have good jobs, soil is healthy, Main Street is bustling with small businesses, schools are vibrant and everyone can see a doctor if they need to. Here in Wisconsin, we can look back in our state’s rich history of progressive populism to a time when politicians like Bob LaFollette, our former governor and U.S. senator, understood that concentrated wealth and corporate power are a threat to people’s livelihoods. As president, Biden will have the chance to prove he understands this, too. Democrats can win rural Wisconsin again, but they’ll need to try.

Wisconsin state Senator Chris Larson's district is mostly suburban but he's been a champion for rural areas as wells much so, that rural Democrats are urging him to run for the U.S. Senate in 2022 when Ron Johnson's term expires. This afternoon, Chris told me he had read Hogseth's piece as well and agreed that he "hits solid points and anyone hoping to win rural areas should listen to him. One additional problem we've faced in Wisconsin is that due to gerrymandering, we have to climb up a very steep hill. So even when we're on message and putting forward legislation, it dies before it sees the light of day. Over the last decade, I've stood with fellow Democrats as we pushed for strong proposals to help local farms, protect drinking water, expand rural broadband, and increase access to affordable healthcare. Scott Walker and his allies have stood in the way. Hence, the circular, self-fulfilling prophecy: both sides aren't doing anything for you. Biden does have an opportunity to stand with family farmers over mega-agribusiness. For the sake of the future of Wisconsin, I hope he hears Hogseth's calls."

Progressive activist Yenifer Gallegos-Mejia is likely to run for Congress in a rural Central Valley district in 2022. She just told me that during her time canvassing in rural communities, "there was one common theme that I saw over and over again. People are tired of broken promises. They're tired of hearing Democrats say that we're going to strengthen Rural America, yet they still lack the resources needed to seek basic medical care. Rural community members have seen a decline in their quality of life because their elected officials have failed to enact policies that actually invest in them, the working class. All that they ask for is an opportunity to be able to succeed."

Former City of Flagstaff Councilmember Eva Putzova, a recent primary challenger in Arizona's huge rural first congressional district and the chair of the Flagstaff Living Wage Coalition. told me that "In this cycle (again), we just saw more of the same losing formula from the Democratic Party: ignore long-term organizing, support stand-for-nothing corporate candidates, bypass local party organizations, and forego any coordination in planning. An unprecedented amount of money and organizing (although horribly uncoordinated) was invested in Arizona by organizations and campaigns connected to the Democratic Party. Biden and Kelly narrowly won the state races thanks to the urban voters, the professional, financially secured class who voted against Trump, and mostly, thanks to community organizations that fought racist, anti-immigrant forces for more than a decade locally and rarely get credit for electoral wins. While my primary opponent-- conservative co-chair of Blue Dogs Tom O'Halleran-- also won our democratic leaning district (AZ-01), he did so by the lowest margin since 2012. Two well-funded Democratic candidates in the state legislative district 6 which overlaps with my congressional district 1 lost miserably against Republicans. There is no way we can attribute the losses or the marginal wins just to voters' partisanship, especially considering that 30 percent of people in these districts are registered Independents. In my opinion, when candidates energize voters by offering a real vision for a better life for regular working people and build on humanitarian organizing, they succeed. In the last four cycles in legislative district 6, candidates have run on the theme of "Jobs and Education." Clearly these bland, mainstream Democratic Party themes have failed. Merely expanding the number of low-paid jobs is not the answer. We need higher paying jobs for both unskilled and skilled workers, which means raising the minimum wage, providing retirement and other benefits, and encouraging more collective bargaining. In addition to more funding for public education, we need tuition-free college, universal publicly funded childcare and elimination of student debt. Party elites may not like it, but this is how we will excite our base and win over a majority of voters."

Small town Oregon mayor and Democratic congressional candidate Mark Gamba pointed out to me that "As a culture, we have ceased to value the production of food or lumber, we see them as commodities. As such our culture doesn't value the people and places that produce those things. In that vacuum, corporations will do what they do best-- maximize profits for themselves and their wealthy stockholders and squeeze the people who do the actual work, and produce the things we all need. Both the centrist Democrats and the Republicans are in the thrall of the large corporations and the big dollars that come with them. The rural communities that most of our government overlooks need high speed internet like they needed electricity nearly 100 years ago. They need healthcare that isn't based on profit, but rather on care for people. Sanders won all the rural counties in the 2016 primaries here in the fifth congressional district of Oregon because it was clear to those down to earth people that his care and his intention was to serve all the people and make sure they had what they deserved-- a dignified and honored life. As the Democrats continue to fail these folks, the cynical messaging that the Republicans employ will continue to be the deciding factor. If the Democrats fail to take this country back from the corporations and continue to fail to insure that working people live a dignified life without the constant threat of poverty and houselessness, then the lies of the republicans will continue to carry the rural areas."

Sam Rasoul has been a Virginia state legislator since 2014. A rural district Democrat (and a Muslim), he beat his Republican opponent with 70% of the vote and Republicans don't even both running candidates against him any longer. He's running for lieutenant governor next year and this morning he tweeted his approval of Hogseth's analysis.