Hank Linderman is the head of the Kentucky Democratic Party's rural caucus and he's running for Congress in a very rural-- and very red-- district. His campaign is more an organizing effort for the party than anything to do with replacing a right-wing Republican (Brett Guthrie) with a Bernie-grade progressive. It's still very much worth contributing to his campaign. Yesterday, when I asked him about the morass the Democrats find themselves in in rural areas like him, he didn't hesitate for a moment. "First, our party needs to decide to invest in rural and small town America. Democrats have been absent in many of these districts for decades-- since they didn’t think they could win they invested elsewhere. This might have made sense for an election cycle, but being gone for so long means we have been out of the conversation while Republicans became dominant. State parties need to contribute to candidates running in hopeless races, they will help organize to help others win later on.
"Let’s back off a bit on the endless criticism of Republicans," he suggested. "It takes no courage and they don’t care what Democrats have to say. The only people who can change the Democratic Party are Democrats, so let’s get our own house in order. (There is much to be said on this subject.) We need to understand that there is virtually no Democratic messaging that will be accepted without personal, on the ground, grassroots outreach and involvement. So, instead of focusing on message, we need to focus on showing up and listening. 'What’s on your mind?' Is a great place to start. Listen closely, and find something you can agree with. Lather, rinse, repeat. Forget about winning for awhile, focus on making connections, and friends."
Earlier in the day, Morning Consult released extensive polling data on the problems the Democratic Party is having in rural America: The Culture War Has Democrats Facing Electoral Demise in Rural America. Can They Stop the Bleeding? Eli Yokley's top lines were pretty painful:
65% of rural voters view the Democratic Party unfavorably-- including 48% who do so strongly.
Among 21 issues tested, a rural voter’s desire for candidates to support securing the U.S.-Mexico border had the strongest correlation with negative views about the Democratic Party.
Only 23% of rural voters say the Democratic Party “cares more about my community” than the GOP.
There was more about the course correction conservative Democrats are demanding. Yokley wrote that "Some prominent Democrats believe an immediate course correction is required for the party to avoid perhaps decades in the political wilderness." He quoted the chief data scientist for the conservative-leaning PAC associated with the Center for American Progress: "The root issue is that rural voters are worth more in both the Senate and the Electoral College. Either Democrats make these adjustments and do better with working-class voters, or they get locked out of the federal government for a very long time."
No one wants to say it but, "culturally-speaking," some of these folks are a little backward and... racist. Democrats aren't going to win them over until they can somehow cure their racism. And that's going to take a lot of effort. These are people who bought into Trump's con job-- hook, line and sinker.
Steven Holden is a Democrat running in a central New York district that mixes urban (Syracuse) with suburban, rural and even woke (Ithaca). He also said that "Democrats need to engage the voters where they are. I grew up as a rural progressive raised by New Deal Democrats. We must focus on issues that help their communities-- farm subsidies, access to capital for agribusiness, combatting corporate farming, protecting rural hospitals, post offices, and airfields. These are pocketbook issues that determine if a community can thrive. Second, we must be authentic. Too often Democrats, particularly those of the corporate persuasion, look down their noses at rural voters or question their intelligence. Therefore, I have partnered with three rural Democrats in Central NY who are running for State Assembly-- Bruce MacBain, Scott Comegys, and Wil Fiacco. We must rebuild the party from the ground-up."
This cycle, the progressive challenging Chuck Grassley is Glenn Hurst, like Hank Linderman, his state's Democratic Party rural caucus leader. "We first sow the facts for our communities," he told me late last night. "In Iowa, we have had a 25% population loss in rural counties over the last 40 years. We have the 2nd worst bridges in the USA. Our local industries are moving out or cutting services, I.e. hospitals no longer deliver babies; clinics and nursing homes are closing. School districts have consolidated and schools have closed in many communities. The great outdoors are no longer fit for recreation with polluted waterways and loss of animal habitats. Our children move away for education because our community colleges close their extensions. Once they leave, our children never move back. These are the realities of rural Iowa. Once these facts are sewn, we harvest the votes of those who can hear with the solutions to these problems. We put an emphasis on the economic impact of our solutions, Medicare for All, public education funding, conservation actions, jobs creation."
He continued that "Xenophobia and racism are ever present, but we do not concede to them. We provide evidence of the success communities have had with embracing immigration and how immigration helps meet our goals. Marshalltown, Storm Lake, and Columbus Junction have seen their communities grow, tax bases broaden, and opportunity return. The concern about securing our borders should be turned back on those whose communities need the people in order to grow. We frame it as an immigration policy that grows communities, not shuts off the resource. Secure the border should be thrown back to Republicans to defend as a policy of stifling growth and shutting out a needed workforce."
The average rural voter is more likely than the average voter to say racial discrimination toward white people has gotten worse since Obama’s 2008 election. Rural voters are also less likely than the average American to agree that racial discrimination against Black people is one of the biggest problems facing America today, or that white people start out with an advantage-- key pieces of conversations in the United States about privilege that the GOP has used to fan the culture wars about things like “critical race theory” in schools.
María Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, which works to expand Hispanic voter registration, said these views have hardened-- from the tea-party wave to the rise of Trump-- due to a lack of leadership from Democrats to level with the American people about the changing country.
“There has to be a way to explain the Democratic Party and the richness,” she said. “In the vacuum of not having enough leadership, people are piping in, disproportionately, Fox News every single day, they’re going on Facebook, and their feelings of being concerned about a changing country are being reinforced.”
Shor said despite the fact that he and many in his party might find these views on race, ethnicity and identity to be abhorrent, Democrats shouldn’t write off working-class white people, in the same way they haven’t shunned the Black, Hispanic or educated suburbanites who have been shown respectively to be more likely to diverge from party orthodoxy on issues like LGBTQ+ rights, policing and raising taxes on the rich.
“I don’t think it is coherent for us to say these peoples’ views are too repugnant for us to try to win their votes,” he said. “Politics is a game of trying to entice people to join your coalition-- the way that you do that is by speaking in language they can understand, and by offering them something meaningful.”
From her current perch in Kansas, Mosley said one of the biggest challenges facing her party is awareness that they exist in rural communities, citing the “wall” between Democrats and rural voters.
Rural voters are less likely than the average voter-- 65 percent to 72 percent-- to say they live around a Democrat, compared with urban and suburban voters, who are slightly more likely than average to say so. What’s more, rural independents and Republicans are less likely than their counterparts in the nationwide electorate to identify Democrats as their neighbors.
“A lot of times the wall is just not wanting to be different in the community, where it’s very small and everyone knows everyone, and there’s a lot of things that get said about Democrats that aren’t true,” she said. “If you don’t interact with someone you know who’s a Democrat, we just seem like the bogeyman.”
Indeed, rural voters are more likely than the average voter to view the Democratic Party as too liberal (55 percent to 47 percent) and as out of touch with their community’s needs (62 percent to 53 percent). Less than a quarter of rural voters agree with the statement that the Democratic Party “cares more about my community,” compared with 2 in 5 who say the same of the Republican Party.
...Kumar of Voto Latino said increasing diversity in rural areas has the potential to shift political power as young first-generation nonwhite Americans reach voting age and look for the Democratic Party that “claims to be” with them to prove it.
She said the party would be wrong to try to minimize its views on issues such as immigration in order not to scare older white voters, rather than engaging with them earnestly.
“We absolutely need rural America, but we also need to make sure that we are not backing away from the hard issues,” she said. “Instead of having frank conversations, the Democrats don’t want to touch it as if this and other things will go away, and it’s being filled by the demagogues that’s shaping the narrative every day.”
Lourin Hubbard is running in a heavily rural California Central Valley district. "Democrats," he said, "need to be genuine when we campaign in rural America. We have to be open and honest. We also need to talk to the issues that rural voters are concerned with. There are many who feel left behind. I have lots of rural voters in the district that I am running to represent and the issues that I have had the most engagement and discussion is healthcare and finding care for their aging parents and grandparents. They're concerned with their local school having quality teachers. These are issues that Democrats can lead with compassion on to connect with voters. The other issue that I have found with Democrats in rural areas are their county parties and central committees do not have the infrastructure to really support most campaigns. Our parties need to be doing deep canvasing and connecting with voters year round now just every four years during election season rolls around. Our local parties should have roots in the community and should be holding events and doing outreach to build the Democratic brand and build trust. This will help recruit candidates that are from rural communities and when the local party endorses those candidates it will actually mean something in the community."
UPDATE From Wisconsin
Mark Neumann is running in the west Wisconsin congressional swing district seat being vacated by conservative Democrat Ron Kind. Kind is a New Dem. Neumann is a Bernie-grade progressive. In 2016 Bernie not only won every county in the sprawling district, he beat Trump in most of them as well. After reading this post this morning, Neumann sent me this e-mail:
There are some interesting reflections in your post.
Yesterday, I was caught up with our La Crosse City response to the need for shelter for our people who live "in the rough" in our town without shelter security.
I didn't have time to respond to your invitation to respond to the rural America turn-around question.
But this morning, before getting back to city work, I have a few reflections.
I observed the genocide in Rwanda at a much closer range than most Americans when I lived in Zaire, and I observed up close the oppression of Kasian people by the Bemba people of the Shaba region in Zaire.
These experiences were hard to see and much harder to understand.
I came away believing that we humans have a possession that is way more important than any economic concerns. We have our communal (or ethnic) identities that we are willing (even compelled) to kill for or die for in order to preserve.
In Rwanda the Hutu ethnicity's identity was threatened by the Tutsi ethnicity's dominance that they interpreted as oppressive. Once the fire was lit, 750,000 majority Tutsi were killed at the hands (literally at the hands, with hand held machetes) by the Hutu.
In Shaba the Kasian people who lived for generations in the southern province after the Belgian colonialists had transported workers from Kasai to Shaba to work in the mines were interpreted by the Bemba to be an oppressive presence to their Bemba ethnic identity-- so they forced the Kasians to run back to Kasai or face the consequences of not leaving.
I see a similar dynamic happening in rural America. Our rich American rural ethnic identity is being crushed and there is fear that it will disappear. When this fear takes hold, it is immensely powerful. Humans will kill or be killed for the sake of preserving their communal identity. That's what I saw when I lived in Zaire.
[GOP candidate Derrick] Van Orden will ride that wave of fear and resentment in rural western Wisconsin.
My fear for rural Wisconsin is that mega-corporation agri-business will continue its extractive mining of food production until all social and rural community life is dissipated. There will be few people, no schools, no churches, no hospitals, no stores. There will only be tracks of land being raped to produce food that gets shipped out of rural Wisconsin as grain to other countries and meat produce to one or the other of a few gigantic meat packing corporations. In the end, the vision that I fear is a vast desert of vacant exploited earth with nodes of urbanism here and there.
I believe that farmers fear that their farming community is dying. There is a human need and drive to not let that happen. Fear leads to anger and that leads to violence. Van Orden will exploit that fear in his campaign.
Democrats can't hope to come in and fix that problem from the outside.
Corporate America is killing the farm community.
Democrats accommodate and are seen as being in the pockets of corporate America. Democrats can't have it both ways.
Democrats can't carry water for corporate America and then turn around and believe they can be of any hope to the people who are experiencing that their communal identity is being killed by the corporate America that Democrats do the bidding of.
All of those social references that were reviewed in the original article that you pointed out to me are not very important next to the fear of having ethnic identity killed.
I will keep reflecting, but now I gotta meet a constituent for La Crosse City work.