Opinion: Why Democrats Can No Longer Neglect Rural America
Written by Dan Glickman, a former Secretary of Agriculture and congressman who represented the 4th congressional district of Kansas for 18 years as a Democrat.
The fallout and analysis of the 2016 election has started in earnest, and Democrats are seeking to understand how this election went wrong. What strikes me the most is that, for all the changes to American society, economy, and demographics, rural America can still have a say on the direction of this country.
First, and a requirement for Democrats in particular, just because rural Americans overwhelmingly voted for Trump does not mean that most people in rural America are racist, misogynist hillbillies. Like any community, rural America has good people and bad people. And like any community, rural Americans have hopes and dreams, as well as struggles and failures. Many of those hopes and dreams are the same as those of urban Americans.
The preexisting political divide between rural and urban American communities has been widened by this election. That much is clearly true. Both for the health of the Democratic Party, and for the reunification of American society more generally, Democrats especially need to build bridges to rural America. As I wrote back in June, “These areas are worthy of attention by candidates for national and statewide offices. Perhaps some political consultants will tell candidates not to waste their time in a town of a few thousand people, but for the sake of good government and leadership, all American communities deserve a seat at the table.”
There is a counterintuitive point to be made here, which is that Democratic policies have largely been supportive of rural communities. That’s not to say that Republicans aren’t supportive as many of these issues are bipartisan, but Democrats tend to vote for legislative initiatives that directly benefit rural Americans, among others. Farm country, during the past decade, but with some recent exceptions, has been doing reasonably well. Farm prices have been good, exports have been high, and land prices have remained high. And the federal government, with bipartisan support, has been delivering billions of dollars into farm, risk management, and rural development programs in recent years.
Yet, rural Americans still feel isolated from Washington and, as the results of the election demonstrate, from the Democratic Party. True or not, that is a widely shared belief. The simple fact is the national Democratic Party and the presidential campaign didn’t prioritize visiting rural America or talking about rural issues. This is notwithstanding the fact that Secretary Vilsack has been a forceful leader on these issues, and the USDA team has performed in outstanding fashion during the past eight years.
Some campaign consultants and affiliates often argue that it is a waste of time for the national Democratic Party to focus its efforts on rural communities when those candidates aren’t likely to reap substantial electoral rewards for those efforts. Others argue that Democratic policies supporting critical programs for rural Americans should speak for themselves. “Why would they vote against their own interests?” many can be heard asking. Still others claim that the cultural differences on issues like guns are too big to make outreach worthwhile.
But let us be crystal clear about where the Democratic Party finds itself right now. A big reason Secretary Clinton lost, and Democrats are reeling, having lost many seats across federal, state, and local governments over the last eight years, is because of the neglect of rural America by the party. The result this time was a reduced number of votes in rural counties of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, which may have been the electoral difference in each state.
A candidate can have a strong argument on policy, can have the best data team and campaign operation in the business, but if he or she isn’t focusing on voters in small communities and rural areas, none of that matters to those voters. Without party support for Democrats in rural America, there is a much more difficult path to victory.
The Democratic Party must reengage and this needs to start now at the community level and continue all the way to the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. Democrats need a true 50-state strategy. The bulk of this strategy must be a real effort to visit small towns and rural America more frequently, listen to concerns, and make them part of the political process. Millions of people live in smaller communities and rural America; they have been and remain an important part of our national political process.