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Dems and Rural Voters


Politico is mostly a bad publication, but it certainly represents conventional wisdom. And nothing is more conventional wisdom than that Democrats are responsible for the loss of rural white voters.

Now, before we go any further, let me say that in fact Democrats have had a terrible response to the changes in the economy over the past fifty years. There’s been no real answers to the decline of small towns. There’s been no real answer on what deindustralized communities are supposed to do. The lie about how an information economy is going to provide everyone jobs so don’t worry about temporary job losses has indeed been proven a lie. Far too many Democrats, especially in Clinton administration but under Obama too, have been way too starry eyed about how tech and free trade was going to be great for America. In fact, it’s been great for some people and horrible for others and even admitting the latter was considered heresy on much of even the liberal media as recently as 2015.

But on all of these issues, if Democrats have been bad, Republicans have been worse.

And that fact seems to be lost in discussions of rural and deindustrialized voters.

I am highly sympathetic with the positions that the chair of the Dunn County (WI) Democratic Party takes here. This is an Obama-Trump-Trump county. He points out how Democrats have failed his county and how, even though there was tremendous organizing by Democrats here, it made no difference in winning the county for Biden. Just a bit of this:

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.

This is all true. These are huge problems! From a progressive policy standpoint, it would absolutely 100% be good policy to fix these problems. We should have universal healthcare. We should have a national broadband initiative to provide everyone with high-speed internet.

The problem is that a) these are already positions held by large swaths of the Democratic Party and b) what evidence is there that even if these policies were implemented that these voters would turn back to the Democratic Party?

In other words, how has four years of Donald Trump treated rural Wisconsin. Pretty badly! Nothing has improved. And yet, it did not hurt him at the polls at all in counties such as this around the nation. In fact, the counties he most declined in were the counties that have most been able to weather the storms, i.e., wealthy white counties in the suburbs. And yet this isn’t even mentioned.

Worst, what is not mentioned at all here is race. Or immigration. Or evangelical religion. Or misogyny. Or homophobia. In other words, none of the cultural factors that have led to Trump’s success. In the end, this is nearly as reductionist as a Jacobin article, making it all about the economy when it fact it not all about the economy. There’s a perfectly cogent analysis to make that suggests that having poor economic performance from one party opens up the population to greater fascist appeals. But that’s not made here. It just places all animus on the Democratic Party’s failures while completely ignoring most of the factors that made Donald Trump (not to mention the Wisconsin GOP, very much including that horrible troll Ron Johnson) so appealing in these places. It’s not a diagnosis of what’s wrong with either the Democratic Party or rural voters because it misses most of the point.

And I think it misses the point because to admit the point is to have to reckon with what you don’t want to deal with: the fact that most of our white neighbors are horrible racists who are completely comfortable with the rise of fascism in America.

Again, Democrats have done a poor job of even thinking through both rural and deindustrialized communities. The policies just haven’t been there. But that’s only a piece of the puzzle. And if we can’t talk about the racism in the white community, then we aren’t serious about figuring out how to get out of this political sewer of modern America.

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