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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

How can Biden and Democrats mend fences with rural voters?

Updated: Jan 22

Welcome to Message Monday!

Back in 1996, Bill Clinton won about half of U.S. counties that were at least 85% white and earned less than the national median income—i.e. rural counties. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost virtually ALL those counties to Trump. 


Clinton’s failure to connect with rural people is one of the things that brought us President Trump.  Since Trump is more than ever a threat to our country, it behooves us to consider how to fix it.  Time is running out.  Liberals are still spewing hateful ideas about rural people that they have no experience with or knowledge of, and it’s not a winning strategy now any more than it was in 2016. 


Barn Raiser is an excellent new-ish publication focusing on rural matters and full of delights, led by longtime In These Times editor and publisher Joel Bleifuss.  Barn Raiser published a letter from beloved Kentucky author Wendell Berry about Democrats’ and liberals’ urban bias.


Berry says that as he’s “watched…the decline of my own community and others like it everywhere in rural America, along with the increasing ecological and cultural damages of industrial agriculture,” he’s read the liberal press closely, trying – but failing - to find any evidence that Democrats know or care anything about it. 


This isn’t primarily a problem with messaging, more with priorities, but messages that are directed to and include rural people in a respectful manner could go a long way.


“No Interest” In Rural Needs


Berry talks about a list of Democratic priorities proffered by Alexander Burns in the NY Review of Books.  He notes sadly, “There is no interest in remedies for the bad ecological and human effects of mining, or in a farm bill that would make agriculture less destructive of land and people, or in ways to preserve the ecological integrity of our forests, or in ways to prevent the corporate destruction of the local economies necessary to support local communities—to name only a few rural needs.”

UPDATE: I happened to catch the CA Senate candidates' debate on YouTube today (1/22). They were asked for their ONE TOP priority in the farm bill. Not ONE of them - not the Republican, not ANY of the three Democrats - showed ANY empathy with or knowledge of farmers and their priorities in their answers. This is a state with vast rural areas and agriculture. I was disappointed and angry.


Nobody Showed Up


Berry’s “impression is that the writers of the articles I have read have never ventured into rural America to ask in good faith what the problems are and what might be the remedies. And so I have…invited writers and editors to come here where I live to allow me (and some younger people) to show them what we are up against. So far, nobody has showed up.”


No Basis For Their Prejudice


The ideas liberals (and too often, progressives) have about why rural Americans voted “for Trump” don’t come from any contact with these voters, but from faulty assumptions and prejudices. Berry quotes Burns as saying Trump voters are “animated most intensely by feelings of racial resentment or male self-pity” and that “working-class voters feel victimized.”   I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve read a similar knee-jerk diagnosis, based on no personal knowledge of the situation, in liberal media.


Berry notes that one, Burns didn’t seem to consider why they might have voted against Clinton or Biden, and two, “they feel victimized because they are.”  We don’t have time here to talk about how giant agribusiness, most definitely supported by corporate Democrats, has been destroying family farms since the 1980’s.  Liberals who have suffered through things like the wholesale destruction of local media and journalism might have some understanding of how the farmers feel, if they only knew anything about it.


What Is To Be Done?


This needs to be a specific portfolio for someone in the Biden campaign and administration.  Biden has visited small towns – not sure about rural areas – and he has done a few good things, like put money into rural internet access.  But much more needs to be done.  There are good people and organizations who have fought for their communities against all odds out there, and Biden should be meeting and being seen with them. 


There are places where typical progressives and rural people intersect, and they should be nurtured.  When I was in the Green Party we found some strong support in rural areas, especially for our environmental positions.  People just feel – are – so abandoned by politicians of both stripes out there. Sunrise should be out in rural areas organizing.


I understand a lot of young people today want nothing more than to live on a farm and grow their own food and all.  All the support in cities for community gardens and farmer’s markets could be directed into more efforts to connect with farmers politically.


There are so many issues rural people face that we city people face too.  Like drug addiction, low wages, poor housing, cost of transportation, lack of health care and child care.  The issues look different in a low-density rural setting, but there has to be some common ground for solutions. 


Congressional districts often comprise both urban and rural areas.  It takes more time and resources to reach people in the country, but campaigning could be an effective way to reach out, LISTEN, and show rural people that we do care and can be on the same side.




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