Democrats ignore rural voters at their peril
Enough jets fly over my family’s farm in Arcadia, Wisconsin, that I sometimes imagine what the passengers are like and where they are going. They might be eating my neighbor’s chicken or returning to a home full of the furniture that was built by the Hispanic immigrants whose presence bolsters my rural community. They’re mostly “coastal elites,” I imagine, who have already decided that my neighbors vote against their own self-interest.
If the passengers looked down, they might glimpse a landscape that includes a diversity of farms growing export products, frac sand mines, the world’s largest furniture manufacturer and a community more racially diverse than the cities they fly between.
Rural people aren’t simply a bunch of white dairy farmers anymore. After decades of decline, we’ve seen enough change to understand that the cheapening of rural resources and labor means that the Heartland subsidizes the economic growth of urban population centers.
Rural people ask themselves: If we are on the interior of America, why should we accept being on the margins of the national political discussion? Why is the change that seems to benefit everyone else hurting us? Does anyone even care or notice?
The resentment of feeling forgotten and under-appreciated fueled the raw energy that determined the 2016 presidential election. One candidate stopped in Wisconsin; the other flew overhead. One took the time to listen to us; the other took us for granted.
On Election Day 2016, I saw people voting for the first time — for Donald Trump. And every day I see Trump supporters who haven’t voted for him yet. It’s true. Media reports focus on voters Trump might be losing in crucial places like Arcadia. But I know plenty who are moving the other way. They remained on the sidelines in 2016, but I suspect they’ll be voting for Trump in 2020.
Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin by 23,000 votes. Gov. Scott Walker lost his reelection bid in 2018 when 29,000 split-party voters in the 50 rural state assembly districts outside of Wisconsin’s urban southeast chose both their incumbent Republican assembly representative and Democrat Tony Evers for governor. These are the voters who tipped the scale. Trump can win them back for the GOP.
Attention is the currency of the political economy, and that currency tends to agglomerate in urban centers, even here in Wisconsin. Evers’ inaugural budget address this January didn’t mention agriculture or farming; “rural” was uttered but once.
The reality of the electoral map is now the focus of both parties. Evers’ victory heaped attention on Wisconsin. The Democratic National Committee no doubt wants to woo Trump voters who swung to Evers. They understand Wisconsin is crucial to their chances of winning back the White House. That’s why they chose Milwaukee as the 2020 convention site. Their message is: We care about Middle America. We won’t repeat the mistakes of 2016.
From Washington, D.C., Milwaukee looks like the most important place on the Wisconsin map. But from where I stand, Milwaukee is four hours away geographically and a million miles away culturally. Arcadia is the most conservative voting community in Trempealeau County, which is one of the 206 Obama-Obama-Trump counties in the U.S.
Small places like Arcadia play an outsize role in deciding who wins the presidency, and this has invited a new urban political resentment in contrast to the rural resentment. Now some Democrats are arguing for the abolition of the Electoral College, believing that it unfairly favors rural states with smaller populations.
But telling voters in flyover country that they are an inconvenience ignores how the 2020 election will be decided.
Without the Electoral College, candidates who are seen only on TV will rarely venture further than 30 minutes from the tarmac of an airport in a major city. Minimizing rural voters only fuels the culture war that is dividing our nation.
I hope that’s not the political change we want. I am a Democrat. Some of my friends voted for Trump in 2016; some of them haven’t, yet. Instead of silencing their voices, Democrats should start listening to them.
Jon Schultz, a carpenter, was a candidate for Wisconsin state senate in 2018.
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