The Democrats’ 50 state strategy never reached rural America
Judging from the lawn signs you see driving around rural Wisconsin, you would expect a Trump-Pence landslide come November.
Of course, such visible showings of support do not necessarily translate into votes. In fact, polls show that Joe Biden may be poised for a victory in Wisconsin — as well as in many Midwestern battleground states — on election day.
Still, the difference between rural people’s visible support for Donald Trump and Biden’s poll numbers should cause some pause. After all, former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Howard Dean made the case for the party to be competitive everywhere as part of a 50-state strategy. Current chair Tom Perez expanded on the idea, claiming Democrats should conduct rural outreach in every zip code.
From economic woes and infrastructure needs to our ongoing immigration crisis and the disastrous reality of climate change, rural America deals with many of the same challenges as our urban counterparts.
Farmers and rural people supported Trump in 2016 and seem poised to do the same in 2020. Part of the reason is that Democrats traditionally do not go to rural areas and speak to the people about their concerns.
Instead of substantive policies, what we have received from the Trump administration is a trade war with China that has cost farming communities dearly and regular barrage of anti-immigrant tirades that scapegoats some of the hardest working, most vulnerable people in this country.
Among the principal causes of rural neglect is that Democrats, right now, do not need the votes.
More to the point, Trump’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic has buoyed the Biden campaign. In the short term, the negative effects that have been felt from the coronavirus pandemic have proven politically beneficial to the Democrats.
Yet, as this virus pandemonium will one day be behind us, it would behoove Democrats and Republicans alike to seriously consider addressing rural Americans.
To start, it is important to acknowledge that the countryside is not some cultural or racial monolith.
For instance, Latinos accounted for 83 percent of the population increase of all rural counties that saw an uptick in inhabitants from 1990 to 2010.
Moreover, as somewhere between 50 percent to 70 percent of the country’s nearly 3 million farmworkers are undocumented, it makes sense to see that immigration reform is a rural issue. Not only does this speak to the realities of many migrant families, but also to the farmers for whom they work.
Furthermore, besides people in cities who struggle with low wages, those of us in rural areas also want to earn a decent living. Farmers, in addition to the China trade war debacle, have faced additional economic difficulties due to supply chain issues that were caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For this reason, about 40 percent of farm income in 2020 will be from government subsidies.
Non-farmers also have few employment prospects, as on average, the countryside is poorer than the city and many of the jobs that were lost in rural areas during the 2008 Great Recession never returned.
Cause for much of these economic problems lies with the undue amount of power that corporations wield, which Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have decried in the tech sector.
For corporate malfeasance in rural America, look no further than the settlements that have been reached with businesses for antitrust violations. Millions have been paid by agribusiness giants for depressing the milk prices to increase profit margins, as well as for fixing prices in the poultry industry. Companies have also been pressured to pay back wages with interest for charges of racial discrimination at some of rural meatpacking plants.
Economic opportunity for rural America must include taking on the corporations that pay farmers and workers so little. Articulating policy positions with this theme, such as enforcing antitrust law and ensuring living wages, should by no means be off the table for future-thinking candidates.
And, of course, the effects of climate change are seen not only in the wildfires raging out in California. Extreme weather is also found in the extraordinarily destructive tornadoes and floods that we experience across the Midwest.
Dealing with these disasters could include infrastructure investment, particularly in improving drainage systems, reconstructing wetlands and building riparian buffers.
Such projects would help us deal with climate change while also putting people to work in meaningful, potentially well-paying jobs.
Back in 2016, then-candidate Trump tapped into the very real economic anxiety of many rural Americans during his successful campaign bid. That the economic situation of many in the countryside has not improved over the past four years could be considered an opportunity. But frankly, it’s a missed one if candidates continue to overlook rural America.
It’s time our leaders take on some of the issues that are of concern in the countryside. To do so would not only make candidates more relevant for everyone, it would also restore some of the hope that has been lost in rural America.
Anthony Pahnke is the vice president of the Family Farm Defenders and an assistant professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University.
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