Last week, the Washington Post posited the assertion that A Democratic party that can't win rural districts… can't win national elections. They happen to be incorrect on two counts, one that Democrats can't win rural districts and the other that they can't win national elections. Remember, even if you don't want to accept the likelihood that “someone” (be it Putin, BigOil or a 400 pound man on his couch) hacked a few selected counties in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan to throw the elect Trump lost by over 2 million votes to him, it wasn't rural districts but suburban ones where Hillary “lost.” (At least northeast suburban districts… she outdid Obama– significantly– in the suburbs in Texas and out west.)
The Post missive begins with a little story about the most consistently right-wing Democrat in Congress, corrupt old Blue Dog Collin Peterson (who represents the part of Minnesota abutting the Dakotas, which Bernie won in the primaries 63.2% to 37.6%. His message resonated with the rural voters there. Trump came in a distant 3rd in the district– with 15.6% to Rubio's 47.5% and Cruz's 22.9%. There are 38 counties in the district though most of the voters live in Otter Tail, Clay (suburban Fargo), Kandiyohi, Douglas, McLeod (Minneapolis suburbs), Becker, Stearns and Polk (Grand Forks suburbs) counties. Peterson, they point out, “is one of the last members of a dying breed: the rural conservative Democrat. He has represented Minnesota's 7th Congressional District for a quarter-century, since 1991. The district encompasses most of the western half of the state. It's farm country, a broad swath of fields and open prairie running from the South Dakota border all the way up to Canada.”
The people Peterson represents are overwhelmingly white and moderately conservative. According to the Cook Political Report, Peterson was one of nine Democrats sent to Congress from a district that voted for Romney in 2012.
Most counties in Peterson's district swung hard toward Trump this year, by margins of 20, 30, 40 percentage points or more. But Peterson himself still earned 52.5 percent of the vote, enough to head to Congress for a 14th term.
At this point, the Post should probably have mentioned that the NRCC didn't contest MN-07 this cycle and that his opponent, Dave Hughes, raised only $17,086 to Peterson's bribe-stuffed war-chest ($1,125,805). In 2014, when the NRCC were serious about defeating him, his opponent, Torrey Westrom, spent $1,022,303 to Peterson's $1,569,350 and the NRCC put in $4.8 million, forcing the DCCC to spend about $4 million. Peterson won 54-46%, so this year's 52.5% points to an unpleasant conclusion that this will be his last or second-to-last term. Keep in mind when you read The Post's report that Peterson was the chair of the House Agriculture Committee (and is now the ranking member) and he ran it as a fully-owned subsidiary of BigAg, making the committee into one of Congress' most notorious whore houses. Peterson has taken more in bribes from AgriBusiness than any other member of the House– $3,823,240. The current committee chair, Mike Conaway (R-TX) has only taken $2,162,202 in AgriBusiness bribes. (Of the 6 subcommittee chairs, only one has even gotten a million dollars from Bug Agriculture, David Rouzer.) So Peterson's shpiel is that “Trump owes his victory to rural voters who feel they've been abandoned by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly urban and liberal. That abandonment has happened in part because of Republican efforts to gerrymander Democratic voters into tightly packed urban districts and that few Democratic lawmakers now represent rural districts.” A total 100% NRA whore, racist and homophobic asshole, Peterson loves to whine that “voters care more about agricultural policy and trade than they do about gun control, LGBT issues or questions about minority representation.”
Post: What kind of things had you been hearing from voters in this district in the run-up to the election? What issues and policies were people concerned about?
Peterson: They talked to me about farm programs and farm prices. Different specific issues that deal with agriculture. But I could tell something was going on. Just the amount of Trump signs that were out there.
Post: More than usual?
Peterson: Way more. It was clear that [the number] just kept growing, and there were no Clinton signs. People were fed up. It was kind of interesting: They didn't really want to talk about it too much. And then after the election, it's kind of like they've been unleashed.
Post: What do you mean by “unleashed”?
Peterson: A lot of it is backlash against all this political correctness that's going on. That's what I hear from people, and I was hearing that before the election, too.
They don't like the government telling them what to do or telling them how to live their lives. They think [the government is] coddling people, like when people's feelings are hurt at the colleges and they send somebody in to make them feel better. Stuff like that drives [voters here] crazy.
I heard a lot about the Affordable Care Act, too. About how people in the individual market were getting clobbered with all these increases, which is a legitimate issue. You know what the economics are like in Red Lake County. There's no way a family can pay $15,000, $20,000 a year for health insurance and make it work. You just can't do it. It's got to change.
I always run ahead of the ticket [compared to Democratic presidential candidates]. But this time there were a lot of people that just voted party line, a lot more than usual.
There's no question that Trump got elected because of rural America. And our party still is in denial. They don't get it.
Post: So what does the Democratic Party need to do to 'get it'? What do they need to start talking about to win these voters back?
Peterson: Well, I don't know if they can. What's happened is the Republicans have been smart. They've spent a lot of money redistricting and everything, getting control of these governorships and statehouses.
So they packed all the Democrats into districts, very Democratic districts. What that's done is made our party urban, more liberal, and so those people are doing what their constituents want. But that's not what my constituents want.
I don't know how you change that. There's hardly anybody left like me in the Democratic Party in Congress. These districts have been so gerrymandered that, in most of them, a Democrat can't win. Somebody like me trying to start off today, he'd never get endorsed. Because I'm too conservative.
So it's a problem. Pushing gun control drives people [in my district] crazy, gay marriage, abortion, deficit spending, you name it. All of that stuff adds up to be a problem for Democrats.
Post: Trade's been a big issue in the campaign. Do you hear a lot about that from voters out here?
Peterson: Yeah, that was clearly a factor. That was a complete reversal of where things are normally at. Usually Republicans are all for free trade. Sanders tapped into that; that was part of his support. And then when he didn't make it, some of those Sanders people went to Trump.
I agree with Trump: These trade agreements have not been good deals for America, and they need to be fixed. I fought NAFTA when it passed; it has been a big disaster for us, in my opinion. If we can renegotiate that, it would be wonderful.
Post: What have you heard from voters up here about how they've been affected by NAFTA or how they'd be affected by the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP]?
Peterson: Well, the sugar guys have been dealing with NAFTA ever since it passed. Now we've got Mexico dumping sugar that's subsidized by the Mexican government into our market in violation of the World Trade Organization, because NAFTA gave them open access to our sugar market. They claim they're not subsidized, but the government owns half the industry in Mexico.
NAFTA's been a big problem for sugar. And when it [NAFTA] was sold, we were supposed to get two or three times more exports to Canada or Mexico than they exported to us. It's been the exact opposite.
Post: So there's a big discussion happening within the Democratic coalition right now, about how the focus on issues of plurality and diversity and minority rights are essentially shutting rural voters out of the discussion. What do you make of that?
Peterson: I think that's unfortunately true. We have become a party of assembling all these different groups, the women's caucus and the black caucus and the Hispanic caucus and the lesbian-gay-transgender caucus and so forth, and that doesn't relate to people out in rural America. The party's become an urban party, and they don't get rural America. They don't get agriculture.
Post: From a purely practical standpoint, is there anything Democrats can do policy-wise to reach out to these rural voters, or do they essentially have to write them off?
Peterson: Well, they have written them off. Some of the people in my caucus, some of the people in the state party in Minnesota have basically said, “We don't want to deal with these guys because they're too conservative,” or “We don't agree with them on social issues.”
But you can't have a majority party in Minnesota or throughout the country without [support from] the people in these [rural] districts. Given the position [the Democratic Party] has taken, it's very hard to see how you can do that.
Clinton won Minnesota, narrowly– 46.9% to 45.4%– but that didn't just include the Twin cities area. She also won largely rural St. Louis County (with double digits), completely rural Cook County (by double digits), rural Lake County, rural Carlton County. She did lose every single county in MN-07, including the 9 Obama won in 2012. One of the anti-Pelosi Democrats in the current House leadership battle, outgoing New Dem chairman Ron Kind, is singing the same self-serving tune as Peterson. He super-serves Wall Street but he's whining that “we're getting wiped out in rural America and something needs to be done,” as though all the “fault” lies with Pelosi.
At one time, rural Minnesota was a socialist heartland, filled with co-ops (including co-op-owned grain elevators) and credit unions and disdain for the banksters (and Republicans). Bernie tapped into that on a policy level. Hillary didn't even try and Trump hit emotional notes that rural Minnesotans could relate to, a combination of fuzzy populism and targeted racism and xenophobia. Bernie addressed the rural farmers and small towns' economic concerns. Hillary didn't. Bernie won every single county in the state while Hillary was easily painted as the candidate not just of the status quo but the candidate of Wall Street. That was death for her in rural counties. In July John Nichols was warning that Hillary's lack of outreach in rural America was basically leaving winnable votes for Trump to scoop up. The Democratic Party platform said “We will work to build a stronger rural and agricultural economy. Democrats will increase funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers, with particular attention given to promoting environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. We will encourage programs to protect and enhance family farms, a cherished way of life for millions of Americans.” But that wasn't a priority for Hillary, who seemed most enthused about winning over college-educated suburban professionals.
“When President Obama won a decisive victory eight years ago,” wrote Nichols, “Democrats made major inroads in rural America: Two hundred and thirteen rural counties and 49 exurban counties flipped from the Republican column in 2004 to the Democratic column in 2008. But in 2010 and again in 2014, Republicans swept rural regions. With an assist from gerrymandering, Republicans won dozens of congressional seats and hundreds of state legislative seats in rural areas that were once safely Democratic… Democrats can compete for rural votes. Hillary Clinton knows how to speak to the specific concerns of farmers and small-town voters: As the senator from New York, she was deeply involved with dairy-policy and rural-development issues (and she won the vast majority of rural counties when she sought reelection in 2006). Clinton’s 2016 campaign has taken some strong stands on rural issues and, in a serious debate about rural issues, every indication is that she could trump Donald Trump.” But he warned that unless Democrats made a bold bid for rural votes they would get wiped out– they didn't make the bold bid and they did get wiped out. The platform– and the attitude behind it– was weak tea.
The 2016 platform’s “agricultural communities” proposal does not mention specific initiatives (universal broadband, applying anti-trust laws to agribusiness monopolies, Country-of-Origin Labeling for imported products, programs to address historic discrimination against African-American farmers) that matter to rural voters. The draft platform language does not even embrace the impressive work the Obama’s administration’s Department of Agriculture has done. To be sure, other sections of the platform mention issues of deep concern to rural America: education, health care, and maintaining the US Postal Service. But they don’t make the specific connections that speak to the social, economic, and political circumstances of rural America.
…In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin ran for the US Senate in 2012 as the nation’s most prominent lesbian elected official, and as an outspoken supporter of abortion rights. She carried the majority of the state’s counties—sweeping rural western Wisconsin and winning more than a half-dozen counties across the far north. Baldwin did this in part because she was running in a high-turnout presidential election year and in part because she traveled to rural counties (a lot) and talked about rural issues (a lot).
While social issues can still be a factor in some races, they do not provide a sufficient explanation for why Democrats struggle to get traction in rural areas.
The real problem is the neglect by too many Democratic candidates– and by the party leadership– of the distinct economic, public service, and infrastructure concerns of rural Americans. At a time when austerity-minded Republicans are constantly proposing cuts, Democrats have a genuine opening to make appeals based on these concerns. But they do not always get around to making those appeals.
As a result, Democrats are not sufficiently identified in the minds of rural voters as a party that is focused on their needs. This disconnect has influenced election results in recent years. And it could influence them again in 2016.
What to do?
Democrats need to be more aggressive in their advocacy for rural regions.
Sustaining family farms is part of the equation. So, too, is the defense of rural schools, which are threatened by the funding cuts and privatization schemes proposed by conservative Republicans.
Specific connections should also be made between arguments for the defense of the US Postal Service– which are well outlined in this platform– and the defense of rural communities that rely on post offices.
…Rural post offices are more than just places where people pick up mail. They serve as informal community centers. They give small towns definition. They keep rural businesses connected to markets. The more that Democrats do to identify their party and its candidates as absolute and unequivocal defenders of rural post offices, the more the party will benefit. That’s simple, practical politics.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders knows this. It’s one of the reasons he ran so well in rural states, and in rural regions of states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, and New York. Sanders says that “it makes no sense to downsize the Postal Service by tens of thousands of workers, slow mail delivery service, and devastate rural communities by closing their post offices.”
Hillary won about 2.5 million more votes than Trump did. If only shoe knew in advance which counties the Russians (or whoever) were planning on hacking!
Patrick Thornton works at Roll Call and two members of Congress sent me this OpEd by him. Noether knew the other one was sending it. It's an important piece and helps explain a very different perspective from Collin Peterson's. Thornton lives in DC but hails from the rural Ohio. “All of this talk about coastal elites needing to understand more of America,” he wrote, “has it backward.”
My home county in Ohio is 97 percent white. It, like a lot of other very unrepresentative counties, went heavily for Donald Trump.
My high school had about 950 students. Two were Asian. One was Hispanic. Zero were Muslim. All the teachers were white.
My high school had more convicted sexual predator teachers than minority teachers. That’s a rural American story.
In many of these areas, the only Muslims you see are in movies like “American Sniper.” (I knew zero Muslims before going to college in another state.) You never see gay couples or even interracial ones. Much of rural and exurban American is a time capsule to America’s past.
And on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, they dug it up.
The first gay person I knew personally was my college roommate– a great man who made me a better person. But that’s an experience I would have never had if I didn’t go to college and instead decided to live the rest of my life in my hometown.
That was when I realized that not supporting gay marriage meant to actively deny rights to someone I knew personally. I wouldn’t be denying marriage rights to other people; I would be denying marriage rights to Dave. I would have to look Dave in the eye and say, “Dave, you deserve fewer rights than me. You deserve a lesser human experience.”
When you grow up in rural America, denying rights to people is an abstract concept. Denying marriage rights to gay people isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.
…To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.
We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.
We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.
If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black people. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration.
I have friends and acquaintances who are Trump supporters. They genuinely do not understand today’s shock, particularly from minorities. These Trump supporters do not understand that many minorities believe the people who voted for Trump endorse his racism and bigotry– that those voters care more about sending a message to the political establishment than they do about the rights and welfare of human beings.
And, of course, people on the coasts could stand to meet more rural and exurban people, to understand why they are anxious about a changing world and less economic opportunity. But rural and exurban people need to see more of America. People do not understand the depths of how little rural America travels and sees other people and cultures.
I’m from the Midwest, and I love the Midwest, but it’s not representative of modern America. We cannot fetishize it as “real” America. It’s part of America– a great, big, beautiful, messy republic– but just a part.
What we are seeing is a reaction to a rapidly changing world. A world that is becoming more connected. A world that is more diverse. A world where education and skills are necessary for good jobs.
Change has not been kind to the Midwest and rural America.
And rather than embrace it, rural and white working-class Americans are twisting and turning, fighting it every step of the way. We will never return to the days where a white man could barely graduate high school and walk onto a factory floor at 18 and get a well-paying job for life. That hasn’t set in for much of the Midwest.
This doesn’t mean that coastal Americans can’t empathize more with their fellow Americans and try to find solutions to these problems (nor does it mean that there aren’t many struggling working-class people in coastal states). And it certainly doesn’t mean coastal Americans haven’t contributed to this divisiveness.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis