How Democrats Can Win Back Rural America (A Little)

It was a tough weekend for me. I said farewell to our next-door neighbor and close friend, who died of heart disease in February after a seven-month battle. The memorial service was Sunday due to COVID, and leading up to it was a few days of helping with the event, including planning my scheduled eulogy. It consumed me during that period given what was happening, but that was fine. My good friend Paul was a great person, and it was one of those things that was both very, very sad and celebratory in a way that only a memorial for a quality human being can be. 

Given Paul was a rural guy who grew up in the country and lived a large portion of his adult life in our little rural town, I was around a lot of decidedly non-urban folks this weekend. Of which I am no stranger, given where I live.

That leads me to the Paper of Record, the New York Times, having another rural voter safari-style piece this morning. However, this one is a little different and the timing of it got my mind roiling this morning given the last several days.

The latest addition to the New York Times rural voter canon (which is MUCH larger than the New York Times urban voter canon oh by the way) was written by a successful rural Democratic politician, a state senator from Maine named Chloe Maxmin, and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward. There was some food for thought throughout it, and while there are a few things to criticize, I think the theme is solid, that Democrats can’t abandon rural voters.

So, my friend Paul was an independent who strongly disliked Trump and voted for Obama twice, Clinton and then Biden. He likely was pretty conservative at one time, based on our conversations. His family, on the other hand, is very far to the right. A discussion I found myself in with his brother was educational – about being a farmer and dealing with animals who are making themselves into pests. Deer can destroy a farmer’s field, and foxes and coyotes can make raising chickens very difficult. These are things that his brother pointed out city people don’t get.

I grew up in a small city in an urban neighborhood but I also had a rural side to me. I love the outdoors to this day, and I get the challenges. I do understand that sometimes, it’s necessary to cull deer.

However, are Democrats really trying to prevent this? That’s just it. Such activities need to be regulated to prevent abuse, but there is no widespread effort to ban dealing with nuisance animals.

Often reality is so much different than the perception with conservatives, it’s tough for Democrats to overcome it. And when you try to make the case, the typical reaction is digging in even deeper, pouting, and/or getting extremely angry at an unhinged level (interesting that the “we are too divisive” people often are the worst offenders). It might be easier to convince people in person, but 20 minutes of calm persuasion can be undone with five minutes of Facebook misinformation. It’s frustrating but we can’t have a democracy where people believe things that just aren’t real.

I made the point to him that culling animals isn’t really under attack, and at first, it was like heresy to him, which it was – the level of dislike that goes from rural to urban is much deeper than urban to rural so any suggestion that city folk are not evil gets immediate resistance. But after talking to him, he started to get my point, perhaps.

Such is the theme of Maxmin and Woodward’s column: Face-to-face persuasion can work and is important.

To sum it up, here’s what I agreed with:

– Democratic party brass needs to perhaps loosen the controls on how their candidates work, and listen to the people who know their home regions. Generic scripts do not work in all situations, no matter what consultants may think. Sometimes they even reinforce wrong-headed perceptions about Democrats. So, listen to the locals.

– Don’t abandon rural areas! Maxmin pulled off a win that was thought to be impossible. While I think she is very much the exception than the rule (I cannot imagine a Democrat winning in my home area), it is foolish to forget the rural counties. Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate and Towering Hulk John Fetterman gets this, and is paying visits to every Pennsylvania county during his campaign. These are getable votes that could be HUGE in close state and presidential races.

– Acknowledge issues within the party that are real and turning off voters, and talk about what they are doing to change them (IMO, my story above about dealing with agricultural pests comes into play here).

There are a few things I feel were left out of the column, perhaps they are covered in their book coming out May 10 so will give the benefit of the doubt…

– It is not being divisive to say this, but just stating reality: A lot of us liberals/progressives/Democrats in rural areas are genuinely frightened by our neighbors. We get glared at, see violent signage including ones with statements about killing us (by comparison, my dear Both Sides Are Just as Bad people, liberal signs are about unity), and they have demonstrated this is not just talk. Showing up here in the backcountry and demonstrating that Democrats do not exist to steal all their rights and don’t have horns can help calm some of them down.

– Racism was touched on but it IS a key part of rural conservative thinking. It needs to be addressed and can be done by pointing out that “urban” doesn’t mean elite or “lazy welfare moms.” There are lots of working-class Black, Asian, Native, and Hispanic people in cities, people who really do share the values of hard work and family with rural folks. Plus, they are getting screwed by corporate leadership at the same level, so they have many of the same enemies. Getting people to see similarities on this level is important, even if it makes well-to-do corporate Democrats nervous.

– A little secret about rural America: Appearance, as in how you look, is EXTREMELY important in country areas, and I would argue more so than in urban areas. A dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves is not connecting with anyone, because they can see through that stuff. You do not look like you are ready to clear brush, no matter what your consultant tells you. Dressing down is important (rural people, male and female, tend to wear a uniform of jeans and hoodie in cold weather, with a t-shirt when it’s hot, and slacks and a fancy golf shirt can get you stared at in your local diner because you’re out of uniform). But it has to look natural like you’re comfortable in it.

Finally, I see some knee-jerk resistance to this piece on Twitter by some liberals/progressives. Read the column, there are some things to learn in there about reaching rural voters, WITHOUT giving up progressive values. That’s the point, and therefore, is not your typical New York Times Rural Diner Safari (I still think the New York Times would do well to head to say an urban barbershop to find out why Black voters won’t vote for Republicans).

My friend Paul is no longer with us, but there are still plenty like him out in the small towns and backroads who are willing to listen. Democrats can’t forget that.

The last word goes to noted liberal country guy, Jason Isbell.

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