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Needed: A Rural Strategy
by JOHN NICHOLS
[from the November 3, 2021 issue]
Helen Waller is feeling
lonelier these days. She names the families that have moved off farmsteads
along the road where she lives in McCone
County, Montana. There are so few folks left that the post office's
route drivers deliver mail only three times a week. And when Waller
nineteen-mile drive to Circle, the nearest town, she notices that it
is emptying out as well. The old hospital is now closed, as is the "junior
department store." "I remember when I was a girl, going to
town to buy a pair of shoes was a big deal," recalls Waller, a lifelong
resident of McCone County. "Now, I can't get shoes in Circle.
I used to laugh when people said there might come a day when there
no one left out here, but I don't laugh anymore. I just get angry."
Waller's anger, which is
echoed on the front porches of farmhouses and around the cafe tables
of the upper Midwest and the Great Plains,
not directed at neighbors who have left the area of eastern Montana
where her family settled after World War I. Still farming at age 69,
well aware of how hard it is to make ends meet in these parts. What
angers Waller is a sense that the deck keeps getting stacked against
by powerful corporations and by politicians of both political parties
who pay more attention to promised rural panaceas--like free trade
and a bigger-is-better attitude toward farming--than to the painful
of the countryside. "I ask myself: How can people in Washington
let this happen?" she says. "I wonder if it's because they've
gotten so used to measuring everything in economic terms that they
don't recognize that behind all these numbers from all these forgotten
there are people who are hurting."
The hurt Waller describes is a political force Democrats must reckon
with if they hope to regain the White House and Congress in 2004. Less
than a quarter of America's population now lives beyond this country's
cities and suburbs. But even as their percentage of the national population
dwindles, rural states still elect two US senators each, and more than
fifty US House members represent predominantly rural districts. The electoral
votes of even the least populous state can decide close national elections.
In 2000, for instance, Al Gore fell just three electoral votes short
of winning the presidency. That means that the electoral votes of a single
rural state--such as Helen Waller's Montana, where rural support for
the Democrats tumbled in 2000--could have rendered Florida's disputed
electoral votes inconsequential.
Polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters
about access to healthcare, education and the jobs that have gone missing
since George W. Bush became President. But rural voters also bring unique
demands to the table--for constraints on agribusiness conglomerates,
new approaches to trade policy and a renewed federal commitment to rural
development. The ability of Democratic candidates to answer those demands
with significantly more populist responses than did their predecessors
in 2000 and 2002 will determine whether the party has a chance in 2004.
A lot of Democrats at the national level continue to look at where the
concentrations of population are. They want the most bang for their buck.
States that are less populated look, at first glance, like they aren't
worth the investment," says North Dakota Progressive Coalition director
Don Morrison. "What they haven't quite figured out is that there
are two places in America where you see the most pain, the most economic
injustice: the inner city and rural America. Democrats win the inner
cities, and they could win the rural areas. But first, they have to
recognize that there is pain out here. Then, they have to make it a
whole lot clearer
that they're going to do something about it."
The prosperity of the 1990s
never reached most of rural America. During that decade, 676 of the
nation's 3,141 counties lost population, and
the worst population losers were in what is still referred to as America's
heartland. More than 60 percent of the counties in the Great Plains
have experienced depopulation so profound that an area the size of
Louisiana Purchase again qualifies for the "frontier" designation
that the US Census Bureau gave remote regions before the great waves
of settlement in the nineteenth century.
This isn't a case of people
leaving because they don't like country life, says George Naylor,
a Greene County, Iowa, farmer who recently
became the president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "The
people I know who've given up felt sick about it. But they couldn't go
on living in poverty." Poverty rates are now higher in vast rural
stretches of the Great Plains than in America's big cities; nine of the
nation's ten counties with the lowest per capita income are found in
farm states west of the Mississippi. Twenty-seven percent of rural workers
earn a wage that is insufficient to lift a family of four out of poverty.
Rural hospitals are closing. Medicare and Medicaid payments are getting
squeezed. Incomes for the vast majority of farm families remain stagnant.
Free-trade initiatives like the North American Free Trade Agreement have
been so unsuccessful in delivering a promised boom for family farmers
that the federal government is now setting up a Trade Adjustment Assistance
program to help farmers displaced by trade deals that were supposed to
assure their prosperity. And the same free-trade policies that have failed
farmers have devastated the small manufacturing concerns that once allowed
farm couples to stay on the land by providing work--and health benefits--to
the spouse who worked "in town."
"Rural America is being eviscerated by contract farming, by the
loss of control of the food chain, by the lack of rural healthcare, by
trade policies that are particularly destructive to rural economies," says
Representative Marcy Kaptur, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture
subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Kaptur is angered
that many in Congress, including fellow Democrats, fail to understand
the small "d" democratic value of having a countryside populated
by farmers and small-town residents who keep control of the nation's
food supply in diverse hands. It is not just a romantic attachment to
old ways of farming that causes Kaptur to fear rural depopulation. Rather,
she says, something fundamental is lost as rural folk who considered
themselves stewards of the land are replaced by sprawling factory farms
that treat the landscape as a commodity to be dosed indiscriminately
with chemicals and despoiled with livestock "waste lagoons." Democrats
must recognize, Kaptur says, that "rural America is hanging on
by its fingernails. There's a sense of urgency in the countryside.
real, it's volatile."
Such urgency was once the
stuff of political legend. In 1896, a 36-year-old Nebraskan named
William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination
for President with an appeal to farm-state frustration. Bryan's "Cross
of Gold" speech and his alliance with the independent populists
began pulling Midwest and Plains states voters away from Republican
moorings some had clung to since Civil War days and toward the Democrats.
process culminated in the election of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New
Deal restored a measure of prosperity to Depression-worn farm states.
that prosperity came, the Republicans reasserted themselves. But the
recession of the late 1950s wrenched farm-state voters back to the
Democratic fold and sent South Dakotan George McGovern, Minnesotan
Idahoan Frank Church and other young liberals to the Senate, where
they transformed not just farm policy but the Democratic Party. As
as 1986, when Democrats retook the Senate six years into the Reagan
era, they did so by electing a fresh crop of senators from recession-ravaged
farm states that included South Dakota's Tom Daschle, North Dakota's
Kent Conrad and, four years later, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone.
Today, the party of Bryan
has a hard time speaking to rural America. Since 1988 support for
the Democrats among rural voters has dropped
from 56 percent to around 36 percent. In the early 1990s the Congressional
Rural Caucus had eighty-eight Democratic members to fifty-four Republicans;
less than a decade later, the breakdown was eighty-four Republicans
fifty-eight Democrats. "If we were to write off the [partisan shift
in the] rural vote as simply echoing national trends, we'd miss a seismic
shift in American politics," says veteran pollster Bill McInturff.
Yet, for the most part, Democrats continue to stumble in the countryside.
Things aren't quite as bad as in 1999, when Representative Patrick Kennedy,
head of the party's campaign to retake the House, was quoted as saying
Democrats had "written off" America's rural areas in their
2000 strategy. But the party still strays from the economic populism
that can counter Republican appeals based on social issues like abortion
and opposition to gun control. Out on the Plains, liberals joke about
the gay man who worried about coming out of the closet for fear that
he would be thought a Democrat.
After the 2000 presidential
election, colored maps showed that while the East and West Coasts
and inland metropolitan areas were blue for
Gore, the vast majority of the country was red for Bush. In the West,
you could walk a line from Mexico to Canada and not set foot in a single
county--let alone a single state--carried by Gore. Bush won 59 percent
of the rural vote, compared with 46 percent for Republican Bob Dole
in 1996 and 40 percent for Bush's father in 1992. "It should have been
a wake-up call for the Democrats," says National Farmers Union president
David Frederickson. "But they went right into the 2002 campaign
and made a lot of the same mistakes."
Kaptur says that's because
the party has been peddling gimmicks rather than populist substance. "Most of the people who run the Democrat
Party, like [Democratic National Committee chair] Terry McAuliffe, they're
city people," she says. "They think it's just a matter of tinkering
with the party's image." Democratic consultants have created a mini-industry
that tells candidates to go "country" by sponsoring NASCAR
teams, joining the NRA or fuzzing positions on abortion or gay rights
to mollify social conservatives. Rural folks just laugh. "You can
be ardently pro-choice and support gay rights and still win rural areas
if you have an economic message," says Rhonda Perry, a family farmer
who is program director with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "I
don't think too many people in rural Missouri sit up nights worrying
about gay rights. But they do sit up nights worrying about how they
are going to keep the farm or how they are going to get health benefits
the meatpacking plant shuts down."
If Democrats want to speak
to rural America, they should start listening to the Rhonda Perrys
and Helen Wallers. They'll learn quickly that
bland, one-size-fits-all "rural strategies" are losers. The corporate
owner of a 4,000-cow factory farm in California has different demands
from the family that milks 100 cows in Wisconsin. Companies like Monsanto
and Tyson are not "partners" of wheat farmers trying to keep
genetically modified seeds out of North Dakota, or Missouri hog farmers
who want to use antitrust laws to prevent meatpacking companies from
cornering markets. Wal-Mart has a different vision for rural America
from mom-and-pop stores on Main Street. And while a Free Trade Area of
the Americas agreement might open foreign markets for agribusiness, it
will collapse prices for family farmers here and abroad. "It's about
making choices," says Waller. "Most of the time the choices
are between what the agribusiness companies want, which is to rig the
markets so they can make money, and what's good for rural communities."
The late Senator Paul Wellstone
of Minnesota, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Senator Tim
Johnson of South Dakota battled in
Congress for a national ban on livestock ownership by meatpacking companies.
If enacted, it would have prevented the development of monopolies that
kill competition and drive small farms out of business. Their initiative
failed, with key Democrats, like North Carolina Senator John Edwards,
opposing it. As he seeks the presidency, Edwards is now trying to position
himself as a champion of rural America, but he has taken hits for being
on the wrong side of what Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair
Dennis Kucinich says should be "a defining issue in this campaign."
Just as the meatpacking industry should be prevented from monopolizing
livestock industries, agribusiness corporations should be prevented from
monopolizing farm subsidies. Under the $249 billion, ten-year farm bill
President Bush signed in 2002, two-thirds of farm subsidy payments go
to the top 10 percent of farm-subsidy recipients.
More than 50 percent of the conservation funds paid for by the bill
go to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which provides subsidies
to corporate factory farms that are major polluters. More than $100 million
goes to trade promotion schemes that are often boondoggles.
Democrats must understand
that trade is a big rural issue. Just as NAFTA, most-favored-nation
trading status for China and other trade
to benefit family farmers, they also have caused deindustrialization
that hits rural America particularly hard. Maytag is moving factories
to Mexico from Midwestern towns where, for decades, it has been the
prime employer. Textile mills, long prime employers in the rural South,
compete with firms that pay a fraction of their wages; this year's
collapse of Pillowtex Corporation closed sixteen plants and eliminated
7,500 jobs, mostly in North Carolina and Virginia. "Farmers used
to be able to ride through the rough times by taking a job at the machine
shop. Now, in a lot of places, the machine shop is closed," says
Niel Ritchie, head of the League of Rural Voters, a farm-labor coalition
that is organizing a November 15 presidential forum in Iowa. "You
can't talk about rural development without talking about trade."
Ritchie thinks some Democratic
candidates are starting to get it. While Joe Lieberman still echoes
discredited talk about trade as a
Kucinich and Dick Gephardt recognize that rural voters see through
the claims of free traders. Edwards stumbled on the livestock-monopoly
but Kucinich, Gephardt and Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor,
champion anti-monopoly measures. And while Dean is often portrayed
as the darling of the East and West Coasts, his "Farmers and Ranchers
for Dean" campaign has made progress in states like Iowa and North
Dakota. "Dean's from a rural state and he's gotten through to a
lot of people by talking substance on our issues," says North Dakotan
Morrison. "Substance is the key. Rural voters don't want sympathy,
they want something real from Democrats."
Offering rural voters something
real--in the form of a populist alternative to the Republicans--may
be the greatest challenge that Democrats face
in the 2004 campaign. But it is also the greatest opportunity. "Politics
is the name of the game, isn't it? Politics decides whether we can stay
in business, whether there's a future for our children and grandchildren
here," says Helen Waller, as she looks out across the wheat fields
of eastern Montana on a fall afternoon. "There's a lot of us who
take this all very seriously because we know what is at stake. I just
wish the politicians would take politics as seriously as we do."