Image Credits: Nati Harnik/Associated Press.

I should be fully sympathetic with Colby College professor Nicholas Jacobs’ article in Politico Magazine on the Democrats’ myopia about rural America, but sadly I find the piece extremely unsatisfying.

I get his impulse for writing it. He’s a political scientist and statistician who has looked very deeply into rural attitudes in an effort to explain political behavior, and he sees a lot of progressive commentary that isn’t supported by or runs counter to his research. In particular, he’s reacting to the publication of Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman’s new book White, Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. More generally, he’s concerned that Democrats are making their political problems worse with this type of commentary. And that’s bad because he ultimately does agree that American democracy is on the ropes, and to preserve it the Democrats need to win elections.

Jacobs spends an inordinate amount of effort making a semantic attack on the word “rage,” comparing it unfavorably with the descriptor “resentment.” I ultimately don’t think the distinction does much to advance his point, which is mainly that white rural voters don’t actually express more sympathy for political violence than their urban counterparts. And of course he makes the usual observations that it’s a mistake to cherrypick the most extreme rhetoric to blast an entire population and that even rural America has plenty of people who vote for Democrats. What this doesn’t address is that the political movement that rural America fervently supports is led by a man who most definitely does stoke political extremism and violence.

Aside from these quibbles, Jacobs follows the arguments I’ve been making since I did my first post-election analysis in 2016, which is that the Democrats absolutely have to halt and reverse their collapse in rural areas and small towns, and that insulting the people who live there is about the worst way to accomplish this. One thing I value in his piece is his treatment of Democrats’ confusion over why rural voters simply don’t respond to the Democrats’ efforts to improve their condition. What he argues, essentially, is that rural values related to self reliance and local autonomy make them undervalue government assistance of all types, whether it’s the dole or it’s infrastructure investment, provision of health care, or protecting the environment. In other words, the Democrats cannot simply create better policies to fix their problems in rural America, nor will doing a better job selling what they’ve already done work as some magic elixir.

I agree with all of this, although doing stronger antitrust enforcement combined with a major sales job is still my recommendation. This is in part precisely because getting people affordable health insurance and prescription drugs won’t move the needle as much as it should. What rural voters need to see is people fighting for their way of life, and the best way to aid their self reliance is to help them compete with the monopolies that have destroyed their local entrepreneurial opportunities.

But Jacobs really flails when he tries to offer ideas for what the Democrats should do, rather than on what they should stop doing.

He begins well by saying the Democrats should start by “acknowledging the profound geographic inequities that exist in the U.S., and that those inequities are a powerful motivator of political behavior.” That’s really what my antitrust argument is all about, even though monopolies stifle everyone’s economic advancement, not just rural and small town people. But Jacobs doesn’t suggest anything concrete. He just suggests the best way to acknowledge geographic inequities is to stop focusing on racist attitudes which exist everywhere. My stance is acknowledging something without doing something about it is just lip service, and rural voters have had far too much of that.

And Jacobs seems to agree.

At this point, the onus falls on Democratic officials and candidates to do something different because they are the ones losing rural voters election after election.

But what he calls different is really little more than adopting a more sympathetic view:

On specific issues, this politics would acknowledge that rural and nonrural Trump voters see issues through different lenses, even if, come Election Day, they are voting the same way; you have to talk to them differently. On immigration, it would mean accepting the fact that, in some communities, particularly those with financial challenges, concerns about the social burden of immigration is not always an expression of hate. It would look at a data point on distrust in media and seek out a reason — perhaps a self-critical one — for why rural people are the most likely to feel like news does not portray their communities accurately. It would speak directly to the challenge posed by artificial intelligence and technological progress that, once again, will likely concentrate benefits among those who have already benefited and leave rural communities behind. It will see the moral costs as well as the economic costs of those developments — the end to heritage industries, the pollution of the land, the erasure of rural dignity — and recognize how demoralizing it is to be told that they should just learn to code “ for God’s sake.”

And it would give agency back to the 1 in 5 Americans who call rural areas home, not through a lengthy list of policy correctives but through a politics of empathy and shared authorship and civic engagement. Is that really so hard?

Look, if Jacobs’ aim here is to get Democrats to stop attacking rural voters if they want their votes, them I’m generally in agreement, although not to the extent that deplorable behavior gets a pass. But this isn’t much of a sales job. If Jacobs is right and tone is more important than policy, there still has to be a plan to convince people that the Democrats are on their side. Muting criticism may be a prerequisite, but it won’t get that done by itself.

There are hints in Jacobs’ piece about where to look for a better sales pitch. Let’s begin with one finding from his research:

What rural communities may desire are empowering strategies that allow them to shape their own future — support that bolsters local leadership, encourages community-driven initiatives and provides the tools and resources necessary for them to address their specific challenges in a manner consistent with their values.

Again, what better way than to tell them we’re going to work day and night to help them create small business jobs? That we’re focused on helping them own businesses rather than work for them, or work for their neighbors rather than some corporate board off on Wall Street?

Consider the fact, as I discuss in my book, that rural Americans are the most likely to say that if given the chance, they would never want to leave their community, while at the same time they are the most likely to say that children growing up in their specific community will have to leave in order to live productive lives. Could any single policy solve that dilemma?

What policy could better address this than antitrust with a focus on addressing regional inequality? Do you think rural parents who want to see their grandkids won’t approve of a sales pitch aimed at allowing their kids to have financial opportunities in their home communities?

Another thing Jacobs doesn’t address is that the lack of a left-wing populist alternative means that rural communities have fallen prey to a right-wing populist cult. This is how fascism happens, and this is why white rural America is a threat to democracy. We can’t insult our way out of this, on that Jacobs is correct. But we can’t just be more respectful either. We have to actually deliver something new and compelling that these voters haven’t heard before, or at least since the New Deal was ascendant.

4.8 6 votes
Article Rating