The Perfect Enemy | Democrats must think differently to win rural votes
February 8, 2023
Read Time:4 Minute

As post-mortems of the midterm elections continue, several identify signs that Democrats can build a more substantial base in rural America before 2024. All they have to do is think differently, talk differently and act differently.

That conclusion comes from the Rural-Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), an group of experts brought together in 2021 by Appalachian farmer and author Anthony Flaccavento and several colleagues. They have just published a report on why Democrats should care about and rethink their relationship with rural voters. RUBI says the rural-liberal gap is growing, but that may be changing.

NPR reports, “Democrats have failed to motivate the rural voting base in modern times. But some Democratic candidates in key toss-up and open races in the midterms may have fared better among the rural population than previously believed.” It cites strong performances by Democrats in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado.

NPR quotes a rural community organizer predicting a “come to Jesus moment” in which Democrats may “make a more full-throated decision and investment to contest for the rural vote.”

RUBI agrees. It notes that more than 40 percent of voters are rural in many battleground states. Since 2006, their partisan allegiances have depended on which party pays more attention to them. Winning as little as 2 to 3 percent of their votes can change election outcomes.

Writing in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner is even more bullish. “For decades, Democrats have been losing rural America by ever-worsening margins,” he notes. “If they could perform even 5 percent better in rural counties, the political landscape would be transformed.”

“If white working-class voters feel abandoned by the economy and disdained by liberal political elites, that is doubly true for working-class rural voters,” Kuttner writes, citing research by one of his doctoral students. “Their communities, as well as their livelihoods, have been squandered, and they have had little evidence that Democrats cared. … Just showing up turns out to be hugely important, as a sign of respect and commitment.”

RUBI interviewed 50 rural candidates and researched recent studies on what makes candidates successful in rural areas. It distilled the results into 11 recommendations that seem more about respect and common courtesy than political strategy. They include listening more and talking less; respecting the local people’s knowledge and history; being humble and mission-driven rather than ego-driven; focusing on problem-solving; emphasizing involvement in local activities; treating voters of color as individuals rather than voting blocs, as well as not pandering to racism or gratuitously antagonizing white voters.

“Many rural conservatives and moderates view urban liberals as snobby elitists who look down on them, lack morality and common sense, and seek to impose ineffectual one-size-fits-all remedies,” RUBI says. “After decades of deindustrialization, devastating cycles of fossil fuel boom and bust, extreme weather, the crushing of family farmers, population decline, and severe public underinvestment, rural communities have some of the highest concentrations of poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse in the country. The two major parties have ignored, if not accelerated, these trends.”

NPR points out that rural demographics are changing. For example, the 2020 Census found nearly one-quarter of rural residents are members of minority groups, with Latinos among the fastest growing. “When we write these communities off, we’re not only writing off the rural white vote, but we’re also writing off rural voters of color,” notes the community organizer mentioned earlier.

“If Democrats truly want to increase their competitiveness in rural America, they should start now by putting working people at the center of their narrative while supporting bold, popular policies that would allow those people to live a good life,” adds writer Bryce Oates and farmer Jake Davis in The Pulse, a nonpartisan blog focused on North Carolina. “If they combined that approach with a significantly more robust ground game, they might just have a chance at further increasing their rural margins in 2024.”

As we know all too well, crevasses dominate America’s political and social landscape. One of them, the rural-urban divide, is cultural as well as political. Based on these analyses of the midterm election, one wonders whether Democrats who think differently, talk differently and act differently in rural America can build a bridge far beyond politics.

William S. Becker is co-editor and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” a collection of more than 30 essays by American thought leaders on topics such as the Supreme Court’s perceived legitimacy. Becker has served in several state and federal government roles, including executive assistant to the attorney general of Wisconsin. He is currently executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), a nonpartisan climate policy think tank unaffiliated with the White House.