Democrats are in trouble in rural America. But there’s a way out

Written By: Steve Bullock © 2021 The New York Times The New York Times
Washington Published: Dec 06, 2021, 12:52 AM(IST)

US President Joe Biden (file photo). Photograph:( AFP )

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The core problem is a familiar one — Democrats are out of touch with the needs of the ordinary voter. In 2021, voters watched Congress debate for months the cost of an infrastructure bill while holding a social spending bill hostage. Both measures contain policies that address the challenges Americans across the country face

I take no joy in sounding the alarm, but I do so as a proud Democrat who has won three statewide races in a rural, red state — the Democrats are in trouble in rural America, and their struggles there could doom the party in 2022.

The warning signs were already there in 2020 when Democrats fell short in congressional and state races despite electing Joe Biden president. I know because I was on the ballot for U.S. Senate and lost. In the last decade and a half, we’ve seen Senate seats flip red in Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota, and more. Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats around the country since 2008. And in this year’s governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, we saw the Democratic vote in rural areas plummet, costing the party one seat and nearly losing us the other. It was even worse for Democrats down ballot, as Democrats lost state legislative, county, and municipal seats.

The core problem is a familiar one — Democrats are out of touch with the needs of the ordinary voter. In 2021, voters watched Congress debate for months the cost of an infrastructure bill while holding a social spending bill hostage. Both measures contain policies that address the challenges Americans across the country face. Yet to anyone outside the Beltway, the infighting and procedural brinkmanship haven’t done a lick to meet their needs at a moment of health challenges, inflation and economic struggles. You had Democrats fighting Democrats, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and desperately needed progress was delayed. It’s no wonder rural voters think Democrats are not focused on helping them.

I was re-elected as Montana’s governor in 2016 at the same time Donald Trump took our state by more than 20 points. It’s never easy for Democrats to get elected in Montana, because Democrats here are running against not only the opponent on the ballot, but also against conservative media’s (and at times our own) typecast of the national Democratic brand: coastal, overly educated, elitist, judgmental, socialist — a bundle of identity groups and interests lacking any shared principles. The problem isn’t the candidates we nominate. It’s the perception of the party we belong to.

To overcome these obstacles, Democrats need to show up, listen, and respect voters in rural America by finding common ground instead of talking down to them. Eliminating student loans isn’t a top-of-mind matter for the two-thirds of Americans lacking a college degree. Being told that climate change is the most critical issue our nation faces rings hollow if you’re struggling to make it to the end of the month. And the most insulting thing is being told what your self-interest should be.

Get out of the cities and you will learn we have a libertarian streak, with a healthy distrust of government. We listen when folks talk about opportunity and fairness, not entitlements. We expect government to play a role in our having a fair shot at a better life, not solve all our problems.

We need to frame our policies, not in terms of grand ideological narratives, but around the material concerns of voters. Despite our differences and no matter where we live, we generally all want the same things: a decent job, a safe place to call home, good schools, clean air and water, and the promise of a better life for our kids and grandkids.

For me, that meant talking about Obamacare not as an entitlement, but as a way to save rural hospitals and keep local communities and small businesses afloat. It meant talking about expanding apprenticeships, not just lowering the costs of college. It meant framing public lands as a great equalizer and as a driver for small business. It meant talking about universal pre-K not as an abstract policy goal, but being essential for our children and for keeping parents in the work force. It meant talking about climate change not just as a crisis, but as an opportunity to create good jobs, preserve our outdoor heritage, and as a promise not to leave communities behind.

These lessons apply broadly, not just to swing states. We need to do the hard work of convincing voters that we are fighting for every American, regardless of party or where they live, or it’ll only get worse for us in the 2022 midterms and beyond.

It’s in the void of inaction and failure to solve problems real people face that racially tinged cultural fights, like we saw in Virginia, take hold. My children are in high school and have never heard of critical race theory — nor have their teachers. What voters want to know is that Democrats will fight for racial justice and to improve the lives of rural Americans, no matter the color of their skin. After all, that’s what we’ve always done.

In the parts of America that are completely rural, there are nine infants and toddlers for every day care slot, one in eight lacks health insurance, and for one in four, over half of income goes to rent. High-speed internet has eluded many parts of our country. Voters in my state may have grown cynical about the legislative process, infighting and eye-popping price tags in Washington, but enacting the Build Back Better bill, along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, gives Democrats something to run on: proof that we have voters’ backs, including those who live in rural America.

It’s time for Democrats to get uncomfortable and go beyond friendly urban and suburban settings to hear directly from folks in small towns who are trying to run a business, pay the bills, and maintain access to health care. They have stories to tell and ideas to share, and we should listen. When then-candidate Barack Obama spent the Fourth of July 2008 in Butte, Mont., he didn’t go there because Butte was suddenly key to winning in November, but showing up there sent a loud and clear message to places like Butte all across our country that he gives a damn about us.

Butte and Scranton may be a long way from each other geographically, but they’re not that far apart in terms of working-class roots, values and attitudes. President Biden can help rural Americans know and believe Democrats are tackling the challenges they face. Democrats need to get off the polling and consultant calls, get into the community and engage voters directly: Do you have a decent job that covers the bills and leaves a little left over? Can you afford your home and pay for health care? Do you feel safe? Do you believe we are doing right for your kids, educationally, environmentally and economically? Do you see a path forward toward a better life for you and your family?

Fighting for every American means that, whether you live in Manhattan, N.Y. or Manhattan, Mont., you have an opportunity to climb the economic ladder and a temporary safety net to catch you if you stumble. Too often the Democratic Party comes off as a buffet line of policies, each prepared for a different group of voters. If we talk about — and work to address — the issues that people discuss around their kitchen table or at the fence line, the issues that fill endless hours of cable television become a hell of a lot less relevant. Our kitchen tables might look and feel different, but we need to learn to talk in a way that makes sense around everyone’s table.

Voters are facing real challenges — and so is our country. They need to know that Democrats are listening, working, and fighting for them. The voters deserve that level of respect and need to know we have their back.

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