At In These Times, Anthony Flaccavento discusses “A Rural Progressive Platform” developed by a group of progressive citizens and activists in SW Virginia’s 9th congressional district. As Flaccavento points out, the policies could have broad application thoughout rural communities in the U.S.
The Republican edge with rural voters was significant in 2016. As Daniele Kurtzleben notes at NPR,
Exit polls show that the rural-urban divide grew from 2008 to 2012, and again this election. What’s particularly interesting is that the rural vote seems to have moved more than the urban or suburban votes…Between 2008 and 2016, Republicans’ share of the urban vote barely changed, and Democrats’ share fell by four points. In the suburbs, Republicans likewise didn’t change much, and Democrats lost five points. The shifts were larger in rural areas, where Republicans gained by nine points, and Democrats lost 11 points.
After giving Democrats the usual horse-whipping for getting too cozy with corporate elites and interests, Flaccavento describes the platform as more of a “discussion starter” than a prescriptive laundry list. The platform groups the policies in three “pillars of rural life”– land, livelihood and community.
With respect to land, Flaccavento argues that “progressive policies must make partners of those who live from the land, rather than just regulating and restricting what happens in the countryside.” He sites several “policy examples,” including:
- Increased investment in sustainable farming, fishing, forestry research and practices, rather than subsidies for corporate farming, fishing, and forest products
- Support for the RECLAIM Act and reinvestment in coal communities
- Investment and tax credits for community wind energy, solar gardens and other renewable energy that also provides revenue to local communities, in combination with a modernized electric grid that supports distributed energy
- Environmental regulations that are ‘scale appropriate’, i.e. less burdensome on small to mid-sized farms, businesses and manufacturers
Regarding livelihood, the emphasis should be on “policies that help people help themselves, and build on our strengths and assets.” Among the reforms that meet this challenge:
- An end to policies that undermine organized labor
- Increase in Earned Income Tax Credit, and other savings vehicles for lower income and working folks;
- Policies and programs that build the wealth of workers, including cooperatives
- ‘Asset-based’ economic development that addresses real community needs, rather than subsidies for big boxes and outside corporations
- Free community college
- College education without onerous debt, in part through reduced university administrative costs, and income-based loan repayment
- Dramatically increased internet access, including publicly owned options.
To build progressive community in rural America, the focus should be on “economic, tax and trade policy that supports healthy, self-reliant local communities,” including these measures:
- Tax incentives for regional manufacturers and other businesses that commit to long- term local employment, rather than supporting corporations who offshore jobs.
- Regulatory relief for community banks, and support for credit unions and community development financial institutions
- Expansion of rural health clinics, addiction treatment and prevention, and incentives for doctors and health practitioners to work in rural and underserved communities
Many elements of this platform will be familiar to Democrats working in rural communities across the nation. The thing about platforms is that they are routinely ignored or glossed over by the media, and platform discussions too often leave a wake of glazed eyes for everyone except hard-core policy wonks. For purposes of messaging, platforms are most useful as a reference for developing more condensed formats, like talking points, soundbites, buzz-phrases, custom-tailored for each district.
Many Republicans get elected these days, not because their policies are so great – Democrats already have policies that appeal to a broader cross-section of voters – it’s more because the GOP’s marketing pros know how to sell stuff. Eliminating this gap should be doable if Dems invest more time, money and expertise in the effort.
As with blue collar Trump voters, Dems don’t need to “win rural America” as a short-term goal. They just need to improve their percentage of this demographic by a modest mount to be competitive for the presidency, as well as in congressional, state and local elections. Winning a majority of voters in rural communities is a longer term goal. It’s a distinction still overlooked in much of the press coverage about the Democratic party’s prospects and problems.