Hope And Fear In Rural America

At this point in America’s political history, it’s a rare person who hasn’t seen those ubiquitous red and blue maps. Different states show different voting patterns, but there is one element the political maps all have in common: cities with a half-million residents or more are all bright blue, and rural areas are all red.

Suburbs may be turning purple, but not rural America.

A number of political operatives have been counseling Democrats to engage with rural voters, to try to bridge the cultural divide between “cosmopolitan” urbanites and “resentful” rural dwellers. My own response to those entreaties has ranged from tepid to cold–after all, wouldn’t it be a waste of resources better deployed on efforts to turn out the millions who didn’t bother to go to the polls in 2016? Given what I have read about the deep connection between rural voters and the GOP, outreach to those precincts seemed–and still seems–unlikely to change many votes.

That said, an eloquent column from the New York Times has made me reconsider.

George Goehl runs a federation of community-based organizations across the country that bring poor and working-class people together to win economic and racial justice, and he has a warning: when liberals and progressives ignore rural Americans, they clear the way for the White Nationalists who are already there.

This summer I visited a bunch of small towns across the country, and I saw signs that white nationalists are becoming more active. Just drive by the town square in Pittsboro, N.C., at 5 p.m. on any given Saturday and you are likely to seewhite nationalists rallying to protect a Confederate monument.

This weekend, I’ll head back home to southern Indiana, where members of the 3 Percenters, a far-right militia, showed up with guns and knives at the Bloomington Farmers Market earlier this year. The leader of the white supremacist organization American Identity Movement even paid a visit. I’ve been organizing for 20 years in rural communities and have never seen this level of public activity by white supremacist groups.

Goehl’s organization works in both urban and rural communities, and he warns against the assumption that rural minds cannot be changed.

As part of this work, our organizers had over 10,000 conversations with people in small towns across the country over the past year. We spoke with neighbors in Amish country, visited family farms in Iowa and sat on front porches in Appalachia — communities that have experienced hard economic times and went solidly for Donald Trump in 2016.

Although these communities may be fertile ground for the Trump administration and other white nationalist organizations, they are also places where people can come together across race and class to solve the big problems facing everyday people. That starts by recognizing one another’s humanity — and with honest conversations….

For those who have given up on rural communities: Please reconsider. So many of these places need organizing to win improved conditions. Despite the stereotypes, rural people are not static in their political views or in the way they vote. Single white rural women and young rural white people represent two of the greatest leftward swings in the 2018 midterms, moving 17 and 16 points respectively toward Democrats. They played a key role in Democratic wins across the Midwest.

Goehl concedes that a substantial number of rural residents are “as racist as you would expect,” and notes the resurgence of the KKK in rural America. On the other hand, he insists  that plenty of rural folks reject efforts to foster racial resentments.

In June of 2018, my organization’s affiliates staged nearly 780 rallies across the country to protest the family separation crisis. Half of the rallies were in counties that voted for Donald Trump. Small towns like Angola, Ind., and Ketchum, Idaho, with populations of 8,000 and 2,700 respectively, were among the communities that came together to support migrant families.

People followed those rallies with rural cookouts, deep in so-called Trump Country, to gather and talk about family and the plight of migrants, and pass the hat to post bond for migrant families.

It’s good to be reminded that no constituency is monolithic. Turning those red expanses blue, however–or even a pale shade of purple–still looks like a very steep climb.


  1. “A number of political operatives have been counseling Democrats to engage with rural voters, to try to bridge the cultural divide between “cosmopolitan” urbanites and “resentful” rural dwellers.”…”Given what I have read about the deep connection between rural voters and the GOP, outreach to those precincts seemed–and still seems–unlikely to change many votes.”

    Is the GOP actually going into rural areas to deal directly with the people and what exactly are they offering, other than the ages old racism buried deep in most rural areas, that maintains the bright red voter numbers? Continuing reports of small farmers being driven out of business due to Trump’s unkept promises and his up-and-down, on-and-off, tariff wars should have meaning to rural voters. If rural voters are rejecting racial resentments; what is it about the Trump party that keeps them voting for Republicans? Is local news part of the problem; what are statistics regarding cable TV availability in rural areas to receive more than weather and livestock market reports? Are they lured to the Republican party by those like-minded urbanites who follow Trump’s White Nationalist racist and bigoted lack of values? Why do they remain red areas when they are dying out? Our green spaces, so valuable to saving this environment, are dwindling rapidly as housing developments, big businesses and corporations are swallowing up the land which makes up those rural areas, helping to drive out the small farmers. They appear to be blindly accepting of the hopelessness and fears they are maintaining.

  2. ”Turning those red expanses blue, however–or even a pale shade of purple–still looks like a very steep climb.“

    As a Democrat who lives in very rural northeast Indiana I can vouch for the above statement. Many republicans in my county are adamantly against voting for any Democrats. They have been fully brainwashed by right wing media sources telling them that Dems want everything for free.

    I believe that the National and State Democrat party leaders need to wake up and start playing the republican game of using fear to win elections. It would be very easy to create media campaigns based upon the fear of what they/we have already lost and what they/we will lose in the future if they keep electing republicans. Unlike the R campaigns that are full of lies, we could use actual facts to scare the voters.

    Campaigns based upon Fear is how the republicans

  3. JoAnn, in rural northern Indiana racism is not a big factor, if a factor at all. The major concern is the economic situation that has been declining for decades.

  4. Oops, words were missing from the last sentence in my first comment – typed on phone. It should say:
    Fear is how the republicans have been winning elections for decades. Well, fear campaigns and gerrymandering.

  5. Yes. Brain washing from right-wing media. Fear mongering from Republican politicians who have nothing else to offer. God-fearing people being drilled with right-wing propaganda about alleged family values IN TAX-FREE CHURCHES. Yes, all of this and more.

    Meanwhile, Republicans continue to screw their own constituents – like a snake eating its tail. White supremacism? B.S. It’s pure fear and hate. These terrified soldier-boy wannabes are shaking in their boots because their collective ignorance prevents them from forming complex thoughts and prevents them from understanding complex societies different from basic tribal instincts. Those things are functions of education. When education fails, critical thinking is immediately replaced by knee-jerk fear responses.

    Creatures like Betsy DeVos want all education to be private….if you can afford it. So what happens to the indigent farmers who have been pushed to the wall by Republican policies and have nowhere to turn…because, primarily, because they lack a good, sound, basic education?

    What I think we’re seeing is the slow return of Lords v. Serfs as brought to us by the elitist Republican party and the Democrats who have succumbed to that too (Thanks Bill Clinton for signing the repeals of laws and regulations that prevented Wall St. banks from sucking up more capital for minimal or no return.) So, maybe Democratic campaigns should point out the basics of serfdom to the decent rural citizens. Forget the racists. They’re not going to do anything to change because they fear change as much as they fear people of color. They are the epitome of failed education in the home, the churches and the schools.

  6. Most of the country folks I know have a live and let live philosophy about life in general. They don’t care that the two old boys who own the next farm over are gay as long as they do what they’re supposed to do. Take care of the farm. Take care of their livestock. Take care of their neighbors when needed. They’ve voted Republican since after the Civil War, but they made an exception for FDR because they were all dying from drought, bad farming practices, inability to get loans from their banks, and all of their savings were gone when the banks closed. They went right back to Republicans at the very next general(Ike). They’ve been there ever since.

    When people are that set in their ways, it takes disaster to move them. I’m not sure they can be convinced that disaster is what’s happening now.

  7. Thanks Nancy, but I would add.

    The plight of rural America is real, though this blog and its commenters have seldomly expressed any concern, and largely continue to portray them as ignorant, racist, fools.

    ” Eighty-Six (86) percent of persistent poverty counties have entirely rural populations. Rural communities with persistently high poverty rates are often geographically isolated, lack resources and economic opportunities, and suffer from decades of disinvestment.”

    You can muster all the soft social science attitudinal studies you want to explain away how they vote, but the hard reality is the 2,584 counties that voted for Trump had 36% of the GDP, while Clinton 472 counties had 64%.



    We should care more about their plight than their politics.

  8. I just received the monthly email from Trey Hollingsworth from the 9th. There was only one person of color in all the pictures, showing articles of Trey making Indiana great again. Look at the references he uses for news articles: 93.1 interview with Tony Katz), Breitbart, WAVE from KY, News and Tribune, etc. At least Trey voted in favor of the resolution about withdrawal of troops from Syrian BUT made a point of letting his constituents know that his vote was not an indicator that he has stopped licking the boots of tRump – from his interview with Katz – “The situation as it stands has been disastrous. The president has contained it in the past couple days. My biggest concern is the release of ISIS captives and the resurgence of ISIS. This is a non-binding resolution. When I read it word-for-word there is nothing that condemns the president. All it does is call on the United States to maintain a presence necessary to defeat ISIS and support our Kurdish allies.” The brainwashing continues in Southern Indiana, and this group is isolated from people of color and different views. Narrow minded views are also reinforced by their conservative religious leaders’ sermons each Sunday. Can’t see this area ever changing to purple, the culture changing, or the bubble, which surrounds them, popped.

  9. Repeat of a comment from a few days ago…DEMS need to run on different “fear” – fear of poison water, fear of poison air, fear of unexpected medical billings, fear of high-priced drugs, fear of crushing student loans……

  10. The future for every single demographic will be profoundly different than the past because of our numbers and our technology. Some demographics see that as opportunity and some see it as a threat. Some advance on that, some run from it. For some it is actually opportunity and for some actually a threat no matter how they see things.

    Have political parties actually kept up with all of that rapid change in how they maintain the voter blocks that keep them employed or pursued new ones? Trump tweets. Obama was an orator and writer. Bush was a country fair kind of person. Budgets are now politics. Donations, technology, big data, people, social media, entertainment media both radio and TV, telephones. Hillary was more successful gathering votes but Trump didn’t limit his campaign to voters. Politics has become what business already has evolved to. How to reach the receptive customer in more personal ways.

    I’m not convinced that the old tried and true cultural understanding of red and blue is even meaningful anymore in a world so complex that there’s hardly any room left for simplicity. Cracker Barrel forums like this are fun and informative but hardly compete with Google for insight into the details of causes and effects of local culture.

    We’ve got to keep up and it takes a dizzying pace.

  11. In 2016, 34% of the rural area that includes Angola, Indiana voted for Clinton. Most rural communities of the United States reported similar results. Someone, or something, convinced these red state inhabitants (approximately 15-20 million) to vote liberal. How does that translate into an impossibility to convince other red staters to vote for a democrat?

  12. John Neal, on winning the rural vote: “We should care more about their plight than their politics.”

    Which is where we democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, come up shockingly short–there and with middle class labor. At rallies, when Clinton was asked to expound on what her administration would do to relieve the plight of rural and labor America, her answer was always something to the dead tune of It’s in the platform, and then she would slide over and ratchet up her passion again and again and again about what her administration would do for women and children.

    John, I think the most appropriate word in your statement is “care”, and a candidate shows little of it when slip-sliding policy explanations to a line in the platform. And rural people, with or without “education” are quite capable of noting that lack of care and passion.

    Robert Kennedy would have been appalled at Clinton’s lack of passion for the struggling American.

  13. We need politics to prepare for the future not to hang on to the past. The choice that Putin helped us make of Trump instead of Clinton was dysfunctional for us in many ways but chief among them is our going backwards in time.

  14. True liberals care about everyone – I was raised with Mama Farber’s dictum “conservatives relate to things and use people; liberals relate to people and use things” (she was an unrepentant, bleeding heart liberal) – sorry for any conservatives whose relations and uses are different – she would of called you a liberal no matter what you called yourself 8)>

    What I disdain is the argument that Democrats have to spit on their base and chase the “middle” (a concept that constantly moves to the right) by adopting Republican ideas (a la Bill Clinton – as Vernon mentioned) – as Peggy pointed out, rural Americans did support FDR and like Larry mentioned, Bobby could go into rural communities and gather support – we need to win their support with proposals (and actions) that actually help them (and explicitly let them know when we do – how about the “Farm Assistance Resource Management Clean Water Act FARM-CWA” for a clean water bill) – engage them, but don’t change our principles

    To be real, we should engage everyone, including rural communities, but we shouldn’t expect miracles – maybe a couple of percent at a time, but like the 50-state strategy, the “engage everyone” strategy is essential if we want to continue to win — and if we truly believe in a democratic republic and not the current view of Trump namely rule by his minority base.

  15. As a resident of northeast Indiana (having grown up in Chicago), I can vouch for the difficulty of turning red to blue…or even purple.

    Racism is part of it…google “SPLC Hate map by state.”

    Even stronger around here is the evangelical factor. These so-called Christians turn vicious when their dear leader is criticized. The “witch hunt” theory is alive and well…and #45’s talking points – which are really repetitions of the same lies over and over again, are accepted without question. No collusion, no obstruction, perfect phone call…it’s all here.

    I try to remember that there were once Republicans who were rational (and there still may be, though they seem to be afraid to come out of the closet). Truthfully, I grieve for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I always promised myself that I wouldn’t be the kind of old man who sat on his porch screaming that the “world is going to hell in a handbasket,” but it seems that sort of action would reaffirm my own sanity (and for the sake of my sanity I’ve stopped reading comments on the newspaper sites, Facebook, and Twitter).

    I’m not giving up…but sometimes it’s hard to keep on keepin’ on.

  16. stepped into the local truckstop/store/meeting place where coffee rocks the seniors day. today!belfield,n.d. they all were decked out in their MAGA hats and talk aflyin…. the very people who, are retired,,medicare? they were,or, have now,family in active farming and cattle, and still believe 15 bucks an hour is crazy in any city..i was going to wear my Bernie 2016 hat, but ill save indignaties through their eyes,and wont give them a chance to talk about it when i leave..i read the grain prices lagged and trade off on ag markets, even china is hog tied to imported pork, via swine flu killing their industry. heres a open door to make some real trade diffrences..instead, china sees better markets for pork,elsewhere,thanks trump…..mnuchin,according to rep tina smith,(d) minn. has invited mnuchin to view the farms that,are litterally under water, and make a whatever. i guess mnuchin may branch out and foreclose on farm land to sell it to his buddies. nice play tina…
    conversation about trumps visit to world series,and the lock him up mock,with a close worker i deal with daily, he was pissed i supported the disrespect and said those young people have no respect for the president no matter who he is!! i replied, thye didnt boo obama…
    nuff daid, another day in NoDak . if the orgs want a real challenge to change things like iowa, this would be a real workout, this place is bloodred,and the supremist here are anyone who wears a maggot hat..ignorance prevails!

  17. I agree with Len Farber’s comment that Democrats seem to be expected to spit on their base in order to be acceptable political candidates. This explains why I was so energized when Bernie Sanders came on the scene. It was time someone came along who believed in what Democrats have stood for and said so. I continue to hope that the Democratic Party will nominate someone who believes in democratic principles and is willing to play hardball in the political arena.

  18. Len: “True liberals care for everyone…”, or that’s the model we aspire to.

    That caring for everyone is certainly enough in politics when it comes to intent at the beginning and policy at the end…but it is quite useless if you can’t show that care with passion during your candidacy, which Hillary failed to do. Were talking about that which is needed to get elected, not that which makes policy that pleases us or is most ethical, which we are assuming is already there among democrats.

    Of the democratic candidates today, I see only two or three who even come close to demonstrating the passion that middle America wants. Warren and Bernie are ardent in their caring, but they care for their ideas rather than for the people. Biden is just passionate enough to go tongue-tied when it counts. Mayor Pete is getting there and brings eloquence with him, but he needs to articulate his fervor for people a tad more than zeal for definition and explanation. Kamala Harris brings more passion than the others, but it now seems that her intensity is more for a good fight than for the good people. Booker shows only a grinning dynamism for Can’t we all just get along.

    Sadly, there is no Bobby Kennedy.

  19. Folks, please remember that Indiana went for Obama went for Obama in 2008. We need to study the he why? and how? of it closely. And the it must be replicated.

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