How can Democrats win back rural America?

Rural voters increasingly resent Democrats,
but Republican policies aren’t helping them.

Not so long ago, Democrats got big majorities in the cities, which Republicans balanced by carrying the suburbs, small towns, and rural areas by narrower margins. More recently, Democrats have continued dominating the cities, but MAGA policies and incivility have made the suburbs more competitive (especially by alienating educated women). Now Republicans make up the gap with big majorities in rural areas and small towns.

Two recent NYT articles have focused on how they do that, and whether Democrats can do anything about it. Thomas Edsall’s “The Resentment Fueling the Republican Party is Not Coming from the Suburbs” lays out the problem:

The anger and resentment felt by rural voters toward the Democratic Party are driving a regional realignment similar to the upheaval in the white South after Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson, won approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Edsall presents Wisconsin as a prime example. Senator Ron Johnson is pro-insurrection, believes climate change is “bullshit”, and wants to make cutting Social Security and Medicare easier by shifting those programs from “mandatory” to “discretionary” spending. If you’re an urban or suburban voter, you might think those positions would make him an easy target. But in fact he narrowly won reelection in 2022 by running up huge margins in rural counties. Clearly, people think differently there.

Edsall cites the book The Politics of Resentment by University of Wisconsin Professor Katherine Cramer, who attributes the rural conservative surge to three factors.

(1) a belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers, (2) a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources and (3) a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.

So a straightforward approach to winning rural areas back would be for Democrats to stop doing those things. But Paul Krugman points out a serious problem with that strategy: Strictly speaking, none of those three beliefs are true. There are many government policies (farm subsidies, special programs to support rural housing, rural utilities, etc.) that focus on rural areas; the federal government spends far more on rural areas than it gets back in taxes; and the respect gap runs mostly in the other direction: Democratic politicians hardly ever denigrate small towns or denounce rural values the way that Republicans target New York City or San Francisco.

It’s a problem that Democrats face across the board: How do you convince people that you’ve stopped doing things you’ve never actually done? How do you respond to parents upset about public schools teaching critical race theory or grooming children to be gay or trans, when public schools don’t actually do those things? How do you stop discrimination against Christians when in fact there is no discrimination against Christians? (Examples to the contrary are nearly always cases where Christians are not getting the special rights they feel entitled to.)

Given that level of misperception, it’s hard to even approach the problem without thinking in a paternalistic way that any Democratic constituency would resent: Consider about how justifiably upset the Black or Hispanic communities get when White “experts” ignore their policy preferences and instead tell them what they “should” want.

I come from the kind of community Edsall and Krugman are talking about: Illinois’ Adams County voted for Trump nearly 3-to-1 in both 2016 and 2020. It’s in the IL-15 congressional district, where a MAGA congressional candidate tallied 71% last fall.

And in some sense I represent the root problem: I grew up there, got an education, saw no attractive opportunities, and moved away to have a successful career in the suburbs of Boston. At my high-school reunions, the primary divide is between those who left and those who stayed. (It’s no wonder being “left behind” plays such a large role the Evangelical mythology popular in rural areas. The fantasy of being raptured to Heaven while unbelievers suffer the tribulations must be a very satisfying turnabout.)

The problems of rural America are very real and deserve national attention, so it’s completely understandable that rural Americans would channel their discontent into a political party. Sadly, though, they’ve united around a party that wants to feed them myths and flatter them rather than do anything that might help.

Cutting safety-net programs like Medicaid will do significant damage in places like Adams County, while Biden’s infrastructure package includes quite a bit of investment in rural areas. Conservative anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have contributed to higher Covid death rates in Trump-supporting counties, and that’s just the latest chapter in a longer-term story of anti-public-health policy choices in red states.

I know I overuse Weimar analogies (which come easily to mind as I’ve been binging Babylon Berlin and reading Philip Kerr novels) but it’s hard to ignore the parallels: Germany really had lost a war, its economy suffered badly in the dislocations of the 1920s, and what opportunities still existed were centered in the cosmopolitan cities rather than the nativist countryside. But the defeat-excusing stab-in-the-back myth was not true, Jews and libertine urban culture weren’t the real problems, and fascism was not the answer.

Likewise today, fascism won’t provide an answer to the real challenges rural and small-town America faces. But I’m not sure how to help rural and small-town voters figure that out.

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  • Pamela Bethune  On January 30, 2023 at 11:32 am

    My congressional representative, Elissa Slotkin, has won a red district. How? She focuses on being a pragmatic problem solver trying to find the common ground between the various parties. She speaks the language they want to hear. This is critical. She talks about defense. She talks about money issues. She reminds them of her own rural upbringing. She tells them she served with the CIA in Iran and Afghanistan and in the field with the military, not in the cities. She talks about her husband, a career military officer and she stepdaughters who are in the military. By doing these things, she pulls herself out of the “she a Democrat, so she must believe x y and z” and creates a space where they can see her, not just the party.

  • Ryan Paige  On January 30, 2023 at 12:19 pm

    I believe a 57% Trump 2020 district is potentially winnable in a good year with a good candidate. Or my current district (which went 60% Republican in 2022) in a really good year with a really good candidate could switch. I don’t know that my former district (which went 80% Trump in 2020) could even with the best Democratic candidate.

  • HAT  On January 30, 2023 at 1:15 pm

    Farm subsidies go to people with farms. Some of those people are rich. Not everyone who lives in the country owns a farm.

    I think it would help a lot if the people who want to win over rural Americans would stop rolling their eyes in contempt, whether overtly or covertly, when they refer to the ideas, values, and habits of “rural Americans.” As if everyone knows that those ideas, values, and habits are wrong, but we have to humor you-all sometimes. Yes, Republicans talk about crime-ridden cities. [And we probably all know what that’s code for, too.] But rural Americans, I think rightly, sense the widespread contempt that floats around contemporary popular culture for people who live in “podunk,” “Deliverance territory,” “the back of beyond,” “nowheresville,” etc., along with the casual assumptions about how no one out here knows anything or ever went to a decent school or ever reads a book or would actually choose to live here if they could make it somewhere else or has a perspective actually worth listening to.

    So Paul Krugman can deny the perceptions of rural Americans all he wants. Rural Americans will, I think, chalk it up to – once again – some guy who never comes out here thinking statistics tell the main part of the story, and telling us we’re wrong about our own experience.

    Pamela Bethune, above, is making a similar point, it seems to me.

    • Martin R  On February 1, 2023 at 9:58 pm

      I agree with you 100% and it’s the thing that glaringly stood out to me while reading that Krugman article.

      How your point has eluded so many people (including Doug) really surprises me.

      Any time a stand up comic starts doing an impression of a rural accent, you can bet the next thing out of their mouth is not going to be flattering to rural people. Same goes with movies, tv, etc. Nobody says “oh you shouldn’t talk like that, it’s horribly stereotypical.” Instead, they just laugh and laugh.

      If I were being mocked like that, i would be angry too. And if I were uneducated, i sure as hell wouldn’t appreciate being mocked about being uneducated. And at some point, I might even become so defensive and resentful about it that I would cast my vote based on who would piss those people off the most rather than based on some policies that I would doubt would even impact me…yada yada yada…Trump.

      Obviously, it’s not that simple, at some point one must acknowledge that being uneducated and isolated correlates some with a resistance to being open-minded, etc.

      But the blind spot that so many people have for the clear contempt that rural people face in popular culture is incredible to me, a real failure of empathy.

  • Bill Dysons  On January 30, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    One theory that makes a lot of sense to me is that in the developed world countries where children are more likely to have their basic needs met and education is more widespread, inequality of outcomes in society are more likely to be the result of genetic differences. This implies that Republicans really are the party of low IQ people. And one of the things that people with high IQ and high incomes tend to want to buy is “distance from poor people.” This exacerbates the cultural differences in the two groups and makes the kind of crossover you’re talking about difficult, if not impossible.

    • pauljbradford  On January 31, 2023 at 12:35 pm

      I know of zero evidence that “inequality of outcomes in society are more likely to be the result of genetic differences”. A “theory” with no evidence is not a “theory” in the scientific meaning of the word, it’s just an opinion.

      • Bill Dysons  On January 31, 2023 at 3:13 pm

        It’s more likely *in developed countries*…that’s an important part you left out. In other words, when children’s “nurture” is more equalized – as it is in developed countries where, for example, access to education is more widespread – the remaining differences in outcomes are more likely driven by “nature.” I don’t see how this is controversial. I’m not saying that ALL outcomes are basic on genetic differences in the US…far from it! We have WAY too much inequality of opportunity in this country for numerous reasons. But the idea that we’re all a blank slate at birth is very much at odds with science. See Steven Pinker’s “The Blank State” for a starting point on this area of research.

    • weeklysift  On January 31, 2023 at 2:32 pm

      I’m leery of this kind of thinking because I used to teach mathematics. The idea that you either are born a math wiz or you’re not has been really destructive there. You end up having to teach twice: First to teach kids that they CAN understand this stuff, and then to teach it to them.

      One person I’m glad I got to know in college was a woman who wasn’t “smart” in the usual sense. She thought slowly and had to go over things many times to remember them. What was striking about her, though, was that this lack of mental speed didn’t prevent her from thinking deeply. Talking to her led me to challenge a lot of what I thought I knew about intelligence.

      I’ve come to believe that there are very few human ideas that other humans are completely incapable of understanding. It’s more a question of interest and patience than of IQ.

      People used to say that George W. Bush was dumb. And maybe so; I don’t know. But I always wondered what it would be like to talk to him about something he actually cared about, like baseball.

      • Bill Dysons  On January 31, 2023 at 3:57 pm

        Your statement about your student is evidence for my original point. She “thought slowly and had to go over things many times to remember them.” Compared to whom? I assume compared to your best students. And it sounds like she was hardworking and a deep thinker, which probably will make up for any disadvantages she faces a result of the fact that it takes her longer to memorize things. People don’t all have the same strengths, and that’s ok. But let’s not kid ourselves that everyone is equal.

        Pardon my rant, but this is exactly the type of thing helps Republicans win. Whenever someone points out something obvious like “some people are smarter than other people and do better in life as a result” and Democrats say “no no, that’s nonsense,” it makes us look like idiots. We start having these debates about definitions of “smart” and what IQ really measures instead of just going, “yeah, some people really are more talented than others in all the ways that matter…so let’s try to help those who aren’t talented succeed too.” That seems like a message that would resonate because it doesn’t try to deny the obvious.

    • paranoid  On February 4, 2023 at 1:21 pm

      Do you really believe that, across the board, children in the United States have their basic needs met and decent education?
      In my entire 50-year lifetime, from living in a rural city of 20,000 people to a mid-sized city of 200,000 with over a million in the metro area, I’ve heard parents saying the opposite. They talk about having to live in a certain city or neighborhood or to pay for private school to ensure their kids get an adequate education.
      Kids are more likely to live in poverty than other age groups in the United States. Even with government programs, poverty affects everything from the quality of food someone can afford to how much crime and pollution a neighborhood has.
      My day-to-day experience is that we are so far removed from equality of opportunity for kids in this country that explaining inequality of outcome by innate difference is preposterous.

      • Bill Dysons  On February 6, 2023 at 11:14 am

        No, I absolutely do not think that children in the US have their basic needs met equally. Let me provide a different analogy to clear up what I was trying to say.

        Consider football. Assume that all children wanted to make it into the NFL and that all children were given the same access to training, facilities, coaching, etc, to do so. I’m simply arguing that in such a case, most children STILL won’t make it due to the fact that some have more innate ability and skill in football-related talent than others do. That’s all I’m saying.

        To extend the analogy further, in such a world, if Republican parents were less likely to produce NFL starts than Democrat parents, we’d assume that the children of Republican parents were less talented.

        Extrapolating that to the real world, I’d say some (NOT ALL) of the reason that Republicans do stupid things is that they’re just not as smart as Democrats. It’s not all a result of differences in opportunity.

      • paranoid  On February 8, 2023 at 8:37 am

        If your starting premise is constrained that there are big differences, not just in natural ability, but also in opportunity, how do you get to the sweeping conclusion that Republicans are the party of low IQ people?

      • Bill Dysons  On February 12, 2023 at 5:02 pm

        I’m starting with the conclusion and working backwards. Although Doug disputed it in the comments, I think he agrees with this conclusion too, as do most readers (or at least commenters) on this blog. It’s just obvious based on how they talk about Republicans week after week. I feel like I’m just the only one who will admit it.

        And given that we all presumably agree, I’m positing one possible explanation as to why our conclusion (or hypothesis, actually) might be true. My frustration is that when I point out a viewpoint that (to me) we obviously all share, I seem to get shouted down like I’m crazy.

  • Michael Wells  On January 30, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    This post presents a very troubling and perhaps, intractable problem in our democracy. A very large number of voters will believe what they want to believe regardless of the available evidence. We are not reaching them with reasoned arguments based on facts. We are frequently faced with belligerence and sometimes violence. While I never believed that insulting people will assist in getting them to agree with me about anything, I also don’t understand when some say that we “deny the perceptions of rural Americans” or that we say they are somehow wrong about their own experience. Perceptions and experiences are just that. They are not evidence. If people believe that feelings justify their political actions, we will never resolve these conflicts.

  • Vala  On January 30, 2023 at 7:57 pm

    Maybe they could start by not telling them how racist and backwards they are…that could go a long way.

    • weeklysift  On January 31, 2023 at 2:40 pm

      But what do you do when they say or do something racist? Just let it go?

      • susanmbrewer  On February 5, 2023 at 6:02 pm

        By this reasoning, apparently you say something only when it’s an urban person.

  • Thomas Paine  On January 31, 2023 at 2:13 am

    Over and over, the “officially appropriate” response for Democrats is to set aside policy advocacy based on logic and facts and to somehow break the secret code of how to appeal to people who, in general, operate on the basis of emotions and tribalism, and who live in sparsely populated rural areas precisely because they’re sparsely populated. They don’t like people, and they especially don’t like people who are in any way, shape, or form different from themselves.

    So, how’s that gone? A Russian stooge who repeatedly acts against the interests of his own base still wins elections in Wisconsin simply because he panders to their various emotional/psychological handicaps and dysfunctions and carries an R behind his name, because that’s the most sophisticated in branding most of the voters are. And he’s hardly alone.

    Instead, Democrats should turn off the Uncle Sugar gravy train and let these chip-on-the-shoulder, everything’s-a-grievance, guns-and-jesus anger-monsters fend for themselves. Stop pretending they’re going to miraculously wake up one day and appreciate how good they have it because of all the blue-state/urban area subsidies and suddenly understand the overall benefits of social programs. Listen to their music – they marinate themselves in various forms of suffering as if it’s proof of their inherent moral superiority, and they’ll be damned if the rest of us aren’t going to suffer, too.

    Like dealing with a junkie, it’s time to cut ’em loose. Tough love. Stop the enabling. They chose a life of illiteracy, insular provincialism, self-destructive behaviors, and emotional decomposition. Make them own it instead of trying to fix it. It’s not Democrats’ fault; it’s theirs.

    • Kim Cooper  On January 31, 2023 at 7:05 am

      That seems a bit like abandoning a difficult child.

      • Thomas Paine  On January 31, 2023 at 11:02 am

        They’re not children, and it’s time to stop treating them as if they are. They’re adults who are responsible for their decisions and behaviors.

      • pauljbradford  On January 31, 2023 at 1:46 pm

        There are millions of children in the states you are talking about. Abandoning them is not an option.

  • pauljbradford  On January 31, 2023 at 2:15 pm

    Some Democrats say mean things about rural people.
    Some rural people say mean things about Democrats and ‘city people’.

  • Anonymous  On February 4, 2023 at 8:10 pm

    How can Democrats win back rural America?
    Run candidates in every race, even in “unwinnable” races, so that people are hearing a liberal viewpoint. Run candidates like Fetterman and Elissa Slotkin (mentioned above) who can connect with voters. Do that in every election, for every office, in every area.


  • By Absurdly dangerous | The Weekly Sift on January 30, 2023 at 12:51 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Gas stoves, freedom, and the politics of distraction” and “How can Democrats win back rural America?“. […]

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