Wanna Know Why Rural America and the Rust Belt Are Deep Red?
Spoiler Alert: Don’t to Ask a Democrat
In recent election cycles, Democrats conceded control of Middle America to Republicans who have moved far to the right of center. Because all 50 states have the same voting power in the U.S. Senate, which explains why Republicans committed financial resources and strategically targeted messaging aimed at gaining control of state legislatures in red states. Democrats were either asleep at the switch or blind to the vital importance of the “farm vote” in setting the agenda and blocking progressive policies in Congress.
Rank-and-file Republicans in rural America have backed Trumpism and embraced Donald Trump’s takeover of the party largely on emotional grounds rather than policy or principle. Many equate Trumpism with a new kind of populism that blames big-city, college-educated, white-collar, latte-drinking liberals for all the ills that beset small towns and the family farms.
Can Joe Biden and the Democrats win back the trust of red states? Much depends on whether Republicans retain control of the Senate after the Georgia run-offs. On way or the other, Biden and the Democrats must make address the real problems facing red states. There is no better way to begin this process than to listen to local voices in rural America and the Rust Belt.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? If, like most Americans, you happen to live in one of the suburbs surrounding our largest cities, you might be thinking: Who cares? If you live in a big city with a diverse population, you probably think of Kansas as a backwater. Hopelessly benighted. White, rural, evangelical. Home to nothing but brain-dead, anti-abortion, gun-crazy conservatives. But like so many stereotypes that inform our prejudices, this one is a gross oversimplification.
How and why has the Republican Party managed to maintain and even strengthen its hold in the red states? Donald Trump’s narcissism and vindictive nature have been on display for four years. Does the Heartland not have a heart?
At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is terrorizing society and ravaging the economy, the rest of the world wonders why America can’t come together to fight this common enemy. But when movements on the Left like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and the president acts as chief apologist for White Supremacists and neo-Nazis on the Right are the lead stories that have dominated every news cycle for so long, it’s hardly surprising that the country is bitterly divided, that tribalism has become synonymous with patriotism.
In 2018 183.4 millions people lived in the 52 largest metropolitan areas—more than half the total population:
Since 2000, the nation’s population has been increasingly concentrated in the suburban counties surrounding the urban core counties of the largest metro areas. In the new century, the big metro areas gained 30.6 million residents, with the majority of the increase (16.6 million) occurring in the suburbs. By 2018, 25% of the total U.S. population resided in the large suburban counties, up from 23% in 2000. In contrast, the share of the population living in the urban cores remained at 31%.
By contrast, the population of rural America has declined sharply in the last half century, totaling about 58 million in 2020, compared to 273 million living in urban settings. Although the precise numbers vary from one source to another, the trend toward increased concentration of both wealth and population is clear: people continue to move from the rural to metropolitan areas, corporations continue to get bigger, mergers move the economy ever closer to monopoly capitalism. Meanwhile, the industrialization of agriculture continues apace, but its impact on rural America goes largely unnoticed in the liberal press or the political calculations of liberal politicians.
Who Cares about “Kansas”?
If you live in Kansas, as I do, your familiarity with the problem Democrats face in the Heartland is close-up and personal. It’s a story commentators and reporters in New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta seldom cover, a perspective media opinionators rarely bring into the conversation. If a farmer in Kansas gets any airtime at all on CNN or MSNBC, it’s most likely a ten-second sound bite inserted into an interview with a news analyst or Washington insider—someone with credentials and expertise.
A lot of blue-state liberals no doubt believe reaching out to the red states in rural America and the Rust Belt is a waste of time and money; a quixotic distraction that Democrats can ill-afford at a time when the rest of the nation is deciding if black lives matter and what that really means. Given the pressing social and economic problems facing the nation in a pandemic of epic proportions, trying to break the Republican stranglehold in the Midwest is ill-timed, destined to fail, and not worth the trouble, right?
Is that also true of the more populous Rust Belt? It’s a fair question because much of America’s declining industrial core is now as red as the rural areas. If Democrats hope to win back voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they can do no better than to ask how they missed one of the most dramatic realignments in American history, namely the converging interests and partisan preferences of rural America and the Rust Belt.
Why “Kansas” Matters
Think of Kansas as a metaphor for the Heartland (a.k.a., rural America). Fifteen states smaller than Kansas have the exact same representation in the U.S. Senate as the sixteen largest states. The states with less than a million people each get to elect the same number of senators as California with roughly 40 million. Barring a miracle in the Georgia run-offs next month, Republicans will hold onto a slim majority in the Senate in the next Congress, despite losing the presidential race by more than seven million votes. And Republicans also managed to flip enough seats in the House to jeopardize Democrats’ control of that body in 2022.
Republicans control more state delegations in the House, as well. The GOP currently holds a 26-23 edge, but will have 26 or 27 compared to 20 for Democrats (plus 3 or 4 ties) in the next Congress. Clearly, it is folly to ignore the Midwest flyover states simply because they have only one Congressional district (Kansas has three). One wonders: have Democrats not noticed how the political system in this country actually works, that it is now, and always has been, skewed in favor of small states?
That Donald Trump controls the GOP is favorite storyline in the mainstream media. That Republicans control most state legislatures, is a no-less-important fact the media too often overlooks or underemphasizes. These are, after all, the bodies that will decide the redistricting in each state—in the world of power politics, it’s where the rubber hits the road. Republicans understand this fact and have acted on it through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example, and donors with deep pockets, like the Koch family; Democrats, not so much. (It’s worth noting that Charles Koch is a Kansan and the corporate headquarters of the empire he rules and runs are located in Wichita, Kansas.)
Prior to the 2020 general elections, Republicans had majorities in 59 chambers, Democrats controlled only 39. The 2020 election results changed little but actually flipped two chambers. The GOP gained majorities in both New Hampshire chambers.
Look at the 2020 political map showing red states and blue states in the presidential race and the state legislative contests. and it’s obvious that except for New England and West Coast states, most of America is red. That would not be true if we were to look at a spatially adjusted political map of the U.S. based on population or if political geography did not matter. But, of course, that’s not true. Never has been. Never will be. At least not in the lifetime of anybody reading this article.
One of the most incisive post-election explanations I’ve seen as to why Republicans are so popular in rural America is a piece in Politicowith the tug-in-cheek title, “Where Trump beat the stuffing out of Biden.” Exit polls in this election, point to a problem Democrats can no longer afford to ignore: A wildly unhinged president who lost by a wide margin nationally (over 7 million votes), won the rural vote in a landslide (57 percent to Biden’s 42 percent).
It was perhaps no accident that this story broke on Thanksgiving, a day when turkeys have an honored place on millions of dinner tables across America. Question: What, pray tell, do turkeys have to do with elections? A careful analysisreveals that, “…the president won 4 of the top 5 turkey producing states — Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina — losing only the nation’s top producer, Minnesota.”
It’s worth nothing here that Minnesota is home to the largest turkey producers in America, and Republicans captured all three congressional districts that produce most of the state’s turkeys. Democrat Collin Peterson, for example, is Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who has represented his mostly rural 7thdistrict for three decades. Peterson lost reelection by 50,000 votes—37 of 38 counties in the 7thdistrict voted for Trump. In fact, Trump’s victory in this district was even bigger than in 2016, when he won by a landslide.
What’s the Matter with Democrats?
Why? What can possibly explain how a political party with a petty, polarizing president and a penchant for pandering to the superrich can mesmerize rural America in this manner? Surely it is not because the Republican Party has done more for the millions of people “progress” has left behind in this country the Democratic Party, a fact which only deepens the mystery.
Nobody seems to have a satisfactory answer. Few social media influencers and political commentators are even asking the question. And here’s what is truly baffling: neither apparently are the Democratic Party’s top leaders and strategists.
If you grew up in South Dakota (as I did) and reside in Kansas (as I do), it’s hard not to notice that most attempts to explain Trump’s popularity with his base either have no relevance whatever to rural America or are woefully inadequate. My perspective on politics is not as narrow as urban dwellers on either coast might think. I lived in cities most of my adult life from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix, Arizona.
I happen to live in the most populous county in Kansas, Johnson County, a suburb or Kansas City. Our representative in Congress is Sharice Davids, a Democrat (see below). Davids handily won a second term, beating her Republican challenger, Amanda Adkins, by nearly 10 points, a spread slight larger than Biden’s margin of victory over Trump in Johnson County. But most of Kansas remains solidly red.
In 2020, Donald Trump won all but five of 105 counties in Kansas. In some of the western counties Trump won 85-90 percent of the votes. Three of the counties that gave Biden a majority are part of the Kansas City metropolitan area. One is where the Topeka, the capital, is located. Only one—Riley—is a rural county and the vote there was fairly close.
The only other large town in Kansas is Wichita, home to the Koch business empire. Wichita is located in Sedgwick county, where Trump crushed Biden getting 55.1% of the vote to Biden’s 42.5%. Johnson County, where I live, re-elected a gay Native American woman, Sharice Davids to Congress, but the statewide contest for an open Senate seat, which pitted two physicians against each other, was a landslide for Republican, Roger Marshall, against Democrat, Barbara Bollier. The last time a Democrat won a Senate race in Kansas was in 1932.
Small towns are not identical, of course. But a recent Brookings study underscores the fact that despite regional differences, rural communities in West Virginia, Kansas, and Wyoming have a great deal in common.
Take Emporia, Kansas, for example. Emporia (population: 24,649), like most small towns in rural America, is predominately white but because it’s main industry is a large meatpacking plant it has a significant Hispanic population.
Emporia has one other big major advantage over other small towns in rural Kansas—it is home to Emporia State University with a fall enrollment totaling 5,828 in 2020, including the largest graduate student enrollment in its 157 year history (2,646 graduate students). As a result, Emporia’s population, unlike towns in Kansas—and in the Brookings study—slightly increased from 23,327 in 1970 to 26,760 in 2000; but in the first two decades of this century, it declined and today stands at just under 25,000.
Kansas has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932. No Democratic presidential candidate has won in Kansas since LBJ beat Barry Goldwater there in 1964. Why? Ask most any blue-state Democrat on either coast and they most like don’t have a clue.
Dairyland in Denial
What’s the matter with Kansas is what’s wrong with the rest of the rural America. What’s wrong with the rural America is also what’s wrong with the Rust Belt. Many high-profile journalists, like Democratic leaders and strategists, appear to have no idea why the political map of interior America is so uniformly red or what to do about it. Writing in the New York Times, Will Wilkinson asks one of the right questions:
Why are President-elect Joe Biden’s margins sothin in the states that clinched his victory? And why did the president’s down-ticket enablers flourish in the turbulent, plague-torn conditions they helped bring about?
Again, Wilkinson asks one of the right questions; one of the other “right” questions he fails to ask is, Why did Joe Biden get slam-dunked in Kansas when he beat Trump by more than seven million nationally?
For an answer we can look to Bill Hogseth, for example, a self-described “sixth generation native of Dunn County in rural west-central Wisconsin,” who recently wrote an article for Politicoentitled, “Why Democrats Keep Losing Rural Counties Like Mine.” A longtime political independent, Hogseth writes that after Trump’s election in 20016, “I decided to join a political party for the first time in my life, and by 2019, I became chair of the Dunn County Democratic Party.” He soon discovered “many others here felt the way I did about Trump”:
What I saw in the county as the 2020 election approached might surprise those who assume there’s no such thing as progressive organizing in rural areas. Starting in 2018, participation in the Dunn County Democrats surged. Membership grew by 30 percent. Our ranks of volunteers tripled. Local fundraising expanded. We opened a headquarters early in the election cycle, and laid out clear goals and a timeline, focused on local organizing and engaging new people to encourage them to vote Democratic, both on the presidential ticket and in state Legislature races.
Despite that impressive effort, more Trump voters turned out in the November election than in 2020. And Dunn County was no exception:
Roughly two-thirds of rural voters across the country cast their ballots for Trump. Any election results map you look at offers a bleak visualization of the political divide between rural and urban voters: a sea of red dotted with islands of blue.
The failure to turn rural counties in Wisconsin from red to blue, or at least a shade of purple, was not because local Democrats did not organize, Hogseth believes, but rather “because the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision.” In stark contrast, he is crystal clear. “The signs of desperation,” he says, “are everywhere in communities like mine. A landscape of collapsed barns and crumbling roads. Main Streets with empty storefronts. The distant stare of depression in your neighbor’s eyes. If you live here, it is impossible to ignore the depletion.”
Rural people want to share in America’s prosperity, but the economic dividebetween rural and urban America has widened. Small-business growth has slowed in rural communities since the Great Recession, and it has only worsened with Covid-19. As capital overwhelmingly flows to metro areas, the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations: low-wage retailers like Dollar General or agribusiness firms that have no connection to the community.
Hogseth explains how small farmers in Wisconsin are being squeezed, falling deeper and deeper into debt, forced to get bigger or get out. How the digital divide has disadvantaged 28 percent of rural Wisconsinites who lack high-speed internet. Meanwhile, he writes, “Rural health care is a disaster. At least 176 rural hospitals have closed since 2005.” And then there’s “the rise of agribusiness monopolies” Hogseth says the Obama administration, notably the Federal Trade Commission, did nothing to stop or even slow, and much to accelerate.
Despite losing badly in rural counties, Joe Biden did manage to win Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes by the razor margin of 20,695 votes out of 3 million cast. The Democrats’ dismal showing in rural parts of the state cannot be blamed on Biden. He did not make the mistake Hillary Clinton made in 2016; he did not neglect Wisconsin voters, including rural voters. But, as Hogseth notes,
Trust is earned slowly. It can’t be earned back with campaign slogans or TV ads. When people feel left behind, they look for a way to make sense of what is happening to them. There is a story to be told about rural America, yet Democrats are not telling it…rural people feel our way of life is being sold off. We see the wealth of our sweat and soil being sent away to enrich executives, investors and shareholders.
Wilkinson’s analysis of the reasons for progressives’ poor performance at the polls reflects a disinclination to think outside the box, a mindset typical of liberal Democrats with the kind of tunnel vision the focuses on problems people living in overcrowded cities face—crime, pollution, traffic congestion, racial tensions—to the near-total exclusion of millions of Americans who live in “farm country”.
Is it possible the greatest strength of the Democratic party, it’s big-tent diversity, is also its greatest weakness? That liberal Democrats and progressives have a kind tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing the bigger picture? A political party cannot help the cities if it cannot win control of the Senate, and it cannot win control of the Senate if it cannot flip states in rural America and hold key states in the Rust Belt.
Pity the Farmer—Who’s to Blame?
In autobiographical account of his boyhood growing up in Kentucky and Ohio, J.D. Vance provides readers with an optic into lives going nowhere. Hillbilly Elegy, published on the eve of the 2016 election, quickly shot to the top of the New York Timesbest-seller list. It has sold some three million copies and has now been made into a Netflix movie (same title) starring Glenn Close. The movie has been damned with faint praise but that has only rekindled the controversy surrounding the book, not least because of its freighted subtext at a time when America is sinking ever deeper into a New Gilded Age.
Vance does not blame greed-is-good capitalism. Washington and Wall Street are have not forsaken the working class, nor has rich, urban America turned its back on poor, rural America. In Vance’s view, people who fail to get ahead have nobody to blame but themselves, irrespective of the circumstances into which they were born: “You see,” Vance writes, “I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.”
The Media And the (Missing) Message
Joblessness is always big economic news but the mainstream media regularly gives rural America short shrift in reporting official unemployment figures. The lead story in the Huffposton December 4, 2020, provides a typical example. The headline is catchy: “We’re Thinking About Unemployment All Wrong. Biden’s Team Could Change That”. The reader is told that the Labor Department’s announcement of a slight decline in the jobless rate to 6.7 percent “hides a crisis”:
The Black unemployment rate remains stubbornly high: At 10.3%, it is similar to what the overall jobless rate was at the height of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate for Black men is 11.2%.
If you want to know where the unemployment rate in rural America stands, however, you will have to look elsewhere. Go to ruralhome.org, for example, and discover that,
…rural labor markets were deeply impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis. The April jobs numbers revealed a seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 13.7 percent for counties outside of metropolitan areas…. Across the nation over 2.8 million rural workers were unemployed in April – an astounding increase of 1.8 million jobless in one month.
In today’s global economy, federal farm policy and trade relations are inseparable. Arguably, family farmers have become overly dependent on trade with China (PRC). In the mix of U.S farm products for which China is the major foreign market, soybeans, cotton, and pork top the list. When we read that, “Currently China is sourcing mot of its soybean imports from Brazil,” and it happens to be an election year, it’s either a red flag for political candidates or they and the party they represent are heading for disaster at the polls.
People in rural counties face most of the same problems as low-income urban dwellers do. There is, for example, a “rural renting crisis” that MCNBC and CNN viewers or readers of the New York Timesor Washington Post know nothing about.
A Pew Research survey in Aprilfound that over half of the adult population (53%) believes the internet has been personally essential during the pandemic, while a mere 13% demurred. National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) economists note:
The recent increased reliance on the internet, and the additional stress placed on existing networks, will be particularly challenging for rural America, where at least a quarter of the population still lacks access to robust and reliable broadband.61 Rural areas are already underserved by the medical system and have higher poverty rates on average. With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a greater dependence on virtual health care, distance learning and teleworking, businesses and individuals in rural areas without internet access will struggle disproportionately, leading to negative implications for the rural economy.
When FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act into law as part of the New Deal in 1935, it was the beginning of a program that transformed life in rural America. In the mid-1930s, nearly 90 percent of farms lacked electric power because the cost of building the grid (power lines) was prohibitive. The REA provided low-interest loans to Rural Electric Cooperatives. In so doing, it kick-started a program that brought electric service to nearly 80 percent of U.S. farms by 1950. “Since then, generations have heard the stories about ‘the night the lights came on….’”
Although it was not possible to deliver electricity to every farm, what the REA did bring to farm families in the depths of the Depression was instant hope. The rise and significant role of cooperatives in U.S. economic history is a true success story. If you’ve ever wondered why the same Republicans who extol self-reliance and “greed is good” individualism at every turn do not point to the cooperative movement, along with a variety of agricultures subsidies totaling $28 billion in 2019, as proof that farmers are “socialists” it’s because today’s GOP views the farm vote as vital to winning elections, full stop. According to NPR’s Dan Charles,
In 2019, the federal government delivered an extraordinary financial aid package to America's farmers. Farm subsidies jumped to their highest level in 14 years, most of them paid out without any action by Congress.
The money flowed to farmers like Robert Henry. When I visited in early July, many of his fields near New Madrid, Mo., had been flooded for months, preventing him from working in them. The soybeans that he did manage to grow had fallen in value; China wasn't buying them, in retaliation for the Trump administration's tariffs.
“’Trump money’ is what we call it,” Henry said. “It helped a lot. And it’s my understanding, they’re going to do it again.”
This massive infusion of federal dollars was Trump’s way of sticking it to Beijing without losing the support of farmers like Henry in Missouri and Kansas and the rest of in Middle America. It’s an prime example of old-fashioned power politics and, face it, Mitch McConnell and Trump-era Republicans are very good at playing Machiavellian games—much better than Democrats.
The aid package, by the way, was created out of thin air—the USDA said an old law authorized the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to spend the money. Oh, the irony! The CCC was established in 1933 when FDR and the Democrats were launching the New Deal in responsive to the Great Depression. The irony is matched by the cold-eyed cynicism. Read on…
The Farm Crisis: A Red State of Being?
Nowhere is the cynicism of the Republican power elite more evident than in a farm policy that serves corporate interests and super-rich CEOs. The farm crisis is not a “cyclical problem”—it is a state of being forever in the red, the fear of being one bad harvest from going under. Being or fearing being in the red. It is also explains how “the five or six huge agribusiness conglomerates that buy raw materials from farmers and process and package them for export of for sale in grocery stores” came to be prime examples of what Karl Marx called “monopoly capitalism”—the big fish that kills or eats all the smaller fish. Here, for example, is Sonny Perdue, the man Trump made Secretary of Agriculture at a town hall in Wisconsin:
“In America, the big get bigger, and the small will go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America for any small business we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
Dairy farmer named Jerry Volenecwasn’t surprised at Perdue remark: “I walked in there knowing that’s how they felt [he said] referring to the Trump Administration. The part that was unnerving to me was that he said it to our faces. They’re not trying to hide it anymore. They’re telling us flat out: You’re not important.”
Note to farmers and ranchers: Republicans like Perdue do not care about you. They do not care if you lose the farm or how many generations have farmed the same land. They do not care if you are forced to give up your way of life. For them, it’s not about a way of life, it about wealth and power, full stop.
Here’sThomas Frank’s take on the “blight”spreading across rural America:
The culprit is the conservatives’ beloved free-market capitalism, a system that, at its most unrestrained, has little use for small-town merchants or the agricultural system that supported the small towns in the first place. Deregulated capitalism is what has allowed Wal-Mart to crush the local businesses across Kansas and, even more important, what has driven agriculture, the states raison d’être, to a state of near collapse.
Farmers, Frank explains, are caught in an “overproduction trap”:
Farming is a field uniquely unsuited to the freewheeling whirl of the open market. There are millions of farmers, and the are naturally disorganized… Not only are they easily victimized by powerful middlemen (as they were by the railroads in the Populists’ day), but [in economic distress] farmers do not have the option of cutting back production, as every other industry does. Instead, each [farmer] works harder, competes better, becomes more efficient, [and produces more, which] makes the glut even worse and pushes the prices still lower.
Thomas Frankwas not the first Kansan to ask the question, What’s the Matter with Kansas?That distinction belongs to William Allen White, the iconic journalist, muckraker, friend of Teddy Roosevelt, and editor of The Emporia Gazette, a daily newspaper he bought for $3,000 in 1895.
The problems of rural Kansas are not identical to those of the Rust, of Kentucky or Ohio. But to understand the problem of the vanishing voter in these states, Democratic leaders and strategists will first have to come terms with the grim realities of lives lived on the margin, of laid-off factory workers and dying farm communities from Appalachia and the Upper Great Plains, from Colorado’s western slope to the northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana Wyoming, and Idaho.
High Stakes And Red States: Democracy Or Donald Trump?
There’s a lot the matter with the whole country when 47% of the participants in the 2020 election—over 74 million voters—cast a ballot in favor of a sitting president who is clearly a monstrously flawed human being. Who has brazenly violated the emoluments clause and abused the unparalleled power of his office to enrich himself. Who has done great damage to the national interest, weakening our ties with alliance partners and wrecking our America’s image in the world.
Even so, what are we and the rest of the world to think when a malevolent lame duck president refuses to concede that he lost the election, engages in openly seditious acts, and, despite all, remains popular in rural America? Can people who willingly participate in Trump’s populist personality-cult be condemned as evil? Are they all hopelessly ignorant?
Liberal Democrats too often fail to understand that at the level of micro-politics, voting often comes down to gut feelings, rather than logic or self-interest.One fascinating studythat seeks to explain the oddly manic behavior of people who show up at Trump rallies (Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”) is elegant, simple, and compelling: they are fed up with a society that has left them behind, where people who were once behind them in the line are jumping ahead. Maybe even jumping the line.
Which brings us to another kind of line—the bottom line: If the nightmare of a resurrected Trump is to be avoided, liberals and progressives, Democrats and do-gooders of every description need to understand that Kansas matters. And not just Kansas. All of rural America matters.