Jane Fleming Kleeb, who just assumed the presidency of the Nebraska Democratic Party wrote last week on Medium, under the headline, "Let's Get Rural: Middle America Wants Less Establishment, More Populism." Kleeb calls "rural America, a place that Democrats have largely ignored or forgotten," even as she reminds us that Nebraska was the birthplace of the modern Democratic Party. Kleeb continues:
While the middle of the country looks very red on all the electoral maps, we are fighters here on the prairie. We look to our neighbors to help get cattle back when a fence breaks or pick up our kids at daycare if we are running late. Our sense of community runs deep. We hate Big Corporations. Water is cherished. Families have a tradition of hunting. And while cliché for some at this point, reality is many rural voters simply do not trust Democrats will protect Second Amendment rights and yearn for stiffer backbones when standing up against the establishment.She also shares the story of Randy Thompson, a cattle auctioneer and pipeline opponent whom she got to know as executive director of Bold Nebraska, which helped to fend off the Keystone XL pipeline. Randy is quoted at length in the story, as representing what many rural Nebraskans are thinking and saying:
People are scared to death that Democrats want to take away their guns, and personally I thought Hillary did a very poor job of laying out her position on the 2nd Amendment, in fact I have always thought most Democrats have failed to make a clear and precise case on guns and gun control. People were absolutely convinced that Obama was going to take their guns and many people I talked to thought Hillary would do the same.Kleeb observes that "what establishment types don't get is in rural America, we deeply believe when you stand up and fight, you win." I love that depiction of rural America as optimistic, though I don't know that it is entirely consistent with my experience.
Out of Eastern Washington--also a very red blob on the election map,--comes this story from David Kroman, published in late November. The dateline for Kroman's story (he writes for Crosscut.com) is Ritzville, county seat of Adams County, one of the poorest in Washington State. Trump carried 25 of the state's 26 least prosperous counties. (The one he lost was Pullman, home of a Washington State University campus). In Ritzville, Trump won 77% of the vote, while his victory in Adams County was tempered by Othello, about 50 miles to the south, which has a large Latino population. Kroman describes the place:
Beyond where the land flattens out and the trees disappear, past the wind turbines along the Columbia River Gorge, the town is one of a relative few in the sagebrush desert and wheat.
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Drive in this country at the right hour and the radio turns to talk of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Benghazi, even the baseless fear of a “Christian genocide.” One host parrots a claim made by Trump himself — that had he tried, he could have won the popular vote, too.
Ritzville proper is something of a time capsule from the ’50s. Even the names of the throwback storefronts hint at this — Memories Diner, the Ritzville Pastime Bar and Grill. It’s also got a Starbucks closer to the highway and the people of Ritzville are proud to tell you it’s are among the most successful in the state — thanks to truck drivers and travelers making one last stop before the final push to Seattle.
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This, supposedly, is the place government has forgotten — the home of the poor, rural, white masses that flipped the national electoral map for Trump. While cities flourish, the story goes, agrarian backwaters like Ritzville have fallen off of the map for public officials. Frustrated, residents of towns like this turned to Trump, casting a vote for change, even if it came from a man further from these parts of the world than any candidate in history.
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But the people I spoke to in Ritzville and nearby Lind don’t go right to economic hardship when asked why they voted for our new President-elect. They meander toward other things like refugees and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and, yes, the “rioters” in Seattle before arriving at economic anxiety, if they ever get there at all. Many out here are doing just fine.This is an interesting characterization--that last line--not least because it arguably contradicts the poverty data he reports elsewhere in the piece. On the other hand, as suggested below in relation to farm subsidies, it may instead just be a commentary on income inequality--even within this community.
Among many others, Kroman interviewed the woman who has been the city clerk-treasurer since 2009, Kris Robbins, a woman raised Republican, but/and who Kroman describes as "nuanced, wonky and empathetic." She acknowledges that a lot of the town's business comes from those passing through, and that the downtown merchants are suffering.
Plenty of folks Kroman interviews criticize folks west of the Cascades--including communities of color--for expecting handouts, whereas Ritzville residents see themselves as fiercely independent and self-sufficient. One woman who owns a small business comments, "“You can’t throw a paycheck at someone every time they screw up.” Interestingly, several Ritzville residents interviewed by Kroman simply laugh nervously when the topics of farm subsidies and crop insurance are raised. One comments that it's good for her business because it means farmers always have spending money.
Another theme that Kroman takes up is how local government coffers in places like Adams County are suffering--in part because of a lack of economic diversification and in part because state and federal governments impose regulations that are especially onerous for governing units with such small staffs. (I note that this is also a major complaint in far northern California, where the State of Jefferson secession movement is something of a force).
The lack of economic diversity in rural places is also a major theme of this recent story out of rural West Virginia, and the struggle of rural county and town governments is discussed here.
Kroman doesn't steer clear of issues of religious and racial bias, either, and he observes--similar to a reviewer of Arlie Hochschild 's latest book, Strangers in Their Own Land, that sometimes what these rural folks say isn't perfectly rational. Kroman also observes that the president of the United States does not necessarily have the power to fix what ails them, though their antipathy to outsiders may be ameliorated by a less interventionist EPA.
I commend Kroman on his excellent, nuanced reporting, and Kleeb on her energy and enthusiasm, but this post has gotten too long already, so I'll have to return to some other rural vote stories in a subsequent entry to the blog. Meanwhile, here is a link to a recent story about the University of Wisconsin's Professor Kathy Kramer. She is the political science professor whose work got so much attention after Wisconsin--including rural Wisconsin--voted for Trump. And here is one to a report out of West Virginia. Finally, here's a piece on Trump's (apparently brief) dalliance with appointing Heidi Heitkamp, the Senator from North Dakota, to be Secretary of Agriculture.