Saturday, December 4, 2021

Former Montana Governor Steve Bullock on vying for the rural vote--and the snarky metropolitan response

Bullock's essay appears in today's New York Times under the headline, "I Was the Governor of Montana. My Fellow Democrats, You Need to Get Out of the City More."  Here's an excerpt: 

The core problem is a familiar one — Democrats are out of touch with the needs of the ordinary voter. In 2021, voters watched Congress debate for months the cost of an infrastructure bill while holding a social spending bill hostage. Both measures contain policies that address the challenges Americans across the country face. Yet to anyone outside the Beltway, the infighting and procedural brinkmanship haven’t done a lick to meet their needs at a moment of health challenges, inflation and economic struggles. You had Democrats fighting Democrats, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and desperately needed progress was delayed. It’s no wonder rural voters think Democrats are not focused on helping them.

* * *  

Democrats need to show up, listen, and respect voters in rural America by finding common ground instead of talking down to them. Eliminating student loans isn’t a top-of-mind matter for the two-thirds of Americans lacking a college degree. Being told that climate change is the most critical issue our nation faces rings hollow if you’re struggling to make it to the end of the month. And the most insulting thing is being told what your self-interest should be.

* * *  

We need to frame our policies, not in terms of grand ideological narratives, but around the material concerns of voters. Despite our differences and no matter where we live, we generally all want the same things: a decent job, a safe place to call home, good schools, clean air and water, and the promise of a better life for our kids and grandkids.

For me, that meant talking about Obamacare not as an entitlement, but as a way to save rural hospitals and keep local communities and small businesses afloat. It meant talking about expanding apprenticeships, not just lowering the costs of college.

I didn't think the essay was very controversial, but many reader comments suggest that Bullock was being anti-urban.  For example, he is taken to mean that only rural voters are "ordinary" voters, which may be a fair interpretation of what he wrote.  Still, I don't think it's what Bullock meant.  Given that implication, he is taken to task by various urban dwelling readers in ways that have become common on my Twitter feed and in conversations in my coastal elite world:  Who says rural folks--read as a dog whistle for white folks--are more "ordinary" or, God forbid, more American than urban and suburban voters, often code for voters of color.  One "Times Pick" reader, Patrick from Dallas, wrote:  

Maybe the rural voter needs to live in the city for a year or two.  Maybe the "ordinary voter" is a [sic] urban dweller.  I have personally gotten pretty tired of the "real" America narrative--it's as if the rest of us are fake Americans.  

Other readers looked right past Bullock's admonition not to tell rural voters "what their self-interest should be" and said things like Edward B. Blau of Wisconsin about people who 

vote against their own self interests because of racial grievances, xenophobia, misogyny and being evangelicals.  

Lots of readers mentioned these supposed beliefs and attitudes of rural voters, including "skeptonomist" from Tennessee, who also hinted at the theme of rural folks not knowing what was in their best interests.  

The problem is that Republicans appeal to racism, racial xenophobia, and the secular power of religion, thwarting any material progress.  The tribal instincts thus aroused cause many people to ignore their material needs and even the danger to their own lives from covid.  

A few readers suggest that Bullock must not know what he's talking about because he lost his own bid in 2020 for the Senate seat held by Republican Steve Daines, an election cycle in which Republicans swept the Montana state constitutional offices.  (For what it's worth, I still don't understand how this happened, given Bullock's popularity and track record in Montana, but I suspect Bullock was hurt by the steps he took late in his second term as governor to contain the pandemic).

But the primary gripe among the readers' comments, I think, is that rural voters are undeserving of Democrats' attention or government investments or really even any good thing, e.g., infrastructure investments, because they already have disproportionate power--by design--in the Senate and Electoral College.  Here's Patrick from Dallas again:  

Rural voters are over-represented in Congress and State Legislatures, they receive a disproportionate amount of Federal dollars; they have a disproportionate impact in the Senate and Presidential elections. 

This is an old argument that has become more urgent--far more urgent--in recent years, as a growing number of U.S. presidential candidates have won the popular vote but not Electoral College.  And that disproportionate rural or red state power has urban folks--especially progressive urban ones--furious not just at the Constitution and these historic structures, but at rural voters themselves.  I find that unhelpful, as if rural folks should be punished for the power that they wield--at least when they don't exercise that power in ways that urban voters approve.

In short, the pitting of rural interests against urban interests is unhelpful and, ultimately, counter-productive.  Instead of seeing rural and urban as complementary (rural folks provide food, fiber and so forth ... urban folks provide a lot of other important stuff...), they are seen as combatants in a zero-sum game which, admittedly, the Electoral College and Senate are.  Still, it is surely not a constructive way to approach a constituency the Democrats need if they are to govern at local and state levels, let alone at the federal level.     

In a sense, Bullock was saying, "here's what Democrats need to do to win the rural vote," and many readers--a majority of those who commented--responded with "f*&$ the rural vote."  They don't care what they can do to win rural voters because they don't like and are resentful of rural voters.  They remind me of law students who fight the hypothetical instead of working with the facts they're given.  I'm not saying folks shouldn't be trying to change or eliminate the electoral college, but for now, it's a reality and complaining about it and rural voters isn't going to garner rural votes.  Meanwhile, they're shooting the messenger.  

These readers seem willing to cut their noses off to spite their faces--to keep losing elections--if that is the consequence of clinging to a principle.  And that principle seems to be that it's distasteful to reach out to these (presumptively) bigoted and small-minded voters who don't deserve their solicitude.  

It makes me hope that folks responding to Bullock's essay--like many folks who are universally hateful to rural people and places in my Twitter feed and in my professional world--are not representative of those who are making decisions on behalf of Democrats at all levels of the party's organization.  

Advice from another Montana politician, U.S Senator Jon Tester, on how to cultivate the rural vote is here. You'll find lots of other posts about the rural vote here (nearly 400 posts in 14 years!) 

Post script:  Bullock appeared in this episode of Hacks on Tap in mid December, 2021.  The reason he offered there for his big loss to Steve Daines:  He was unable to counter the Democrats toxic brand in rural America because the pandemic stopped him from showing up to counter that narrative.  

An earlier post about Bullock, when he was a presidential candidate, is here.  


Anonymous said...

why don't you address the substantive plans from folks like Sanders and AOC instead of creating this lazy strawman of ideology/principle?

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Would love to hear more about what you think Sanders and AOC have planned to help rural America and how they can communicate that message to rural folks. I guess I don't understand your question, really, including why this analysis is a "lazy strawman"