THE LOWDOWN: Dear Democratic Party: Can’t anybody here play this game?
Casey Stengel spent over 50 years in baseball as a player, manager, and colorful raconteur, capping his Hall of Fame career in 1962 as manager of a brand-new major-league ball club, the New York Mets. The start-up team was, in a word, terrible. It lost 120 of its 160 games that first year, the worst pro team since 1899. Exasperated by the players' almost comical ineptness, Stengel threw up his hands: "Can't anybody here play this game?" It's my New Year's wish that the national Democratic Party establishment will quit playing the momentous game of politics as though they're the '62 Mets, muffing easy ground balls, dropping pop-ups, and botching scoring opportunities.
Let's consider the past election season. Democrats have breathed a deep sigh of relief that they only narrowly lost their majority in the US House and (whew!) barely escaped the ignominy of losing the Senate to a covey of screaming right-wing lunatic contenders including Blake Masters (AZ), Don Bolduc (NH), and Herschel Walker (GA). Could'a been a helluva lot worse, argue defensive Dem leaders, trying to assure grassroots activists that We'll get 'em next time.
Oh? Not with the same ol' game plan of playing not to lose and running as the party of safe corporate moderates--mostly good on social issues, but pathetically meek-to-weak on fighting the moneyed profiteers that routinely run roughshod over workaday families and our environment. Yes, 2022 could have been worse, but--hello!--it could have been much, much better.
Start with a basic: GET THE HELL OUT OF WASHINGTON! Not just organizationally, but politically, ideologically ... attitudinally. The once-proud Party of the People has become (in the public mind and in fact) a corporate-serving Washington party of aloof, well-off insiders. Today's entrenched Democratic establishment of high-dollar donors, lobbyists, consultants, and old-line politicos regularly opposes The People, especially you "outsider" democratic champions who dare challenge the plutocratic status quo. The party's Washington club has become particularly aggressive in mounting negative campaigns against strong progressive Democrats running for Congress and other top offices. The insiders' electoral strategy is to recruit and finance candidates in their own image--urban, urbane professionals who try to tiptoe into office with bland, middle-of-the-road policies of pretend reform that preserve all the abusive power of the existing system.
Obviously, this is totally tone-deaf and blind to the surging political anger that working-class Americans are currently expressing (in words, direct actions, and ballot initiatives) against corporate, financial, and governmental elites these days. For these voters, status quo is Latin for "The mess we're in." Yet, the Party honchos keep stiffing the people, then wondering why formerly reliable Democrats are either shopping for other brands or simply giving up altogether on voting as a channel of change.
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But in the past year or so, the party's strategic thinkers have formulated a plan for these alienated constituents. It's called "Adios."
Yes, believe it or not, they've actually decided that the smart thing to do is just kiss-off entire swaths of the country--especially the farm counties and factory towns of rural America. Forget the "Give 'em hell" scrappy spirit of Harry Truman, these geniuses are surrendering those millions of voters without a fight, labeling them a lost cause, unworthy of expending political money and effort. Instead, the party has bet the whole game on increasing turnout among true-blue Democrats in city and metro precincts, while hoping to skim off enough independents and moderate Republicans to squeak out some wins. That's not a strategy, it's:
a gutless abdication
an abandonment of the progressive-minded voters who exist in even the reddest areas
a surrender of the public debate in those areas to GOP extremists and screwballs
an irresponsible failure to do something politically momentous: Build a future Party of the People, one with the substance and guts to forge a progressive governing majority with New Deal possibilities.
Moreover, this Adios tactic is causing losses in statewide and district races the party should be winning.
Despite today's emphasis on high-tech, low-touch campaigning via Zoom, cell phones, email, TikTok, instant polls, robocalls, etc., being there still matters most. That means constant in-person connections with people at backyard barbeques, ball games, places of worship, community events, bars, farmer's markets, festivals ... and, well, just showing up where the people live. This is especially true for progressive efforts to build grassroots trust, defeat lies, and develop long-term political relationships with voters. And it's truer yet in smaller communities where word-of-mouth support is invaluable.
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A party or campaign that only passes through town with a get-out-the-vote crew in the last month of an election does not count as being there. People need to feel that the party is a living presence --with ears as well as a mouth--committed to being a helpful participant in the whole of community life.
For a startling picture of the political damage caused by the Democratic establishment's disinvestment in rural America, look at a color-coded map of Beto O'Rourke's results in the 254 counties of Texas. O'Rourke ran for governor as a well-funded, progressive-minded Democrat challenging a corrupt, run-of-the-mill right-wing incumbent. Yet he lost by 11 points, winning only 19 of those counties (the big metro areas of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso, plus the majority-Latino counties along the Rio Grande). Everywhere else on the map-- 235 counties!--is a red blur.
To his credit, O'Rourke was an indefatigable campaigner, going to every single county, yet he was wiped out. Why? Too liberal, sniff corporate Democrats, who also dismissed rural voters en masse as deplorable Trumpers. But the party establishment studiously avoids any mention that it has a primary responsibility for the 235-county loss, having failed, for more than a decade, to maintain, much less expand, the Democratic organization in those counties. So Beto showed up--but he was largely out there on his own, with no competitive political infrastructure in place to amplify his message and organize local follow-up to his visits. In Texas:
Most rural counties don't even have a storefront or other HQ office for Democratic Party visibility, activities, and signs of life, nor do local progressives get even basic party-building resources and attention from national and state hierarchies.
In 57 rural counties, the key party position of Democratic chair is vacant, so there's no local leader to fly the party flag, speak to media and civic groups, rally support, and be a continuing organizing presence.
Worse, of the 9,598 local voting precincts, 6,705 have no active Democratic committee, no identifiable community members to provide information and show locals how to get involved.
It's hard to score if you don't put a team on the field! And the absence of a team with group knowledge, campaign capabilities, and everyday outreach to new supporters and activists means that the next crop of candidates who venture into the Great Red Schmear must, like Beto, try to forge their own rural Democratic infrastructure on the run. That's next to impossible, so good candidates lose those counties, local people steadily lose political faith, and democracy loses its vibrancy, suffocated by one-party extremism.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
A tangible indicator of the Democratic Party’s withdrawal from the rural landscape is that local party supporters in many states literally can’t even get an allotment of yard signs for distribution. GOP banners for statewide candidates crop up like weeds in many small towns and along country roads, but there’s often no visible trace of Democrats contesting for the area’s votes. As explained recently by George Goehl, one of America’s best progressive thinkers and grassroots organizers, these simple, inexpensive symbols are important: “Each sign that someone puts in their yard is a committed vote. In many rural counties, you are taking a social if not physical risk in putting up a pro-Democrat sign. Once you’ve made this choice, you are definitely going to show up and vote. But the larger value is that these signs show other Democrats that they are not alone and there is a fighting chance.”
Why rural matters
If the goal is for Democrats to win states like Texas, they can't keep absorbing two-to-one shellackings in so many small town and farmland precincts. The good news is that such losses are unnatural and unnecessary. The bad news is that the rural monochrome will inevitably repeat--and even get worse--if the party keeps turning its back on 24% of the US electorate. Consider, then, two important reasons to energize and mobilize the progressives/mavericks/mad-as-hellers who live in the counties now written off wholesale:
1. Democrats don't have to get a majority in rural, red areas. Just cutting their losses by a very few percentage points, would add up to margins of victory in statewide races for senate, governorship, etc. Even entrenched right-wing bastions harbor potential blue votes, yet the party hierarchy is not organizing or funding turnout campaigns there, and distant party officials crush local spirit by effectively telling grassroots advocates: You don't matter.
But they do matter, crucially! The Rural Democracy Initiative reports that several 2022 campaigns that openly defied the party strategy of ignoring rural areas turned small gains into vital Democratic victories. For example, prior to running for US Senate in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman had spent months visiting the state's many small communities, getting to know the people and working with them on their various needs. He established a personal link and some level of trust that Democrats generally didn't have. Then, as a candidate, he came back and actively campaigned for support. As a result, even though he didn't win the red counties, he increased the Democratic share there over Biden's 2020 run from 26% to 29%. Although the increase looks small, the impact was huge: By "showing up" in rural counties that the national party says to abandon, Fetterman pulled in more than 110,000 extra votes.
2. The Dem's cognoscenti are casting aside reddish counties that are outright winnable. Even though large numbers of eligible voters there have given up on Democrats, a majority still holds fundamentally progressive values of fairness and justice, and they don't identify at all with the plutocratic elitism, bossism, and kookism at the core of today's Republicanism. Indeed, they advocate public policies and priorities that would align them perfectly with an aggressive, on-your-side Democratic Party. So come on, Dems, rather than slink away from these people, turn and fight for them--without overthinking the assumption by faraway political consultants that the region is "conservative" or that progressives are "unelectable." Instead, maybe heed baseball great, Ted Williams, who urged players: "If you don't think too good, don't think too much."
Here's a baseline reality that ought to cause Democrats to start swinging for the fences: 70% of rural people are working class. This percentage is growing rapidly because of the large influx of remote workers now moving out of cities into more affordable rural towns--a migration that is especially strong among Black families. Moreover, while family farmers are classified as independent entrepreneurs and presumed conservative, most will confide that they, too, are cogs in a top-down corporate economy, constantly overcharged by seed, tractor, fuel, and other supply monopsonies, then underpaid by monopolistic food giants that set the prices for their crops.
Also, rural America is not the white monolith that political pundits portray it to be: Nearly all of America's 100 majority-Black counties are rural; millions of Latino people have moved to rural counties since 2000 (and they're now the fastest growing ethnic group in the countryside); and don't forget the rising political importance of Native peoples, more than half of whom are in rural or small town areas.
This is not a population that is squeamish about confronting the moneyed powers, about fighting repressive Republican authoritarianism, or about embracing laws and programs that help workaday people get a fair shake. Economic inequality is not a theory out here--it's personal experience, and the term "1-percenter" to refer to the entitled rich is a common expletive. Yet, viewing the hinter- land from their lofty Washington perch, party consultants have proclaimed that "rurals" might once have been FDR Dems, but now they've indelibly turned into blood-red Republican Trumpers, opposed to all things Democratic, from candidates to policies.
Uh ... no. Even in states that are now largely run by Republicans, rural voters want aggressively progressive democratic reforms:
Two of the biggest issues in the farm country of the Plains, upper Midwest, and South are stopping destructive pipeline profiteers and breaking up the monopoly power of industrial meat factories that routinely exploit workers, farmers, and the environment.
DailyYonder.com, an investigative journal focused on rural affairs, reports that a whopping 81% of rural voters favor closing corporate tax loopholes and requiring corporate giants with more than $1 billion in profit to pay a minimum 15% tax.
By far the hottest issues across rural America are not the Republican bugaboos of undocumented immigrants or banning books about institutional racism and gender diversity, but drug price gouging, affordable housing, lack of broadband service, "free-trade" frauds, hospital closings, climate change, the opioid epidemic, the takeover of farmland by Wall Street speculators, Medicaid expansion, the disappearance of fair-wage jobs, water pollution, ever-widening poverty and inequality ... and other straight up populist issues.
Democrats are not losing rural elections because their ideas are radical or too anti-establishment, but specifically because party leaders are too timid and unwilling to fight for those ideas (and too often maneuvering behind the scenes to kill them). People see this. Longtime activist Matt Hildreth, who heads RuralOrganizing.org, says the result of the hypocrisy is inevitable: "The number one question that we lose rural voters on is 'Are Democrats fighting for you?'"
Are the Democrats going to be a national party, seeking a governing majority that unifies the full progressive potential of America's diverse people around our ideals of equal opportunity for all? Or not?
Yes, the party must mobilize and increase the base of tried-and-true Dems, for their activism, leadership, and votes are the bedrock of the party's success. But that focus does not require any compromise of party principles, nor does it limit reaching beyond that support to bring home alienated voters who both hold deep democratic values and embrace bold Democratic policies. To the contrary, such outreach strengthens the party's numbers and its political credibility as an unflinching champion of "little-d" democratic progress.
Also, getting there is doable, for a nucleus of tenacious, gutsy, smart, passionate, energetic, and optimistic grassroots progressives abides in these counties. There might only be two of them in a particular town, or they might constitute a latent majority, but however many, they represent potent potential, eager to battle anti-democracy elites and organize locally for policies and candidates advancing the workaday majority.
Rather than keep paying $500-an-hour fees to its flock of old-line Washington consultants, the national party apparatus should be sending $500-a-month to each of these scrappy groups of rural Democrats. With even the slightest wherewithal and long overdue moral support, they will build a grassroots election infrastructure that, in conjunction with metro Democrats, can actually produce a government worthy of the American people's progressive aspirations.
That's a party worth fighting for.
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RuralOrganizing.org aims to “rebuild a rural America that is empowered, thriving, and equitable.” Its site offers resources about running campaigns, fighting misinformation, how to engage rural voters, and more. Sign up for its “Rural News Clips” to discover stories that you might otherwise miss. ruralorganizing.org
Rural Democracy Initiative “supports rural people working to transform their lives and communities in service of shared prosperity and democracy.” Non-partisan, its Heartland Fund and Rural Victory Fund made grants totaling $10.2 million in 2021 to build year-round progressive power in rural and small-town communities. ruraldemocracyinitiative.org
We *love* The Daily Yonder. For original reporting about rural America – its culture, food, tech, trials, triumphs and more – nothing beats the Yonder. Sign up for their email newsletters to keep yourself in touch. Important note: This news isn’t just for small-towners. All of us working for an inclusive multi-racial democracy need to pay attention to the issues of rural America. dailyyonder.com
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