At this point in America’s political history, it’s a rare person who hasn’t seen those ubiquitous red and blue maps. Different states show different voting patterns, but there is one element the political maps all have in common: cities with a half-million residents or more are all bright blue, and rural areas are all red.
Suburbs may be turning purple, but not rural America.
A number of political operatives have been counseling Democrats to engage with rural voters, to try to bridge the cultural divide between “cosmopolitan” urbanites and “resentful” rural dwellers. My own response to those entreaties has ranged from tepid to cold–after all, wouldn’t it be a waste of resources better deployed on efforts to turn out the millions who didn’t bother to go to the polls in 2016? Given what I have read about the deep connection between rural voters and the GOP, outreach to those precincts seemed–and still seems–unlikely to change many votes.
George Goehl runs a federation of community-based organizations across the country that bring poor and working-class people together to win economic and racial justice, and he has a warning: when liberals and progressives ignore rural Americans, they clear the way for the White Nationalists who are already there.
This summer I visited a bunch of small towns across the country, and I saw signs that white nationalists are becoming more active. Just drive by the town square in Pittsboro, N.C., at 5 p.m. on any given Saturday and you are likely to seewhite nationalists rallying to protect a Confederate monument.
This weekend, I’ll head back home to southern Indiana, where members of the 3 Percenters, a far-right militia, showed up with guns and knives at the Bloomington Farmers Market earlier this year. The leader of the white supremacist organization American Identity Movement even paid a visit. I’ve been organizing for 20 years in rural communities and have never seen this level of public activity by white supremacist groups.
Goehl’s organization works in both urban and rural communities, and he warns against the assumption that rural minds cannot be changed.
As part of this work, our organizers had over 10,000 conversations with people in small towns across the country over the past year. We spoke with neighbors in Amish country, visited family farms in Iowa and sat on front porches in Appalachia — communities that have experienced hard economic times and went solidly for Donald Trump in 2016.
Although these communities may be fertile ground for the Trump administration and other white nationalist organizations, they are also places where people can come together across race and class to solve the big problems facing everyday people. That starts by recognizing one another’s humanity — and with honest conversations….
For those who have given up on rural communities: Please reconsider. So many of these places need organizing to win improved conditions. Despite the stereotypes, rural people are not static in their political views or in the way they vote. Single white rural women and young rural white people represent two of the greatest leftward swings in the 2018 midterms, moving 17 and 16 points respectively toward Democrats. They played a key role in Democratic wins across the Midwest.
Goehl concedes that a substantial number of rural residents are “as racist as you would expect,” and notes the resurgence of the KKK in rural America. On the other hand, he insists that plenty of rural folks reject efforts to foster racial resentments.
In June of 2018, my organization’s affiliates staged nearly 780 rallies across the country to protest the family separation crisis. Half of the rallies were in counties that voted for Donald Trump. Small towns like Angola, Ind., and Ketchum, Idaho, with populations of 8,000 and 2,700 respectively, were among the communities that came together to support migrant families.
People followed those rallies with rural cookouts, deep in so-called Trump Country, to gather and talk about family and the plight of migrants, and pass the hat to post bond for migrant families.
It’s good to be reminded that no constituency is monolithic. Turning those red expanses blue, however–or even a pale shade of purple–still looks like a very steep climb.