Opinion: A dirt road revival

Published: 7/26/2022 6:03:10 AM
Modified: 7/26/2022 6:00:04 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Anyone concerned about the future of the Democratic Party has to be concerned about how poorly the party has performed in rural America over the last few election cycles. On TV, I remember looking at the red and blue counties of America after 2016 and 2020. There are blue coastlines and blue pockets in a largely red sea.

How did it come to be that Democrats are getting politically wiped out in so many rural places? I have seen different statistical explanations. One in Politico said two-thirds of rural voters chose Trump. Another said the Democrats lost 90% of rural counties. Trump actually did better with rural voters in 2020 than 2016. Whatever the numbers actually are, there is a basis for Democrats to be very worried.

It hasn’t always been like this. The red trend in rural America has accelerated over the last decade. Two young Democrats, Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward, who co-authored the new book, Dirt Road Revival, take up the Democrat/rural voter question. And they do not speak as academics. In 2018, Maxmin and her campaign manager Woodward flipped a state representative seat in a heavily red district in Maine. Then in 2020, they flipped a state senate seat running against the Maine Republican Senate minority leader.

Maxmin and Woodward argue that the Democrats have largely ignored rural America, sending the message that ‘you don’t matter.’ They say Democrats stopped trying to persuade people who disagreed with them, focusing on running up big margins in urban and suburban areas.

The two young activists point to a long-standing pattern of neglect. In their 2020 campaign, they describe how the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee told them it didn’t believe in talking to Republicans. Maxmin and Woodward recognized this as bad politics. They committed to reaching out much more to independent and Republican voters. Their strategy paid off.

Our octogenarian Democratic Party leadership is seriously out of touch. The party keeps losing in rural America but there is incomprehension in the face of the repeated losses. You might think the extent of the losses would lead to some soul-searching. Just the margin of the losses matter.

Many people in rural America see the Democratic Party leadership as elitist and not speaking to their needs. That is also true of the Republican Party leadership but Democrats have held themselves out as fighting for working people.

Democrats need to be self-critical. In the not-so-distant past, our leaders have called rank and file voters “deplorables” or “clinging to guns and religion.” It was our party leadership under Bill Clinton that presided over Wall Street deregulation, disastrous trade policies, continued de-industrialization of America, and mass incarceration. Neither party has clean hands.

Maxmin and Woodward show a different way forward. They lay out a how-to roadmap for organizing rural America. Maxmin emphasized door-to-door canvassing and the personal touch. She and Woodward dispensed with expensive party campaign consultants and conventional election literature, creating their own original signs and literature.

She focused more on listening than offering solutions. She engaged people in hearing what was on their minds. She was always respectful of people and their views even when she disagreed. She focused on values, not party. Maxmin also ran a 100% positive campaign. She refused to slime her rivals.

During the COVID lockdown in 2020, Maxmin and Woodward organized socially distanced phone banks oriented to relief for seniors who needed help. The campaign connected a network of volunteer drivers to pick up prescriptions for neighbors, deliver groceries, drop off toilet paper or find large-print books for people with eyesight problems who could not access public libraries which were closed. Their campaign was more of a social movement than traditional politics.

Campaigns of all political stripes strive for authenticity. That is why you see candidates shooting guns, wearing cowboy or baseball hats, or riding a horse. Even Trump who looks like he sleeps in a suit wears a baseball hat. Maxmin was straightforward as a progressive Democrat. She never hid her views.

In her book, she describes a conversation with a guy who opposed Medicaid expansion in Maine. At first he had told her to get off his property but she persisted in asking him for his perspective. He explained that he had grown up without electricity or running water. He had worked hard to build a life, including buying his own health care. Maxmin thanked him for explaining. She said her support of Medicaid was not to take anything away from his hard work. It was about supporting others who remained in need. At the end of the conversation, the guy said he would vote for her.

Maxmin and Woodward point out the harm of negative stereotypes. There are many Democrats who will, out of frustration, dismiss people as “Trumpers,” “backwards,” or “racist.” While there are no doubt many Republicans who will never be won over, that is not true for many others. Finding areas of agreement is possible but the Democrats have to try.

Working people across America have been screwed. Many do not bother to vote, feeling it makes no difference. When Biden ran against Trump he talked about returning things back to some type of normalcy, the way they were before Trump. That view is wrong.

Things are in a far worse and more precarious place than the ancient Democratic leaders seem to realize. Whether it is the climate emergency or the fascist threat to democracy, Democrats must be the Big Change party, recognizing the gravity of our present moment.

As Maxmin and Woodward explain, Democrats have failed to act on an understanding of the class structure of rural America. Too often they have not fought for rural low-income or working people who all have the same needs everywhere. Rural families want to close the wealth gap with better incomes. They want their kids to have opportunities. They need broadband, affordable housing, affordable education, student loan debt relief, and universal health care.

But the Democrats have been shrinking violets. They will come up with $40 billion for Ukraine but American restoration remains off the table.

The future of the Democratic Party lies with outstanding young people like Maxmin and Woodward, not with corporate lobbyists tied to Wall Street. The young activists are right that the party needs to reinvent itself so that we could actually hope to re-take some state legislatures.

The Democrats have an abysmal record at the state level. In 1978, Democrats controlled both chambers in 31 state legislatures. By 2017, that number was down to 13. During Obama’s presidency Democrats lost almost 1,000 seats in legislatures. We need to look at that and not accept it.

In rural America, a dirt road revival is the best hope for fighting the Republican authoritarians. The Republicans have utterly debased themselves but the Democrats have only weakly shown themselves worthy. The stakes could not be much higher.




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