Reconnecting With Rural America

The importance of speaking to and about rural America remains critically important to the future of the Democratic Party and of Democratic candidates. A failure to do so will continue the losses the party and its candidates have sustained over the last 15 years.

…During that same period, our national party has lost the United States House of Representatives, the United States Senate, a majority of governorships, state legislative chambers, and the presidency. I contend that many of these losses would have been avoided had the party and our candidates truly shown up in rural areas, talked to and about the contributions of rural America to the rest of the country, and outlined a real, well-thought-out plan to rebuild and revive the rural economy.

It is bad enough that we didn’t show up, didn’t talk up the contributions of rural Americans, and didn’t lay out a positive vision for real economic change in rural areas, but we also failed to counteract the negative narrative about government that seeped into those rural areas. 

…If the Democratic Party is the party of effective government, we should say so and make the case to all Americans that government plays a positive role in our country. ….Democrats should make a consistent effort to communicate to rural Americans using local and regional media outlets, those that people in rural areas read and listen to every day to find out what is happening in their part of the world.

…Our elected officials and our candidates also have to show up in rural areas in order to win. And when they do, they need to talk up, not down, to rural Americans. Acknowledging the contributions rural America makes to the rest of the country is a good place to start. Recognizing their frustrations and concerns, as well as their hopes and dreams, is an important part of an effective and winning message.

…The number of people addicted to, or misusing, opioids is staggering. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die every day after overdosing on opioids.

Rural America has been devastated by this epidemic. To begin with, rural Americans have limited access to health care generally, but this is even more acute with the services needed to combat addictions. More than 85 percent of the 1669 federally designated mental health professional shortage areas are in rural areas. 

….To combat this scourge in the short term will require physicians trained to use opioids only in very limited circumstances and to prescribe non-addictive pain treatment in most cases. Drug companies need to provide Naloxone in more convenient and easier-to-administer ways while keeping costs down. MAT and full counseling services need to be more accessible to rural Americans. And, we all need to recognize that addiction is a disease just like cancer or diabetes so we can help remove the stigma attached to addiction disorders. Removing this stigma will help make it easier for those in need of help to seek it. What we don’t need is exactly what the Trump Administration is touting: more law enforcement, harsher penalties, and longer jail sentences.

Over the long haul, the most successful “cure” to the opioid epidemic will be a rebuilt and revived rural economy. If people in rural areas believe, with good reason, that their tomorrow will be better than their today, we will see a sharp decline in today’s unacceptably high levels of lives lost to despair.

…For far too long, we have allowed the rural economy to be an “extraction” economy where everything from crops to coal are being taken from rural areas and transported somewhere else where value is added and opportunity is created. To succeed in rural areas, Democrats also need to offer a “sustainable” alternative to the extraction economy of the past. If not, that extraction economy will continue to slowly bleed rural America of its natural resources and its young people.

…A Democratic-promoted sustainable economy based on partnerships must sustain rural families, communities, and natural resources in a manner consistent with the values and culture of rural places.

…Democrats may find fault with production agriculture, since they often believe it to denote only large-scale, commercial-size operations or “factory farms.” But that is not how it is understood in the countryside, where the history and culture are rooted in production agriculture defined as family farms. Indeed, most large scale commercial-size operations are owned and operated by families.

…In rural America, trade agreements are viewed positively by most in the agricultural sector. Without robust exports, we would have many fewer farm families because exports help to stabilize prices in most major commodities.

…A key to building a sustainable rural economy is supporting and building local and regional markets where small-sized operations not only survive, but thrive.

Democrats must lead the effort to adequately build more local and regional markets and the smaller-scale operations that need them. Democrats must advocate for more money for micro-loans to help beginning farmers get started. Democrats must also advocate for tailored risk-management tools that enable small-sized operations to survive during challenging times. Democrats must demand more conservation resources targeted to small operations served by a local or regional market. Democrats must partner with private investment firms to finance more food hubs where locally produced goods can be aggregated and sold to large-scale purchasers. Democrats must devise tax and regulatory incentives designed to improve opportunities for the success of local and regional markets.

…One immediate benefit from more investment in conservation will be increased opportunities for outdoor recreation. Conservation improves landscape and increases habitat, which increases hunting, fishing, biking, canoeing, and kayaking. Outdoor recreation is a big business—over a $600 billion industry today —and a rural job creator, with many of the 6 million employed by the industry living in rural places.

… The sustainable approach to rural job creation should, in the future, depend more on bio-based inputs in manufacturing. The use of plants, crops, and animal waste to produce a wide variety of materials, chemicals, fabrics, fibers, fuel, and energy can bring sustainable manufacturing back to rural America. The job-creation possibilities for rural America through a sustainable approach are truly endless.

…A foundation of production agriculture and exports, local and regional food systems, ecosystem markets, and bio-based manufacturing can help build an economy that truly works in rural areas. And advocating and supporting such government action that helps create this kind of economy would give Democrats a successful progressive message for reaching rural areas. 

…To help people you have to govern, to govern you have to win elections, and to win elections you have to appeal broadly. For Democrats, that means making a concerted effort to offer a more comprehensive, progressive vision to rural Americans.

Reconnecting With Rural America : Democracy Journal

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