Democrats And The Plight Of Rural America

Forget about making America great again, it’s doing pretty damned good.

The American economy is back, baby! With a record 5.2 percent increase in median household income, the Census Bureau data is clear. Break out the bubbly. Organize the ticker tape parade. 

According to the ‘Washington Post’, “Middle-class Americans and the poor in 2015 enjoyed their best year of economic improvement in decades … Incomes increased across racial and ethnic groups as well as for both men and women. The gender pay gap narrowed to a record low, with women working full-time earning 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.” 

Forget about making America great again, it’s doing pretty damned good. Right?

Yes.

But not everyone is winning, and that is one of several reasons why Donald Trump is more than just a fringe fad.

All of the income gains, reported the Post, “effectively came in cities and suburbs, while none of them flowed to rural areas — continuing a trend of economic activity concentrating more and more in a few large metropolitan regions.” In fact, non-metropolitan areas actually saw their incomes decline two percent over the last year.

People outside of urban centers feel like they are being left behind, and from their perspective, they aren’t necessarily wrong. The Republican Party, at war with itself, has failed to lay out ambitious economic policies. The Democratic Party rarely depends on votes from these areas, so has spent little time in recent years proposing sufficiently ambitious economic policies to deliver support to those whose anxiety negatively impacts their views of America’s greatness. 

As Republicans reluctantly line up behind the political aberration that is Donald Trump, this could be a transformative opportunity for Democrats, who are temporarily the only major party capable of offering and acting on serious ideas and serious goals.

Rural Americans—like those Americans who live in manufacturing centers on the downturn—don’t trust that the economy won’t crater again. Nor do they trust the government to look after their interests after watching employers large and small fail or abandon them in recent decades. They “do often feel left out of a political system where candidates tend to focus on the densely populated counties and cities in a handful of swing states,” according to former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

The Clinton campaign could address both concerns simultaneously and lay the groundwork for a Democratic revival in rural America if it were to do the bold and unexpected: propose a major rural revitalization project—a geographic New Deal—that brings to bear the power and resources of the federal government to inject new energy and new money into rural counties while also bridging the growing divide between urban and rural cultures. Ideas for how to revitalize rural America have been suggested by the Obama Administration, but not acted on in a way that can radically transform perception and reality.

Would any such proposal make it through Congress? Likely not. But few pieces of legislation go anywhere these days. A proposal of this magnitude—targeted not at Democratic voters but those most dissatisfied with the Democratic Party—would announce that liberal politicians understood that economic inequality is not dictated only by gender and race, and that they still believe in an America where all people matter in the eyes of the federal government, no matter who they vote for.

A revitalization campaign for rural America would also send a powerful message that the scope and scale of the contemporary federal government can be a boon for all Americans, and would begin to restore trust in national institutions.

If Democrats can seize the initiative by offering up ambitious proposals that appeal to the anxieties and pocketbooks of rural Americans, as well as those in manufacturing communities that have failed to transform in the face of globalization, they could begin to reshape the political landscape and reestablish faith in the federal government for those who live sparsely scattered across three-quarters of America. That would be a victory—and votes—worth fighting for. 

Brian Wagner is a Truman National Security Project partner. All opinions are his own.

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