Cepeda column: Democrats need to start listening to rural America
BRODHEAD, Wisc. — This week I’ve tooled around the south-central Wisconsin towns of Orfordville, Monroe, Footville and Oregon, shopping at the Piggly Wiggly and Blain’s Farm and Fleet, eating burgers at the North Side Pub and Grill and taking in a Beloit Snappers minor-league baseball game.
Being in the country is beautiful, with tons of wide-open spaces, green pastures and picturesque farms filled with horses, cows and goats.
The people are, of course, Midwestern nice — I hadn’t expected to be the only brown face in nearly every single one of these settings, but no one hesitated to smile or greet me warmly.
This is how it’s done in the rural Midwest. Despite differing viewpoints on how to tackle climate change or worries about residential well-water pollution from massive concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), there’s not a lot of fulminating.
Sure, you can hardly get away from Fox News playing in the background at virtually every diner, bar and auto repair shop. But there’s tranquility and the unhurried pace necessary to do what few Americans in big cities can afford to do: put it all in a perspective that’s open to whatever it takes to maintain a culture of quiet and a focus on nature’s bounty.
This is exactly what the One Country Project is hoping to capitalize on as it seeks to rebuild trust and respect between coastal elite decision-makers and the people in rural communities who have to live with government policies.
Helmed by former Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., the One Country Project is attempting to reopen the dialogue between rural communities and the rest of the country to develop more inclusive policies.
To start, the organization conducted something of a “listening tour” of Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by analyzing social-media traffic from Feb. 15 to May 15 to identify the most regularly discussed social, economic and political issues. The most salient topics were farming, climate change, education, health care, immigration, abortion and women’s issues.
What they also learned is that rural folks are, understandably, scared about the future of farming culture — due in no small part to what One Country’s analysis calls “an underlying feeling of ‘disrespect’ toward farmers and the agricultural economy from their fellow Americans.”
But despite feeling dissed even though they feed the country, their self-interest is slowly driving an open-minded attitude toward the contentious and partisan issue of climate change. One Country found that — though the majority of the social-media conversation was basically neutral — the amount of discussion declaring or implying belief in climate change (19%) was nearly double that of language surrounding climate skepticism (10%).
The need for solutions that prevent future floods and farming disruptions “points to the possibility that there is a chance to reach rural voters with a discussion of reasonable responses to climate change.”
Not surprisingly, immigration was also found to be a much-talked-about issue. How couldn’t it be? I’m pretty sure I hardly saw any brown faces while I was out and about being a tourist in rural Wisconsin, probably because they were all toiling away on the farms. Some estimates say about half of all workers on Wisconsin farms are undocumented immigrants.
Still, social-media comments revealed a bias towards limiting immigration, preventing crime and vilifying the Democratic Party’s more tolerant positions on undocumented migrants.
This in particular was worrying, because One Country found that “Democrats are characterized as lacking a solution and not acknowledging the fact that rural Americans believe there is an emergency at the southern border. Interestingly, there is also a strain of discussion portraying Democratic positions as being driven by opposition to President Trump rather than by a committed stance on the issue overall.”
This is an area where Democrats will continue to struggle as long as they lack a unified voice on immigration matters.
And if they keep painting rural Americans with the broad brush of intolerance, backwardness and hatred instead of trying to engage those populations with real issues that hit close to home — such as the need for year-round visa programs for workers in nonseasonal industries like dairy — they’ll just keep widening the political chasm.
One Country heard rural residents speak loud and clear: Americans, especially Democrats, aren’t listening to people in the flyover states.
They’d better start.
Continuing to make such a large portion of voters who represent key voting constituencies feel left out is, for Democrats who want a change election, perilous at best — and stupidly disastrous at worst.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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