Recent defeats make clear that being close to Big Ag is no way to win elections.
November 9, 2020
Thomas Beaumont/AP Photo
Dairy farmer Jerry Volenec of Grant County, Wisconsin, a political independent, is backing Democrat Joe Biden this year on agriculture and trade issues.
Tuesday marked an important turning point on the national political scene: the complete obliteration of corporate Democrats’ supposed “rural strategy.”
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the chair of the powerful House Agriculture Committee and a 30-year incumbent, lost by a large margin. This follows the 2018 loss by Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Even Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, barely survived a nail-biter last week.
All these Democrats had something in common: the playbook of former Obama administration Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Joe Biden’s so called “rural whisperer.” The strategy focuses on cozying up to corporate agribusiness, seeking endorsements from the Republican-aligned Farm Bureau, embracing Republican approaches to slashing environmental regulation, and supporting extractive rural industries.
The only way to win in rural America, their playbook posits, is to run as de facto Republicans who are slightly less cruel to poor people while supporting marginal increases in federal spending on education and health care.
Time and time again, election after election, that has proven to be terrible advice.
Pretending that farmers are all the same is a strategic mistake that has led to a pile of Democratic losses all over farm country for years.
What Bustos, Vilsack, and Peterson have refused to acknowledge is that rural America is not a monolith of corn and soybean farmers or industrial livestock producers in friendly relationships with agribusiness executives. Pretending that farmers are all the same—and that the “farm vote” equals the “rural vote”—is a strategic mistake that has led to a pile of Democratic losses all over farm country for years.
Contrary to media stereotypes, all farmers are not created equal. The challenge is that farmer public-opinion polling generally refers to commodity farmers growing a handful of crops like corn and soybeans, those at the core of a vertically integrated livestock production model, or corporate agribusiness selling themselves as “real farmers.”
However, there is significant diversity in farming operations. Many young farmers are far more concerned about the current administration’s response to COVID-19, as this survey by the National Young Farmer Coalition makes clear. The coalition’s surveys have also identified climate change as a far bigger concern than additional environmental regulation.
But even if all farmers held the exact same political views, they would still constitute a small percentage of the “rural vote.” While there are approximately 60 million rural Americans, the most recent Ag Census documents that there are 3,399,834 “producers” on 2,042,220 farms nationwide. Of these, there are 1,416,848 “primary farming occupation producers” and 1,982,986 who make their living from something other than farming. The main point is that 1.4 million “farmers,” some of whom even live in urban areas, are an incredibly small percentage of rural people.
Even though candidates running as corporate Democrats are losing ground in the Corn Belt, Democrats can—and do—win rural Senate and House seats. In the top five rural states by percentage of population (Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Mississippi, Montana), five of the ten senators are Democrats. In the House, Democrats win in many rural regions: rural New England, African American rural regions of the Southeast and Mississippi River Delta, parts of the historical Dairy Farm Belt in the Midwest, Latinx and Hispanic regions of the Southwest, Native American areas of the West, numerous rural outdoor recreation counties of the West.
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In the wake of last week’s elections, Democrats are going to have to ask themselves some hard questions about how to improve performance in rural communities. What should the 2020 rural take-home message for Democrats be?
It’s unimaginable that more parts of rural America will turn blue overnight, but we need only to look to history to find a way forward. Nearly a century ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt fostered an entire generation of rural Democrats by fighting for populist progressive values. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were part of that group, in rural Missouri and Arkansas and Oklahoma, where Democrats used to rule the roost.
Our advice for rural candidates is to stop listening to Tom Vilsack, Collin Peterson, Cheri Bustos, and the Farm Bureau. Run on real progressive values that resonate with rural people, things like providing a good job for everyone, especially in a new green economy that combats climate change. Build a diverse rural coalition by fighting to end the injustice of concentrated animal feeding operations, which make Black communities in the South unlivable. Help meatpacking workers and farmworkers by increasing their pay and providing safer workplaces. Build rural infrastructure like high-speed internet and good schools.
The Vilsack/Peterson way of embracing corporate agribusiness has been a complete failure, both politically and economically. It’s time for a new strategy that embraces the racial, ethnic, political, and economic diversity of rural America. It’s time to stand up to corporations again, so that there are no more rural sacrifice zones of pollution and despair. It’s time to fight for the working class and the poor. That’s how Democrats can win back rural America.
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Jake Davis is a political strategist and farmer.
Bryce Oates is a freelance writer who covers rural America.