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The Democrats’ Rural Voter Problem (and How to Fix It)

Hillary Clinton's comments about middle America speak to a broader disconnect in the party. But Trump presents an opportunity.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton continues to be scrutinized like a presidential candidate, despite not running for anything. The latest example is the bipartisan uproar over her comments last week in India. “If you look at the map of the United States, there is all that red in the middle, places where Trump won. What that map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that won two thirds of America’s gross domestic product,” she said, referring to a legitimate statistic. “So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”

The remarks fed a resentment in rural communities against political elites. In an apology over the weekend on Facebook, Clinton explained that she had plans during the campaign that “would have focused on the real needs of hard-working yet struggling Americans in every part of the country,” including minimum wage increases, paid leave, and affordable college. She also pointed out that President Donald Trump “has done nothing positive to ease the pain of the people who most strongly supported him, from the loss of jobs in coal country to the opioid epidemic to the tax bill.”

Clinton is right about that; Trump’s policies have been indifferent to small-town America, when not actively harmful. But the Clinton flap speaks to a broader disconnect among Democrats, who simply do not represent that many rural voters. Consequently, their solutions often mean well but fail to speak to specific challenges these Americans face. Trump’s failure to fix, and propensity to exacerbate, longstanding problems in small towns provides an opportunity for Democrats, who are on the verge of blowing it.

Clinton’s boast that she won where the economy is vibrant partially explains why she lost: There are too few of these vibrant areas left to win national elections. Regional inequality resulted from Clinton-era globalization hollowing out factory towns in the 1990s and runaway firms seizing control of large sectors of the economy, swallowing Main Streets nationwide. With votes for president not spread equally across the country, a Democrat can win the popular vote convincingly and lose enough of the Midwest to tip the election to a Republican.

The antidote to that problem, beyond eliminating the anti-democratic Electoral College, requires broadening economic dynamism. Many of Trump’s policies do the opposite, centralizing power and fortunes with the wealthy and privileged. Conservatives representing rural areas know this. That’s why they start to sound like Senator Bernie Sanders when it comes to issues affecting their constituents.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, for instance, has been as reliable a vote for the Trump agenda as any Republican in Congress. But when Trump’s Department of Agriculture reversed an Obama-era rule that would have allowed family farms to more easily sue agribusinesses for predatory practices that harm their livelihoods, Grassley responded with old-time populism. “They’re just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer,” Grassley said, explaining precisely how meatpackers and processors squeeze his fellow Iowans.

Arkansas provides another example. Independent pharmacists, who are a key part of the health care infrastructure in the state’s rural communities, reported price gouging at the hands of pharmacy benefit managers. These are middlemen who negotiate discounts from drug companies on behalf of health plans and provide reimbursements to those who dispense drugs. Pharmacists have complained of low reimbursement rates that force them to lose money on every medication they sell.

So Arkansas, whose state government is controlled by conservatives, convened a special legislative session to give the state Insurance Department regulatory oversight over pharmacy benefit managers. They would be the first state in the nation to do so. Last week, Arkansas’ legislature passed these bills to tighten regulation on a large industry almost unanimously.

It’s not that Democrats wouldn’t agree with these conservative rural legislators on these issues, which speak to a bias in the system for corporate interests. And you can find the rare rural Democrat, like Montana Senator Jon Tester, willing to speak out on things like the reversal of the farming rules.

The problem is that not enough of the Democratic leadership even thinks about these issues. Once upon a time, a party with roots in small towns churned out policies like rural electrification and anti-poverty programs and the GI Bill. Many opportunities exist for twenty-first-century versions of rural assistance, from clean energy build-out to universal broadband access. But the party shifted its attention to big money and big cities, and Democrats became little more than a rural punch line for the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

It’s vital for Democrats to combat that rampant demonization. But workforce training and New Markets Tax Credits, the stuff of the Clinton campaign’s rural agenda, won’t cut it. Voters want to know you’re on their side. Democrats can do that by picking fights with power, which they have been loath to do over the years. That would require intervention instead of gentle technocratic nudges. And it would require knowing the key issues within communities, and acting to solve them.

Trump’s ignorance of rural needs and pro-corporate lobbyist agenda creates an opening for Democrats. Grassley can carp about agribusiness, but he supports a president who supports those interests: He’s responded to corporate agriculture mergers that will hurt farmers by saying, “I might disagree with it but I have to accept it.” Similarly, Republicans might be agitated by Trump tariffs that threaten agricultural exports abroad, but they haven’t done anything to stop him. There are some bills in Congress to reverse the steel and aluminum tariffs, but they’re going nowhere; Senate Republicans have said they won’t advance them.

So Democrats can take advantage of a party riding rural voters into a ditch. Whether or not cultural barriers prevent Democrats from making headway there—and Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania, rooted in opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare, gives cause for hope—the party can no longer afford to stand back and let Republicans sell themselves as rural populists.

The woman who figured this out back when she represented farming communities was Hillary Clinton. She defended upstate New York from corporate agribusiness and factory farms, and supported reducing commodity payments to the largest producers and fostering competition in agricultural markets. She worked to understand local needs and articulated them, and she carried 58 of New York’s 62 counties in 2006. Rather than urging Clinton to “go away,” Democrats should take a lesson from her.