What's Tony Thinking

Why Rural Areas Went for Trump


Reader Mike Pierson drew my attention to an excellent article at Politico, written by a Democratic official in rural Wisconsin. Bill Hogseth, Chair of the Dunn County Democratic Party, explains why Democrats didn’t win there.

It wasn’t a failure of on-the-ground organizing.

It was because Democrats haven’t delivered on past promises to rural areas (Dunn County voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, then for Trump in 2016 and 2020), and because Democrats haven’t spoken to the real issues and needs on the minds of people in what we blithely call “the heartland.”

Another way to put this is that people in these rural areas (all that red in state after state surrounding populous islands of blue) just maybe aren’t motivated by racism or toxic masculinity or any of half-dozen other culture war hot buttons. Nor are they “dumb” or “unenlightened.”

They care about issues like anti-trust action against agri-business — promised but not delivered by Obama/ Biden. They care about the abysmal state of rural health care. They care about a digital divide that makes starting-up a business from a rural area near impossible. And they care about the rising rates of suicide and “deaths of despair,” in places that feel forgotten, and are forgotten, by the rest of us.

Here’s Hogseth:

“Why did Trump do so well with rural voters? From my experience, it’s not because local Democrats failed to organize in rural areas. Instead, after conversations with dozens of voters, neighbors, friends and family members in Dunn County, I’ve come to believe it is because the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experiences. The pain and struggle in my community is real, yet rural people do not feel it is taken seriously by the Democratic Party.”

As regular readers know I care a lot about such communities because they are where my people came from. Moreover, we spend a significant chunk of every year in one of these rural areas, Wallowa County in Northeastern Oregon. This year Trump got 2/3’s of the votes in Wallowa County, no big surprise to anyone who notices campaign signs.

But what urban sophisticates like me tend to think is that folks in Wallowa County just don’t get it. Their support for a guy like Trump leaves us shaking our heads in disbelief.

But Hogseth’s analysis suggests the red tilt — or avalanche — in such rural area isn’t because people are stupid or racist. No, it is that “the Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experience.” Hogseth’s analysis goes a long toward explaining this phenomenon all across the country, including Wallowa County in Northeastern Oregon.

More from the Dunn County Democratic Chair person:

“The signs of desperation are everywhere in communities like mine. A landscape of collapsed barns and crumbling roads. Main Streets with empty storefronts. The distant stare of depression in your neighbor’s eyes. If you live here, it is impossible to ignore the depletion.

“Rural people want to share in America’s prosperity, but the economic divide between rural and urban America has widened. Small-business growth has slowed in rural communities since the Great Recession, and it has only worsened with Covid-19. As capital overwhelmingly flows to metro areas, the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations: low-wage retailers like Dollar General or agribusiness firms that have no connection to the community.”

There’s no intrinsic reason that such rural communities need to go Republican or conservative. There are lots of reasons they can find a home with a more progressive agenda. Common interests include standing up to big (agri) business and and it’s predatory practices, environmental issues like clean water and soil preservation, and support for small business development.

Memo to Dem’s: don’t write rural communities off as havens of the “deplorable.” Find ways to address their issues that are congruent with your professed commitments. Show interest and respect and follow through on what you say you will do.

Addendum to original post: I may have mis-titled this piece. The Politico article from which I draw (I do encourage you to read it) focused less on why Trump won in Dunn County, Wisconsin and more on why Democrats did not. As noted, Dunn County did vote for Obama twice, but felt his administration did not follow through on promises. Then voting for Trump twice reflected as much disappointment with Dem’s as enthusiasm for Trump.

The pattern isn’t the same in the other location I cite: Wallowa County in Oregon. It has gone Republican pretty much since the Reagan years. Locals note that the County was strong for FDR and the New Deal, Democratic support that continued until the 1980’s. They attribute the shift then to the arrival in the 80’s of some particularly arrogant environmentalists who pushed locales toward the GOP.

I also did see today’s piece as a sort of the “other side of the coin” to the previous day in which I spoke of the evil of Trump. Nothing is simple.


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