Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Back to the roots

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm now officially over it. Perhaps not the way I was expecting, but in the end, when you look at Bush's across-the-board popular support -- particularly in rural America -- you just have to tip your cap to the winner and move on. Certainly, there's really no longer any doubt about Bush's legitimacy this time around.

At first I thought perhaps there might be a silver lining in all this: Now that they are headed into a second term, Team Bush can no longer blame all the world's ills on the Clenis.

But the truth is that it doesn't matter. No matter what, when things start to go wrong -- and with this incompetent bunch, that's inevitable -- they will find liberals to scapegoat. That's what they do.

As Gene Lyons said in an e-mail he sent around this morning:
Kevin Drum wrote a few weeks ago that it'd be better for Dems in the long run if Bush had to take responsibility for his own disasters. That whoever has to preside over his fuckups in Iraq, the terror "war," and the wonderful world of budget numbers would end up very unpopular, and it ought to be Republicans.

Then he took it all back. Me, I woke up this morning thinking you can only ignore reality for so long. Then reality bites back. Unfortunately, when that happens, people rarely look in the mirror. They usually find scapegoats.

I think it's gonna be a rough ride.

There was an important lesson in those red-shaded electoral maps Tuesday night -- one that, in fact, could point Democrats to their way out of this morass, if they're astute enough to see it.

It wasn't just the sea of red in all those rural Bush states, though that was certainly sign enough. It wasn't just the fact that they were a deep red, representing a substantive increase in Bush's vote totals in those states. The real sign was when you looked at the interior maps of the battleground states, particularly Ohio.

Ohio was a sea of red with urban islands of blue numerical strength. And all those red counties were, again, a deeper red. This tells you that, in particular, Bush gained real strength -- more than enough to offset Democratic gains in urban areas -- in all those rural Ohio counties. And it was the same way in state after state.

It's important to understand that these precincts are hurting economically and culturally, and have been for years, but particularly under Republican policy. But as Thomas Frank recently demonstrated in What's the Matter With Kansas?, Republicans have been able to consistently take these votes by making simple but sustained appeals to their values. The percentage of Bush voters for whom "moral values" (read: homosexuality) were the decisive factor was unusually high, and the bulk of these came from rural districts.

It doesn't have to be this way. If Democrats were to actually pay attention to the problems of rural America and try to address them in a serious fashion, they would begin to make inroads on this nonsensical monopoly on the rural vote. They might not immediately win those rural precincts, but they can certainly lighten their redness.

I've issued warnings about this problem a couple of times, including way back in March 2003:
One of the reason that Democrats have succumbed to Republicans in rural states -- where they enjoyed broad support for much of the better part of the 20th century -- is that the party has become increasingly urban-centric. Much of this is the natural outgrowth of relying heavily on raw numbers for political calculation; there is a much larger voting bloc in the cities than in the country, and it's much more easily reached. Thus the Democrats have in recent years focused much of their agenda on attracting urban and suburban votes. They have done so at the cost of their own soul, I believe.

The death of rural America -- a brutal, slow, painful death by suffocation, as corporate agribusiness displaces the family farm -- should be a major issue for Democrats. The Jeffersonian ideal, recall, was an America built as a nation of "citizen farmers." It may be something of a myth, but it is one that is deeply imbedded in our national psyche, and it is not one we can just hastily dispose of like some overripe cantaloupe.

Republicans have made great headway in these states by pretending to be on their side -- mostly by wrapping themselves in red-white-and-blue rhetoric, and especially by waving the bloody shirt of hating the gummint, who by the GOP's lights has been solely responsible for the entirety of rural dwellers' miseries (this was how they managed to fleece them with the misbegotten Freedom To Farm Act of 1996, which should have been more accurately named the Giant Hogtrough For Corporate Agribusiness). Indeed, it's clear this is one of the chief purposes of the proliferation of anti-government tropes by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts: to separate working-class people from the very political presence most capable of actually protecting their long-term interests from the Enronesque predators of unfettered corporatism -- namely, the gummint.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have treated these issues as empty afterthoughts at best (Al Gore actually had a reasonably intelligent agriculture program, but you'd never have known about it from either the "invented the Internet" Washington press corps or from Al Gore himself). They have essentially ceded the field to the GOP, and are now paying the price.

John Kerry made the same mistake. He cobbled together what actually was a good, thoughtful policy for rural America -- but then let it wither on the vine. Rather than make it a centerpiece, it was an afterthought. It went unmentioned in the debates or his stump speeches. John Edwards' inclusion on the ticket was supposed to help the rural vote, but it obviously didn't, partly because there was nothing there to give the effort any bite.

John Nichols warned of this problem in The Nation a year ago too:
After the 2000 presidential election, colored maps showed that while the East and West Coasts and inland metropolitan areas were blue for Gore, the vast majority of the country was red for Bush. In the West, you could walk a line from Mexico to Canada and not set foot in a single county--let alone a single state--carried by Gore. Bush won 59 percent of the rural vote, compared with 46 percent for Republican Bob Dole in 1996 and 40 percent for Bush's father in 1992. "It should have been a wake-up call for the Democrats," says National Farmers Union president David Frederickson. "But they went right into the 2002 campaign and made a lot of the same mistakes."

Kaptur says that's because the party has been peddling gimmicks rather than populist substance. "Most of the people who run the Democrat Party, like [Democratic National Committee chair] Terry McAuliffe, they're city people," she says. "They think it's just a matter of tinkering with the party's image." Democratic consultants have created a mini-industry that tells candidates to go "country" by sponsoring NASCAR teams, joining the NRA or fuzzing positions on abortion or gay rights to mollify social conservatives. Rural folks just laugh. "You can be ardently pro-choice and support gay rights and still win rural areas if you have an economic message," says Rhonda Perry, a family farmer who is program director with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "I don't think too many people in rural Missouri sit up nights worrying about gay rights. But they do sit up nights worrying about how they are going to keep the farm or how they are going to get health benefits after the meatpacking plant shuts down."

The talk outside the school where I took my daughter this morning, a bastion of Kerry/Edwards supporters, was mostly bewilderment about where people in urban areas -- who overwhelmingly supported Kerry -- can go politically now. Here in the bubble of Seattle, the outlook was voiced by one father: "It's like we're an island now, cut off from the rest of the country. And we just have to go it on our own now."

Unfortunately, I think that's the problem. Urban liberals have been writing off their rural counterparts for too long. The larger the gap grows and festers, the more isolated they're doomed to become. Outreach, not withdrawal, is what is needed.

If progressives are serious about making a real effort at rebuilding their political machinery from the ground up, they need to start by going back to their rural roots. And it can't just be lip service.

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