Monday, November 15, 2004

Healing the heartland

People listen to their radios a lot in rural America. Maybe it has something to do with the silence of the vast landscapes where many of them live; radios break that silence, and provide the succor of human voices.

If you drive through these landscapes, getting radio reception can sometimes be iffy at best, especially in the rural West. Often the best you can find on the dial are only one or two stations.

And the chances are that what you'll hear, at nearly any hour, in nearly any locale, is Rush Limbaugh. Or Michael Savage. Or maybe some Sean Hannity. Or maybe some more Limbaugh. Or, if you're really desperate, you can catch one of the many local mini-Limbaughs who populate what remains of the rural dial. In between, of course, there will be a country music station or two.

That's what people in rural areas have been listening to for the past 10 years and more. And nothing has been countering it.

If Democrats want to come to terms with what happened to them in the last election, they're going to have to confront this reality and its larger implications and ramifications. Chief among the implications is the hard truth that Democrats have largely abandoned rural America, and in so doing have ceded the field to right-wing propaganda and even extremism. Among the ramifications is the fact that at some point, Democrats are going to have to start fighting back on rural turf.

Doing so will not, as some have suggested, require them to compromise their core beliefs -- it will just require them to rethink their priorities and perhaps, in the process, rediscover their identity.

What the dominance of right-wing propaganda in talk radio has meant has been a relentless campaign of hatred and demonization directed at liberals, one specifically geared toward a rural audience. And it has worked, largely because Democrats have blithely done little or nothing to counter it.

The radio talkers, Limbaugh and Savage especially, feed their audiences a steady diet of venom and bile. Liberals look down on people in farm country, they are told, constantly. They don't share your values. They have nothing but contempt for you. As far as they're concerned, you all can just go extinct.

It has to be understood that rural America is hurting, and has been for a couple of decades now. Visit any rural community now and it's palpable: The schools are run down, the roads are falling apart, the former downtowns have been gutted by the destruction of the local economies and their displacement by the new Wal-Mart economy.

People living in rural areas increasingly feel that they have become mere colonies of urban society, treated dismissively and ignored at best, the victims of an evil plot by wealthy liberal elites at worst.

Liberals, largely due to their increasing urban-centric approach to politics, have mostly ignored the problem. And conservatives have been busy exploiting it.

It's important to understand that they have been doing so not by offering any actual solutions. Indeed, Republican "solutions" like the 1995 "Freedom to Farm Act" have actually turned out to be real disasters for the nation's family farmers; the only people who have benefited from it have been in the boardrooms of corporate agribusiness, which of course bellied up first to the big federal trough offered by the law. Even conservatives admit it has been a disaster.

No, conservatives have instead employed a strategy of scapegoating. It isn't bad policy or the conservative captivity to agribusiness interests that has made life miserable in rural America -- it's liberals. Their lack of morals (especially embodied by Bill Clinton), their contempt for real, hard-working Americans, their selfish arrogance -- those are the reasons things are so bad.

These audiences are feeding on a steady diet of hate. And as with all such feedings, they never are sated, but only have their appetites whetted for more. So each day, people come back to get a fresh fill-up of hate.

This line of scapegoating succeeds because it offers clear, simple, black-and-white answers for many rural Americans that intuitively resonates. It also provides them with an outlet for the feelings of resentment many harbor. If the prevalence of red counties in rural America wasn't evidence enough, the outpouring of contempt for the "blue states" after the 2004 election was just the most recent manifestation of how well right-wing propaganda has succeeded.

It is their strength. It is also their vulnerability, because it is cosmetic to cover a shallow record of negative achievement.

Karl Rove is famous for going after liberals' strengths; liberals should consider doing the same in return.

Unfortunately, the response of many blue-staters has not exactly been helpful. Somewhat unsurprisingly, they have in some cases returned the contempt with contempt. These have ranged from suggestions of blue-state secession and flights to Canada to rebuking the South in no uncertain terms. Some of this reaction is silly, and most of it is understandable catharsis, but liberals have to understand that it only fuels the dynamic at work here.

One of the keys to this dynamic is that both sides have been portraying the conflict in terms of broad stereotypes of urban, suburban and rural dwellers. When the red-state ideologues view the political landscape, they see pockets of godless, atheistic crypto-socialists populating the blue urban centers. For blue-state ideologues, the results of the 2004 election are proof that rural America is populated largely with gun-toting, Bible-thumping moralists who condone bigotry.

It's clear that conservatives have neither the incentive nor the intention of breaking this cycle; after all, they have benefited from it. It is indeed entirely by their design. If liberals are interested in breaking the cycle, they're going to have to discard their stereotypes.

It's essential to understand that rural America is not monolithic. There will probably always be a contingent of liberal-haters in farm country, and there's little anyone can hope to do overcome their hatred. What we don't need to be doing is ceding the field to them.

Especially because, while it's undeniable the stereotype is built out of real-life examples, the bulk of rural America does not fit this description. Most of them are sincere and well-meaning people of good will who will listen to reason. The problem is that they haven't been hearing or experiencing enough of it, particularly not from liberals.

Chris Clarke observed the other day that too much of the dialogue directed coming from urban dwellers is suffused with broad-brush stereotypes, complacency, and smug disdain:
When the red-staters talk about the elitism of people in the cities and on the coasts, at least SOME of them aren't using the word "elitism" as a cryptic Christian code-word for "smart." Somewhere between a third and half of the people in those red states voted with you in this last election. You're not going to win without them, ever. Getting the GOP out of power will require that you lower yourselves and talk to some of us... and I don't mean "hi, I'm Geoffrey, and I've come to Ohio from Ann Arbor to tell you how to vote next week." We know how to vote. What we'd like is to be taken seriously as allies.

I raised some eyebrows last week by arguing that the first step liberals need to take in defusing the cycle of demonization lies in, as the sociologist James Aho puts it, "relinquishing our claim to moral superiority." This was sometimes misconstrued as suggesting a kind of unilateral disarmament, and a capitulation to the demand for obseisance to right-wing "moral values."

One of my tougher critics was the always-astute serial catowner, who posted this response:
The odd thing about this post is that David has spent 90% of his effort describing a right-wing that very creatively makes their own "liberals" to bash. David then concludes by saying liberals have to break this impasse by being better.

Frankly, I've heard this before. Black people were supposed to "overcome" the stereotypes and prejudices used to bar them from equality.

... So, fine, talk about 'values' and how liberals need to be more sensitive, but remember there's a real world out there with real problems we created pushing us into a corner. We may need to hear some plain talking before we get out.

What I'm arguing, though, is not that liberals need to be better than conservatives -- in fact, that presumes a certain kind of moral superiority. This presumption is exactly what is wrong with the liberal approach to dealing with conservatives: it fuels the conservative characterization of liberals as elitists, and simultaneously gulls liberals into passivity and genteel, even timid notions about how to fight back. Plain talk is indeed what is needed.

It's not that liberals need to be better than the hate-mongers on the right; it's that they need not to become like them. This requires a kind of self-knowledge that helps us to more clearly understand the nature of our opposition as well. And that understanding is the key to defeating them.

In this regard, I especially think of something Bertrand Russell wrote back in 1951, discussing the twin evils of Nazism and Communism and their inclination to engage in torture:
I do not think that these evils can be cured by blind hatred of their perpetrators. This will only lead us to become like them. Although the effort is not easy, one should attempt ... to understand the circumstances that turn men into fiends, and to realise that it is not by blind rage that evils are defeated. I do not say that to understand is to pardon; there are things which are for my part I find I cannot pardon. But I do say that to understand is absolutely necessary if the spread of similar evils over the whole world is to be prevented.

James Aho also discussed this in This Thing of Darkness:
By grasping the details of how we construct an enemy, we are positioned to see that many of our battles are gigantic jousts with our own illusions. This can be a painful realization, particularly when the costs in treasure and human lives are counted. But the pain may be seen as a necessary injection to inoculate us against a particularly virulent plague, political anthrax, carried by hate mongers -- a plague that respects no nation, race, or religion. Having said this, however, we should never forget that the enemy is a mysteriously paradoxical phenomenon. It has both a subjective and an objective face. While failing to acknowledge our own culpability in creating enemies puts us at risk of becoming executioners, being blind to the objective facticity of evil contains the danger of rendering us its victims. As Albert Camus said, our task as human beings is to be neither victims nor executioners. This requires the courage to renounce both the extreme of punctilious rectitude that perceives only those evils external to itself, and the extreme of romanticism that reduces evil to an internal and solely subjective event.

This path is a difficult one to tread, especially when violence enters into the equation. Then it becomes imperative that aggression be met head-on.

Even absent violence, there is no excuse for failing to respond to hate-mongers, because silence in the face of their lies and distortions amounts to acquiescence. This is true not just of facing down radical right-wing extremists like the Montana Freemen and the Aryan Nations, but the steady stream of hate that has been directed over the airwaves at liberals over the past decade and more.

Liberals need to punch back, hard. And they need to stop believing that being nicer about it is going to win the debate. Of course, civility is always called for when the discussion is civil; but there are times when the gloves of civility have to come off. The line, I think, has to be drawn when eliminationism and violence -- even intimations of them -- enter into the picture. The response needn't be ugly, but it needs to be sharp, hard, and unmistakable.

It would be tempting to think the best way to counter the propaganda stream demonizing liberals would be to erect a similar media network in rural America and begin broadcasting a counter-message, similarly tailored to agrarian sensibilities. Certainly, that's a pleasing thought, and it no doubt would have certain beneficial effects. However, it would take years of work and capital outlays to construct such a counter -- and its effects, in the end, would likely be more cosmetic than substantive. If someone were to attempt such an enterprise, I would certainly encourage it; but in the meantime, there are more effective ways of gaining ground.

The liberal response instead should be geared toward a reality that people in rural and urban areas alike respect: that actions speak louder than words.

If people in rural areas believe that urban liberals look down their noses at them, it's largely because they have little contact with them. They're buying into conservative distortions, of course; but liberals do nothing to counter the charges, either in the media or on the ground, in the way they affect rural dwellers' personal lives.

Urban liberals too need to look in the mirror in this regard. The prevailing attitude in reality is more one of benign ignorance, laced with the scent of moral superiority. The manifestations range from the indulgence in demeaning stereotypes of rural life to a presumption of liberals' own moral and intellectual superiority. These attitudes are conflated by conservatives into one of malevolent contempt toward rural life. As long as the Left condones these attitudes and even fosters them, the more it feeds the dynamic.

What is especially ironic and unfortunate about the way urban liberals relate to their rural brethren is that it has blinded them to the natural alliances, and the shared values, that have informed progressive politics for more than a century. In essence, it has cut them off from one of their historic constituencies, and in the end an essential component of their own identity.

While liberals' chief claim to moral superiority mainly rests on championing the rights and needs of the disenfranchised and downtrodden, one of the most significantly and consistently disenfranchised segments of the American economy of the past 20 years has been the rural sector. If rural dwellers who see their way of life under assault wonder why liberals do not seem to consider their cause a worthy one, they probably cannot be blamed for concluding that they simply live in the wrong place, lead the wrong kind of lifestyle, and are not the right color. It may not be the whole truth, but there is some truth to it.

More to the point, urban liberals should be concerned about what's happening to rural America, because it directly affects their lives as well. The corporatization of agriculture and the accompanying gutting of local rural economies first of all affects urban dwellers' food sources; even as genetically modified foods are being pushed into the food chain, the actual supply of traditional hybrid strains of crops and the genetic diversity they represented has been decreasing dramatically, since many of these resided within the purview of smaller family farms.

Moreover, corporate farms are rapidly becoming a major source of pollution, a problem that affects every locality. Unsurprisingly, the current administration relies on "voluntary compliance" when it comes to regulating this pollution.

The overarching theme that progressives should adopt regarding rural America is one aimed at reviving the family farm. In economic terms, this means adopting a Schumacheresque "small is beautiful" kind of capitalism that encourages an environment in which individual family farms can operate successfully on a smaller scale, one that allows them to grow crops organically and sustainably. In political terms, it means coming into direct opposition to corporate agribusiness -- stripping them of their oversized place at the federal trough, closing the huge tax loopholes that allow them to devour whole tracts of land, dismantling their horizontal and vertical integration of the agricultural economy. It also means confronting "the Wal-Mart economy," the spread of which has done so much to devastate rural small businesses.

Kevin Carson posted in one of my earlier threads on this subject some suggestions on encouraging family farms and saving rural towns:
1) stop enforcing patents on GM [genetically modified] crops. Many free market people, myself included, consider "intellectual property" to be an illegitimate state grant of monopoly privileges to big business. Without the ability to charge monopoly prices, most of the stuff Monsanto comes up with wouldn't even pay for itself in a free market.

2) do away with FDA labeling restrictions that prohibit identifying GM food, or specifying that organic food is grown without sewage sludge, etc. There would be a much greater market for genuinely organic food if people could see on labels what kind of crap they're buying. Agribusiness is rabidly in favor of legal restrictions against such free flow of information, so we know how sincere the GOP's commitment to "free enterprise" is. Monsanto is one of the most adamant supporters of "food libel laws" and restrictions on labeling.

3) Eliminate all other government subsidies to agribusiness. Environmental subsidies to hold land out of production go almost entirely to the big corporate farms, who have enough land they can afford to let it be idle.

Most crop subsidies are targeted to crops that are grown mainly by big agribusiness, and not family farmers.

And large-scale government irrigation projects, especially the dams, provide subsidized water far, far below cost to big agribusiness. If it weren't for such subsidies to plantation farms in areas with inadequate rainfall, and the full cost of providing the water were reflected in the cost of produce, it simply wouldn't pay to ship produce across the country. You'd see a lot more smaller-scale agriculture in high rain areas like Massachusetts growing food for local and regional consumption.

4) Ditto for transportation subsidies. They are really a subsidy for distribution costs, a way of underwriting the inefficiency costs of large-scale production, and encouraging the concentration of capital and centralization of production. This is true of spades for agribusiness. It's only profitable to truck food from plantation farms across the country, instead of growing it where we live, because the shipping costs are reflected in our tax bills instead of in the cost of food.

All these things are examples of how big business gets rich sucking on the taxpayer tit; and they are anathema to the core values of rural state people, if their attention could be drawn to how far Republican practice differs from Republican preaching.

These are excellent starting points. The larger picture should be to create a cogent and comprehensive rural-revitalization program that emphasizes the independent farmer and the economic and cultural health of rural towns. And then to make it a major focal point of Democrats' national agenda.

In more pragmatic political terms, Democrats need to get to work in revitalizing their own political networks in rural areas. Progressives, as Chris Clarke says, have always been part of the rural landscape -- but in pursuing an urban-centric political strategy that has focused on harvesting votes from locales with the largest numbers of voters, Democrats have over the past decade or more largely abandoned these people to their own devices.

The result is that, by failing to involve and empower their rural counterparts, urban liberals proceeded to pursue a series of environmental policy initiatives that, instead of obtaining a rural consensus, became edicts handed down from on high in the urban ivory towers.

Cecil Andrus, the longtime Idaho governor, former Interior Secretary and godfather of the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, tried to warn party leaders against pursuing this course in the 1990s. In 1994, he and a group of Western governors met with President Clinton and his advisers to discuss the party's approach to rural issues, particularly those in the West. Andrus bluntly warned Clinton that, if his administration didn't take rural people's concerns seriously, and continued to send signals of being out of touch with Western issues, they risked becoming a permanent minority party in the West. Democrats' insistence on representing an urban perspective was a real problem, he warned.

At the end of the meeting, Al Gore reportedly took Andrus aside and gave him a chewing-out, telling him: "We think you're the problem."

The 1994 results -- in which the GOP took control of the House and Senate, and swept to their now-entrenched dominant power role in western states -- of course proved Andrus right. And the myopic worldview of Clinton, Gore and the rest of the Democratic Leadership Council contingent has, through the missteps of 2000, 2002, and 2004, led us into our current quagmire.

It's time for that style of leadership to come to an end for Democrats. Instead of being the party of the blue states and hoping to nibble off enough moderate voters in suburban districts, Democrats need to see themselves once again as a national party that represents the interests of all the nation. And championing the cause of their disenfranchised rural brethren is one of the most direct and simple ways of achieving this.

Organizationally speaking, one of the most critical steps for doing this requires not a lot of real expense but a major shift in priorities: cultivating a vibrant and potent network of rural progressives. Democratic party officials need to begin cultivating young progressives in rural areas and empowering them, especially if they look politically promising. This requires not only a certain amount of fiscal support but logistical and rhetorical assistance as well.

It's hard to overstate the powerful effect a campaign appearance by John Kerry would have had in a place like Idaho -- where he owns a vacation home, but hardly seems to actually visit or have any contact with the residents. It says everything you need to know about the DLC approach to the 2004 campaign that, during one of Kerry's springtime visits to Sun Valley, the Blaine County Democratic Party held a major Kerry fundraiser in Ketchum, raising several hundred thousand dollars -- and Kerry couldn't be bothered to drop in and make even a brief appearance.

Of course, there's almost no chance that Kerry actually would have carried Idaho even if he had campaigned there. But an appearance, with a minimal amount of effort, would have been a powerful stimulant for the progressives who live there; it would have signaled that, at the very least, they would not be abandoned by the party this time around.

The signals that rural progressives have been getting from Democratic leadership for a decade have all been negative: We won't visit your state, or provide you with campaign funds, or support your initiatives, because you don't have enough votes. Young progressives interested in advancing in the party tend, under these circumstances, to move to urban locales, since it is clear they will never succeed by staying in places like Idaho.

If liberals hope to turn the tide, these signals have to end. And the converse message needs to become a party centerpiece.

Jeff Alworth at The American Street tackled this point last week:
Why does this matter? For decades, the GOP have created suspicion among rural Americans toward urban America. They've shifted the focus from class to culture, turning themselves from "them" into "us." Democrats stupidly play into the hand, regarding rural Americans as dimwitted crackers who are bent on cutting down all the forests and putting up Wal-Marts. Let me tell you something -- guys in the bar in Salmon, Idaho are never going to side with a bunch of liberal Portlanders who think they're crackers. So they vote for Bush, even though they know he's a bastard, because at least he's a bastard in a way that's comprehensible to them. The devil you know and all that.

Until Democrats recognize that my Dad is the heart of their constituency, until they start think of him as "us," they're always going to alienate rural America. FDR used the language of the "little guy" to find common ground. Jerry Falwell stole rural loyalties by using the language of religion to find common ground. If we're going to get back our bedrock constituency, we're going to have to go back to our roots, find ourselves, and embrace our rural brethren. That's where we will find common ground on the "moral values" question.

The larger point, of course, is to shift the focus from supposed cultural differences back to the vast common ground. Rural people, just like urban and suburban folk, value good schools, good jobs, sound infrastructure, social amenities, a vibrant and healthy culture. When we talk to rural Americans, those are kinds of things we should be talking about -- because, for many of them, these are things they have been losing, while the rest of the country seems to be gaining.

There will be inevitable differences. We won't always see eye to eye on some subjects, especially when they are products of differences in religious beliefs: abortion, gay rights, evolution. What has to change is how we react to these differences. Instead of dismissing people as hopeless ignoramuses for disagreeing on these matters, liberals need to operate from a basis of mutual respect for differing but sincerely held beliefs.

Of course, this respect will not always be reciprocated. This will be especially the case for the hard-core right wing that has an entrenched presence in rural America. Those are not the people whose minds can be changed. And in these kinds of cases, liberals should feel no compulsion to be "sensitive." Indeed, failing to stand up to them with appropriate strength is a recipe for getting bulldozed, as liberals have for the past decade.

But for the bulk of rural Americans, when liberals come up against these kinds of "moral values" friction points, there are two ways to effectively respond: 1) deflecting the conflict by emphasizing the common ground in real-life issues like saving farms and jobs; and 2) stressing their own deeply held moral values, including fairness and inclusiveness, as the basis of their positions -- thereby refuting the charges of amorality with which they are regularly accused by the right.

In the end, it is this inclusiveness that should inform and drive the liberal rural campaign. For too long, rural Americans have felt excluded -- left behind, as it were, while urban economies have benefited from the rise of new technologies and globalization. Conservatives have exploited this rift. Liberals will benefit from healing it.

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