Understanding Rural Concerns
The 2020 election results have deepened concern that an urban-rural divide is tearing our country apart. Biden won in approximately 509 primarily urban counties while Trump prevailed in approximately 2547 primarily rural counties. Biden’s base represents 71% of America’s economic activity while Trump’s represents only 29% of the economy. Roughly 2/3rds of rural voters voted for Trump.
While some speculate that the issue is economic and racial - rural (primarily white) poverty versus urban affluence, others argue that the issue is far more complex pointing out that per exit polls, a majority of white Americans voted for Trump regardless of geography or income. Rural voters were less than 20% of total Trump votes. In addition, rural America is not all white - 21% of rural residents are people of color and poverty is clearly not limited to rural areas only.
Regardless of how much of Trump’s appeal is attributable to rural poverty, rural issues are important and complex. Rural Democrats have complained that the Democratic party has failed to connect with rural voters. There are rural issues they feel need far more attention:
Corporate control of the agriculture business is a hot issue. Farmer’s share of the retail food dollar has decreased from 50% in 1952 to 15% in 2020. While Obama promised during his campaign to challenge agribusiness monopolies, actions taken during his administration including the Department of Agriculture’s failure to enforce anti-monopoly rules and Country of Origin Labeling and the FTC’s approval of corporate food and agriculture mergers, led farmers to believe that he did not support them. While Trump failed to take significant action to help farmers during his administration he still managed to hang on to rural support. Biden-Harris’s plan to “Build Back Better in Rural America” includes plans to strengthen antitrust enforcement.
The lack of broadband internet access in rural areas inhibits economic growth, education and medical care. In Wisconsin, about 28 percent of rural residents lack high speed internet. Nationally, about a quarter of rural residents lack broadband access. The Biden-Harris platform promises to address this issue.
Rural Healthcare Hospital closings and lack of availability of trained medical staff, including mental health resources limit healthcare services in rural areas.
In addition to these specific issues, there appears to be a widespread perception by rural voters that the national Democratic party doesn’t understand them or take them seriously. According to political scientist Katherine Cramer there is a “rural consciousness” including a perception that cities are where decisions are made, culture happens and resources flow and that rural communities are not in control of their own futures.
Senator Jon Tester, a Montana farmer believes that the Democrat’s message is “Really, really flawed”. He believes the issues listed above need to be addressed but also that communication and messaging by the Democrats needs to be improved. He suggests a Democratic motto “Opportunity for everyone”.
Sources and Further Reading:
Biden Rural Platform: https://joebiden.com/rural-plan/
Bill Hogseth: Chair of the Dunn County Democratic Party, Wisconsin
Article about Senator Tester re: rural urban divide: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/us/politics/jon-tester-democrats.html
WI State Senator Patti Schachtner: Family of Dairy Farmers, lost in 2020; was senator from 2018-2020