(Source: Rural New Deal)

Progressive Democrats of America and Rural Urban Bridge Initiative have co-authored a policy paper laying out a set of strategies to revitalize the economy in rural areas through “federal investment in bottom-up solutions.” 

With input from rural leaders and advocates, the Rural New Deal brings together economic policies that are popular with progressives and tailors them to suit the needs of rural communities. 

Democrats have a chance at winning in 2024 if they work to rebuild trust with rural voters, Anthony Flaccavento, director of Rural Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), told the Daily Yonder. 

“The federal government is proposing this policy template, but every element needs to be organized such that it’s sensitive to the specifics of the regions, that the programs are being applied and that there is local input into how they actually operate at the local level,” Flaccavento said.

The Rural New Deal is made up of 10 overarching economic policy goals, or pillars. These include items such as breaking up corporate monopolies and ensuring livable wages, among others. Each pillar comes with a set of actions that either the federal government or other rural community leaders can take. These range from providing subsidies to small businesses to expanding road and rail infrastructure. 

Additionally, the Rural New Deal focuses on other policy areas like sustainable food production, broadband expansion, affordable housing, public education, and healthcare. It calls for measures such as Medicaid and Medicare expansion, investments in vocational training, and free community college.

The release of the policy document comes at a time when the Democratic Party is becoming less competitive in national races, according to Jeff Bloodworth, a professor of political history at Gannon University in Pennsylvania who studies rural elections. 

He said the Democrats have increasingly focused their electoral strategy on urban areas since the 1960s, while gradually devoting less attention to rural voters. They performed especially poorly in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, losing the rural vote to Republicans by more than 20 percentage points in both. 

Progressive candidates like Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Fetterman and former Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin won their seats after years of organizing in their states’ rural communities. But Democrats as a whole often don’t run candidates in rural areas, especially at the state and local level, Bloodworth said. 

“Half the state legislative seats in Mississippi, the Democrats don’t even run a candidate,” Bloodworth said. “And Mississippi’s not an outlier. Democrats were competitive and controlled the state legislature in Mississippi well into the ’90s they just quit trying. They don’t show up anymore.”

Alan Minsky, the director of Progressive Democrats of America, and Flaccavento view the Rural New Deal as an important step in building a relationship between progressive candidates and rural communities, both during and beyond elections. But they both see potential issues with its implementation. They anticipate Republican opposition to the Rural New Deal’s calls for increased government investment or decreased privatization, as well as lingering biases against rural voters from Democratic politicians and pundits. 

Urban progressives have assumptions about how rural Americans vote: that they all vote Republican, that they vote against their own interests, or that they simply don’t care about the same things urban progressives care about. Flaccavento said these assumptions can lead Democrats to dismiss the issues that rural Americans face. Republicans, by contrast, are more likely to try to appeal to rural voters, Minsky said.

“The Republican Party has consistently presented itself as the ally of business and therefore it fits in with this notion of being the party that advocates for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, do hard work, etc,” he said.

Though Republicans have consistently outperformed Democrats among rural voters in recent elections, rural voters themselves – especially young rural voters – have expressed dissatisfaction with how both parties handle economic issues. Minsky, who remembers Ronald Reagan’s elections in 1980 and 1984, saw how unpopular his administration’s economic policies were among rural workers, policies that are still part of the Republican Party’s platform. 

“He really initiated an era of economic policy of not securing and supporting independent businesses and family farmers and allowing the process of corporate monopolization to begin. And then sadly, when you get the Democratic administration coming in ’92, they in no way reverse that,” he said. “In fact, they again acquiesced to the policies for the most part.”

Republicans’ use of “culture war” strategies has also produced mixed results in capturing rural support. In Ohio, a 2013 state constitutional amendment that would have restricted abortion rights failed to attract as much support in rural areas as candidate Donald Trump did in 2020. Similarly, rural Wisconsin voters shifted 5 points to the left in the 2023 election of pro-choice progressive, Janet Protasiewicz, to the state Supreme Court this past April, compared to senatorial and presidential elections. 

Flaccavento said that voters’ responses to these strategies are complex and often informed by their material conditions. 

“Culture war issues are way more effective in dividing us in large part because people feel abandoned economically,” Flaccavento said. “As Democrats begin to really prioritize the needs of everyday people across geography, but especially in rural, … then it’s much more likely that those other issues will be like, ‘Well, we don’t agree, but that’s OK.’”

Bloodworth added that urban progressives need to understand the nuances of rural political attitudes if they want to get support for policies like the Rural New Deal.

“We should not assume that people in rural America are naturally more conservative…Their liberalism, where they are liberals, has a different sensibility,” Bloodworth said. 

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