This is another Civic Way commentary on the 2020 election. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US. Our last 2020 election commentary, What Happened, called for political campaigns to think more about governing, not just winning.
- In 2020, the rural-urban electoral gap widened, with Trump winning an average 66 percent of the rural vote, up from 63 percent in 2016
- Most accounts of rural America have a patronizing urban-centric perspective, focusing on the signs of decay, often misunderstanding—if not underestimating—rural areas
- Some rural analyses even have a Hillbilly Elegy or Green Acres vibe, betraying a bias that rural is somehow inferior, that rural people lack the enlightened, enterprising spirit of urbanites
- The failure of Democrats to connect with rural voters on economic grounds has left a vacuum for simplistic messages about guns, abortion and NAFTA, and those messages are working
- If government continues to fail them, rural voters will be up for grabs once again; eventually, the party that gives rural voters the government they need will win their allegiance
The November 2020 election has brought more attention to rural Americans. Rural voter turnout and Trump support exceeded virtually all expectations. In trying to make sense of 2020 election results, many analysts pointed out the obvious, that Trump, while fairing poorly among urban and suburban voters, won by huge margins among rural voters. Buy why?
Many political experts followed a well-worn path, using an urban lens (if not an academic one) to explain rural voters, or at least the myriad ways in which they differ from urban and suburban voters. Rural voters, they told us, are white, poor, undereducated, reactionary and angry. Rural voters resent Democrats and distrust government. Some commentators went even further, portraying rural voters as some kind of homogenous voting bloc, with almost nothing in common with urban and suburban voters.
Too many of these analyses have a Hillbilly Elegy or Green Acres vibe.
They start from a bias that rural is somehow inferior, that people who live in rural areas are not as enlightened or adventurous as urbanites. That the only way for a rural person to improve is to leave, preferably for the hallowed grounds of an ivy league school, or to take the advice of their urban brethren.
This approach is not only smug, it is inaccurate and damaging. It helped give us a President who deftly exploited the justifiable indignation it produced. And it underlies the woefully inadequate federal and state governance of rural communities. In this commentary, we suggest a more constructive approach to rural America, one that will increase the prospects for good government and shared civic progress.
Understanding Rural America
The rural-urban electoral gap widened somewhat from 2016 to 2020. Initial estimates indicate that Trump received 66 percent of the rural vote in 2020 compared to 63 percent in 2016. According to the Economist, voters in the most rural counties voted for Trump by an average margin of 35 points (the average margin was 32 points in 2016). While part of the increase was due to the poorer performance of independent candidates, the higher rural margins did help down-ballot Republican candidates.
An interesting corollary is that rural Hispanic voters were more likely to have supported Trump than both suburban and urban Hispanic voters. This was apparently even true for Hispanic voters living in the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexico-Texas border. While minorities comprise 21 percent of the rural population and over 80 percent of rural population growth, this trend may not, in and of itself, materially change rural voting patterns.
Much that has been written about rural America is usually sad and, almost always, condescending. The dwindling population (according to the US census, rural America is losing residents for the first time in history). The disappearing jobs. The other pervasive signs of decay—dying main streets, shabby storefronts and crumbling roads. The fading luster of what was long considered American’s cultural ideal—the charming small town.
It is no secret, but rural industries like agriculture and mining are undergoing devastating structural change and the rural-urban economic gap is widening. Since 1950, when there were over 6 million farmers and 500,000 coal miners, the US population has doubled, but the number of farmers has plummeted by 2/3 and the number of coal miners by 90 percent.
Rural people see what has been happening around them. In the past 30 years, the average American farm has doubled in size and large farms have come to account for about ¾ of total agricultural production. As the small farms and businesses have disappeared, large corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Dollar General and Walmart have come to dominate the rural landscape. And limited broadband access continues to hinder rural economic growth, remote learning and innovation.
Even health care, which has been the fastest-growing rural sector, is suffering. Community hospitals, the largest employer in many rural areas, are finding it increasingly difficult to operate profitably. According to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), over 40 percent of the country’s rural hospitals are losing money. At least 176 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, and the trend is worsening. Most rural counties lack intensive care units and, as the pandemic surges, are forced to send their sickest patients to cities, straining urban hospitals.
There is a sense of being ignored and left behind in rural America. But, when viewed through a patronizing urban-centric perspective, rural areas are easily misunderstood or underestimated. In the face of overwhelming global and national forces (and ill-conceived federal aid programs), rural areas have been surprisingly resilient. They have even shown an impressive knack for mastering state coalition politics and retaining a disproportionate per capita share of state resources.
So why did rural voters give Trump such overwhelming support in 2020? Is the answer demographic, as some analysts suggest? Is it simply because rural people are older, whiter, less educated and less affluent than urban and suburban Americans? Is it because their values are more traditional or that they fear change?
To try to answer this question, we could do a lot worse than to take a look at Robeson County, North Carolina’s largest county (similar in size to Rhode Island). Robeson County is one of North Carolina’s poorest and least educated counties, but also one of the nation’s most diverse counties. It is 42 percent American Indian (Lumbee), 31 percent white, 24 percent Black and increasingly Hispanic.
Trump carried Robeson County for the second time in four years. Despite its minority-majority status and the President’s artful dance with racist tropes, the county gave him nearly 59 percent of the vote. Despite the county’s long-standing support for Democrats, it went full-board Republican in 2020. With tested rural-friendly messages and a personal appearance, Trump not only retained white voters from 2016, but improved his performance with Black voters and dominated Lumbee precincts.
What lessons can we learn from Robeson County? In a narrow sense, it appears that Lumbee voters may act a lot like non-college educated rural white voters. More broadly, it may mean that rural perspectives have more influence on voting behavior than racial and ethnic factors. While caution is always in order when assessing election results so soon after an election, one trend is clear—rural counties are solidly red.
Democrats—the very people that gave us the New Deal, are no longer trusted by most rural voters. And, the failure of Democrats to connect with rural voters on economic grounds has left a vacuum for simplistic messages about guns, abortion and NAFTA to fill. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, across rural counties—and many other areas as well—many Americans with the lowest incomes and fewest educational credentials are no longer voting Democratic. Is this simply due to better Republican messaging?
Democrats pride themselves as being the only party with a governing philosophy, but rural voters aren’t buying it. Democrats have failed to offer a clear governing vision for rural America, let alone tell a story that would convince rural voters to reward them with their votes. And most Democrats have spent too little time connecting with voters between elections, especially when governing.
In the cities they run, Democratic officials don’t look down on their constituents because of their unfavorable circumstances or credentials. In delivering a range of services, from policing to sanitation, they don’t treat some residents as less worthy because they are less educated or self-reliant. More often than not, they explore ways to better meet their needs. During the New Deal, Democrats introduced federal programs to help rural people simply because they needed the help.
It is not easy to save declining regions—many nations have tried and largely failed (think East Germany). In the US, we have tried as well, but in an ad hoc, ineffectual manner. Over time, we have created an incoherent array of federal and state rural programs. For example, there are about 400 federal programs overseen by 14 legislative committees, 13 departments, 10 agencies and 50 sub-agencies. The financial aid associated with these programs, cluttered with tortuous eligibility, allocation and spending formulas, is anything but accessible. And over 90 percent of this aid is available in the form of debt, not grants.
Rural cynicism abounds about the lofty promises of Democratic politicians. President Obama, for example, promised to challenge agribusiness, but his administration failed to enforce country-of-origin labeling rules or stop corporate mergers. Rural resentment of Democrats, academics and elites has grown to the point when they even reject well-intentioned advice that would benefit them (e.g., mask-wearing directives).
Rural voters are primarily Republican, but only for now. The mere fact that they disdain Democrats does not mean that they will always be reliably Republican. If government continues to fail them, they will likely grow weary of messaging that does not improve their lives. Many may realize that gun rights or anti-abortion laws don’t save farms, put food on tables or guarantee their children opportunities. Eventually, the party that gives rural voters the government they need will win their allegiance.
A New Rural Agenda for All of Us
What we need is a new rural agenda, one that will benefit the entire country. Not superficial messages that vilify or frighten without improving lives. Not another set of programs reflecting urban-centric biases, but a broad agenda reflecting rural assets and opportunities and exploiting urban commonalities.
What should this rural policy agenda entail? At a minimum, it should unleash rural assets (e.g., wind power capacity). It should challenge anticompetitive practices and demand fair prices for farmers. It should include specific measures for seeding small business, creating jobs, promoting local products, strengthening public schools and community colleges, expanding public health, saving community hospitals, preserving natural resources, growing clean energy and extending broadband access. It should incentivize cross-agency regional initiatives. And it should streamline financing tools.
The rural agenda should be sold in a way that resonates, not just for looming political campaigns, but long-term governance. Stress rural priorities without compromising broader policy goals. Support start-ups and workforce development. Cite the health care jobs stemming from better public health and health care. Lead with nature and outdoor recreation as part of an environmental agenda. Promote equity, but without divisive references to race. Tailor every pitch to rural voters as a fight for one another.
Good policies and messaging also will require a concerted effort to reach rural voters. This requires listening to rural voters in way that conveys respect. Rural envoys should meet with voters and local leaders, document their concerns and follow up often to ensure the resolution of those concerns. Media, including unpaid media, should be used that is most likely to reach rural voters (e.g., talk show radio).
In the future, rural support will have to earned, not just won. Rallies and photo ops alone won’t do it. Slogans and promises won’t work either, not without results. To prevail, regardless of their party, political leaders will have to trade the conceit of Hillbilly Elegy for the courage of Norma Rae or To Kill a Mockingbird. They must demonstrate a willingness to honor principles that all people cherish, to fight for struggling people against powerful elites, and to use their time in government to deliver results that matter.