Just yesterday I attended a fair in Port Oneida, Michigan celebrating rural culture.
While the focus on Michigan, when it comes to economic matters, tends to be on the manufacturing sector, largely, of course, because of the dominance of the auto industry, the importance of the rural economy and population loom large, not just in terms of their essential role in U.S. life but also as a voting issue and bloc in the 2020 presidential election.
Indeed, it is not uncommon, driving in this area of the country, to see bumper stickers that read, “No farms, No Food.” Urban folk would be wise to be cognizant of their reliance on this rural culture for their very life.
The success of Democrats in the 2020 presidential election may very well hinge on their ability to forge a unity between rural and urban voters and to underscore not just the interdependence of rural and urban populations and economies but the common issues and interests these communities share.
President Trump has done his best to drive a wedge between rural and urban voters, trying to obscure the common suffering people have experienced under Trump’s mis-leadership. While speaking in Ohio last August 2, he continued, for example, to berate Baltimore for its problems, having referred to the city as a “rat and rodent infested mess,” as if, despite occupying the most powerful political office in the nation, if not the world, the people of Baltimore did not fall under his purview and he did not shoulder any responsibility for Baltimore or, really, any of America’s inner cities. Baltimore residents are not part of Trump’s “United Base of America.”
As Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS news, noted, however, while Trump was speaking recently in Ohio, he neglected to address the suffering experienced in that very state. She tweeted: “The president was in Ohio, home to Masury, OH — a city nicknamed Misery, OH because of the struggles and economic devastation there. But President Trump went on extended riffs about cities much more farther [sic] away last night.”
She was responding to what she considered an astute tweet from Abby D. Phillip, who observed: “Imagine a president riffing on the opioid overdose rate in suburban or rural America to laughter from his supporters. You probably can’t . . .”
Indeed, what if Trump had berated the fate of residents living in Masury, Ohio and Ohio’s political leadership? It probably would not have gone over so well with his Ohio audience.
Trump largely dismisses urban voters, marking them as racial others who are not part of the American citizenry he represents, casting the division between urban and rural voting populations in pointedly racist terms.
While Trump clearly has given up on speaking to, or even pretending to represent, urban voters—at least people of color in America’s cities—the challenge remains for Democrats to unify the electorate by bringing into relief the common suffering experienced under Trump’s presidency by those living in Misery, Ohio and Baltimore, Maryland.
Elizabeth Warren just last week reached out to rural populations with a plan to bring high-speed internet to rural and Native American communities through an $85 billion federal grant program. Such a plan is a necessary part of developing the nation’s infrastructure to extend economic opportunities to rural communities.
In the second debate among Democratic primary candidates, Kamala Harris challenged the twice-told tale off Trump’s successful economy, emphasizing the fact that this so-called economic boom has left out many Americans, especially farmers. She singled out soybean farmers, in particular, who have experienced financial devastation because of Trump’s tariffs.
Communicating with and addressing the interests of rural communities is paramount, and it is also paramount to challenge the very division between “rural” and “urban” interests, as the nation’s fate is linked to the interdependence of these communities, as the interests of each are shared, not exclusive.
Trump’s tariffs are devastating American farmers. The trade wars Trump has instigated has not only led to the lowest incomes American farmers have experienced in years but also caused a record number of bankruptcies for Midwest dairy farms. Over the past two years 1,200 dairy farms have stopped producing milk and another 212 have simply disappeared. These effects have been especially felt in Wisconsin.
Democrats would benefit from highlighting—and understanding themselves—how out of touch Trump and the Republicans are when it comes to the economy and how ordinary Americans are suffering extraordinarily.
And how about the fact that Trump just took $16 billion of taxpayers’ money to bailout farmers from the crisis he created. Many Americans, living in rural or urban environments, could think of a better way to spend that $16 billion, if Trump’s mismanagement of the economy had not destroyed the global market relations for farmers.
Trump simply does not understand that economic relations are just that: relationships. They are cultivated just like any other relationship, which means they extend beyond mere numbers and cold and calculated exchanges; they rely on less tangible phenomena as well, such as good will.
Dan Younggren, a soybean farmer in Northern Minnesota quoted in an NPR report, worries that the relationships that took years to cultivate with China simply won’t return so easily.
“It took decades to get these markets in place with China and whatnot. And the marketplace is not going to come back overnight. It’s just not,” he says.
The prospects for the health of the U.S. economy overall is faring no better, with economists projecting Trump’s tariffs could result in manufacturing job losses as steep as 400,000.
Michigan exemplifies this confluence of rural and urban America’s interests, where 18 counties have experienced declines in manufacturing jobs.
Warren and Harris have recognized the need to dismantle the illusion of the divisions between rural and urban interests, underscoring their interdependence and unity, such as we see in Michigan.
Continuing and deepening this approach, highlighting the one America, the United States of America the way Barack Obama did in his famous 2004 speech at Democratic National Convention, will be key for Democrats in 2020.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.