‘Rural America’ is not a synonym for ‘rural whites.’ And ‘economic anxiety’ isn’t what’s driving votes.
In the summer of 2016, I took a position as an organizer with the Clinton campaign in Iowa. I’d grown up just across the northwest border of Iowa in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and drove down from my father’s house on a Tuesday in July for training in Ames, Iowa. Prior to spending three and a half months canvassing for candidates up and down the ballot in Iowa, I’d only really been to Steve King’s district in Northwest Iowa or to my cousins’ former home along the Mississippi in Burlington, on the far east side of the state. The entire middle area was unknown to me, but I was assigned Marion and Mahaska Counties, two areas with a solid Democratic base outnumbered by Republicans and gerrymandered in 2010 to eliminate a previous democratic state house district.
I leaned heavily on the established party structure in both counties—a structure that was still feeling raw after the failed election of 2014. I learned the geographies of my counties, and learned which county officials were friendly and which ones would need someone not directly from the campaign to drop off voter registrations so the registrations from our Hispanic voters wouldn’t face challenges to their requests.
And I knocked on doors. Every day, I was out in the streets, driving from town to town, leaving pamphlets, answering voter questions, encouraging people to early vote and sign up for absentee ballots. I spent most of my days in towns of less than 2,000 people. In one particularly memorable incident, I was in a small town that had one major intersection consisting of a four way stop. I had to use the bathroom, so I pulled over to the only gas station in town and walked in. Every person in the store looked up at me as if to say, “I don’t recognize you.”
I was definitely in rural America.
“Rural America” has become many politicians’ favorite euphemism when talking about who needs courting in upcoming elections. Sen. Bernie Sanders recently called on coalitions to understand the pain and suffering many in rural (aka white, non-liberal) America feel, as a failure to do so resulted in Trump’s win. The Economist says Democrats abandoned “kitchen table issues,” leaving these voters feeling alienated and anxious. And Sen. Claire McCaskill blamed Democrats’ refusal to compromise on core issues on their failure to “gain enough trust with rural Americans.” They’re not prejudiced, just disillusioned with the Democrats’ inability to understand the issues that face them.
But I found a great universe of Democrats there. Many of the local volunteers were people from marginalized positions in society—queer people, Latinx people, many lifelong Democrats dedicated to bringing about change in their hometowns. I trained these volunteers on discussions from the campaign, discussed the policies of the candidates on the ballot, and talked about what was good for rural Iowa. I went to bat for my rural counties with the data people in Des Moines, insisting that some of the tactics passed down from Brooklyn wouldn’t work in rural Iowa—I couldn’t make thousands of unique phone calls in a week because I simply didn’t have enough active Democrats to call different ones each day. My counties combined were 55,000 people, one third of which were under 18. The counties are 97% white, mostly rural, and mostly Republican. In Mahaska county in 2016, only about 10,000 people voted in total.Many of the local volunteers were people from marginalized positions in society—queer people, Latinx people, many lifelong Democrats dedicated to bringing about change in their hometowns. Click To Tweet
So needless to say, I got to know my rural voters. And consistently, I encountered white male members of rural communities who insisted that, despite being registered Democrats, despite having voted for Democrats in the past, they would not be voting for Clinton in 2016—because she’s a woman, because she’s a baby killer, because they bought into narratives about Benghazi.
The only time one of my voters brought up disillusionment over a Democratic failure to reach the white working class, the person was an upper middle class professor in a largely well-off college town.
Otherwise, my interactions with the rural white working class followed along a certain narrative. Older white men expressed concern about voting for women. One voter I spoke to the week before the election told me he’d already gone to the courthouse to vote early—for Trump—because “I can’t stand that female.” Another who spoke with me for 20 minutes outside his barn on his farm told me all about his disabled daughter being on social security, and yet he was worried about the Mexicans at the border, coming in and living off the government dime. When I pointed out that his own daughter is living off Democratic social safety net programs, he shrugged his shoulders and said “She needs it. Others don’t.”I encountered white male members of rural communities who insisted...they would not be voting for Clinton in 2016—because she’s a woman, because she’s a baby killer, because they bought into narratives about Benghazi. Click To Tweet
I don’t say all this to relitigate 2016. That election is over and done with. But rather, I say all this to divorce “Rural America” from rural whites, and to point out that the ongoing narratives from liberals about what concerns the rural whites and the white working class is not “economic anxiety.” Like liberals in cities, white Dems out in rural areas are concerned about social issues—but many, in those areas, tend toward conservative. I was asked repeatedly about abortion, about immigration, about gay rights, about Black Lives Matter. The vast majority of my canvassers were queer people or people of color, working hard to change their hometowns by being an active presence in them. And they recognized, cogently, that their own liberation was bound up in the issues of their neighbors, which led them to reach out their hand and knock on those doors.
Many members of what might be called the Sanders wing of the party harbor a lot of bitterness over 2016, continuing to emphasize narratives of economic anxiety. But, in my own experience, economic anxiety, while relevant to people’s lives, wasn’t the driving issue that brought them to the polls. They care about their community, and the social issues that impact it—they care deeply about identity, especially if they’re an old white man who feels like his community is being threatened by minorities. Pursuing these voters would mean sacrificing the progressive social politics that make us the party of diversity, the party of queer people, of people of color, of women—the party of civil rights heroes. To win white rural America would mean giving up what makes us progressives, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to do that.