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Monday, June 11, 2007

GOP Losing Rural Support

For all of our brothers and sisters working hard in the vast rural areas of our state, there is some comforting news from a new poll released by the wonderful Center for Rural Strategies. Here are some highlights:

* A slight majority of rural voters prefers a generic Democratic presidential candidate to a generic Republican candidate.
* War support is declining. Forty-five percent of rural respondents said the country should "stay the course" in Iraq, down from 51 percent in 2004.
* Rural people have a personal connection to the wars. Sixty percent know someone serving in the wars. One quarter say they have a family member serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
* President Bush's job performance ratings have dropped 10 points (to 44 percent approve) since the 2004 election.

You can read the details here. Rural Florida, and indeed rural America will be a hard nut to crack for us, but it certainly can be done. Don't forget that farmers and rural folks were what started the Populist Party in the late 1800s. The Populists were the forerunners of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century which brought us child labor laws, women's suffrage, trust busting and business regulation, the initiative and referendum process, direct election of Senators, and environmental conservation. This laid the foundation for the modern Democratic Party under Woodrow Wilson, which reached its full fruition under FDR and subsequent Democratic presidents.

It all started with the farmers in rural America as a response to growing corporate domination. Sound familiar?


Eddie said...

Another example of farmers and rural folks pushing progressive policies is the Farm-Labor party in Minnesota. Hubert Humphrey negotiated the merging of the Minnesota Democratic Party and the Farm-Labor Party into the Democratic Farm-Labor Party (DFL). The DFL still exists today, and in fact, every Democratic representative from Minnesota is really a DFL'er.

As far as Republican support in most rural areas waning, one could debate the relevance of that specific data point considering Republican support has dropped in every area of the country during Bush's Presidency.

It is correct though, that there is huge potential in rural areas for the Democratic Party. Farmers and rural folks are absolutely not a natural constituency for the Republican Party, and really it was only as late as 1994 that the Republican Party really consolidated its hold on rural America. Rural areas were once the bastion of Democratic power.

Unfortunately, the Republicans have managed to play off the region's social conservatism and use social wedge issues like gay marriage to get rural people to vote against their own economic interests (a process detailed in What's the Matter with Kansas.

That process has begun to reverse itself with several moderate Republican lawmakers in states like Kansas and Oklahoma switching parties and becoming Democrats due to the extreme politics of the conservative fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party.

There are two questions we have to ask ourselves now:

1) Will we as Democrats seize this opportunity and bring more rural Americans into our party by aggressively combating corporate America and big-money interests while protecting farmers, workers, and middle class families? Will we fight for fair trade and renegotiate the free trade policies that have impoverished rural America? This means doing whatever we can to marginalize the "New Democrats" who advocate pro-corporate policies and unlimited and unrestrained free trade deals. If we hope to tap into the populist streak in these places, we can't just be slightly better than the Republicans on economic issues. The Republicans will just continue to use social policy as a wedge issue effectively. We have to stand in stark contrast to the Republicans and stand strongly with these people.

2) This question is very important: How much power are we willing to give populist social conservatives in our party? The Democratic Party should be inclusive, but there are principles we should never compromise. We can't let the Democratic caucus devolve into what it was pre-1994, when Republicans + conservative Democrats equaled a large majority in Congress. Right now the Democratic Party (or at least, its representatives in Congress) is as progressive as it has ever was in history, especially on social issues. How much are we willing to risk that?

the kick said...

While pocketbook issues are always of interest to rural or any other kind of voter, rural folks are also always going to shy away from the Dem positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights. We have to be able to present reasonable arguments on both of those issues primarily (knowing others will need attention, too)if we're going to see rural voters as well as moderates of all types swing solidly toward the Dems. That's a challenge we haven't met effectively, and until we do, we're kidding ourselves. Too often we've been on the defensive. Until we gain a competitive argument that speaks to those folks (not necessarily our folks), any gains will be short-lived.