Symposium | What is Red-State Liberalism?

Reconnecting With Rural America

By Tom Vilsack

Tagged politicsrural

In 2012 my wife, Christie, ran for Congress against incumbent Representative Steve King in Iowa’s 4th congressional district. The 4th congressional district was considered to be one of the top ten most conservative districts in the country in 2012. The district is home to an older, and more rural, population. Christie lost by 8.6 points in a district where every Democrat who had run before, or since, against King lost by more than 20 points. Why the difference, and what can be learned from Christie’s effort that might benefit Democratic candidates for higher office in 2018 and beyond?

The answer is simple. Christie showed up in small towns across the district to listen and learn. Understanding the hopes, dreams, and struggles of people living in those towns enabled her to put forth a well-thought-out strategy to rebuild and revitalize the rural economy in a way consistent with the values and culture of the people living in rural areas. She engaged the people in that 4th congressional district in a conversation about how government could partner with them to create real, meaningful opportunities.

While Christie did not win the race, her approach, if used by Democratic candidates running in less conservative districts, will reduce the margins in rural areas of a district or state. With reduced margins in those rural areas, Democrats can swing some seats: Large rural margins will no longer overcome the more favorable margins for Democrats in urban areas.

The importance of speaking to and about rural America remains critically important to the future of the Democratic Party and of Democratic candidates. A failure to do so will continue the losses the party and its candidates have sustained over the last 15 years.

I learned the importance of these lessons during my own races for governor of Iowa in 1998, when I was trying to become the first Democrat elected in 30 years—and again in 2002 when I almost lost my reelection effort because, for a while, I forgot them.

One of the first events I held in 1997 as I launched my gubernatorial campaign was in southeast Iowa with a group of area senior citizens. During that meeting, the women in attendance lamented the fact that their children had left their hometowns and moved far away for better opportunities. The women expressed regret that they would be unable to see their children and grandchildren on a regular basis. These personal losses were entwined with the other losses they and the people of their hometowns had experienced. They had watched the closing of local manufacturing plants and the loss of good jobs, the shuttering of Main Street small businesses run by friends and neighbors, and the mergers of their schools and hospitals. As these losses mounted, these women felt as hollowed out as their towns had become.

As I listened, I learned the importance of speaking to that loss and of offering hope. I passionately outlined my vision for Iowa. Iowa would become the “Food Capital of the World.” I envisioned doing more with our abundant crops by converting them into fuel, feed, fabrics, chemicals, energy, and materials. While most people didn’t fully understand what I meant, they knew I had listened and had a vision and a strategy to change the status quo. With that approach, I did well enough in rural communities that the margins our campaign built up in larger urban areas carried the election for me. I came from far behind to win an upset victory.

During my first term, I focused on improving K-12 schools, expanding access to health care, creating that value-added economy, and investing in improved quality of life.

In the early part of my reelection effort, I remained comfortably ahead, but all that changed with one highly effective ad by my opponent’s campaign. The simplicity of the ad and its message changed the dynamic of the race. A factory worker from a bus manufacturing plant located in my hometown that had moved out of Iowa suggested that I had abandoned him, his co-workers, and our town. He sincerely conveyed his belief that I had done too little as governor to keep the factory in Iowa. The ad reminded me how vulnerable rural populations felt.

The race tightened considerably. I reminded the people of Iowa of my service as a mayor, state senator, and governor, and how I had focused on improving their lives through a growing economy. I detailed my plan to extend the work of my first term to a second term with a laser-like focus on good job creation. I ended up winning 67 of Iowa’s 99 counties and was reelected by a comfortable margin.

I should note that I had an advantage in these races that many Democratic candidates for office have not had. I grew up in a large city but spent most of my adult life in a small town. I practiced law in a small town and served that community as a mayor.

Rural America Matters to All of Us

These experiences taught me valuable lessons and gave me a dual perspective on rural life. Most importantly, I learned the importance of rural America to our country, the incredible contribution rural Americans make to our way of life, and the need to express appreciation for those contributions. We too often take for granted that rural America supplies most of our food, water, and energy. Our farmers are the best in the world. America enjoys the status of a food-secure nation because we produce all we need to feed ourselves and then some. The amazing efficiency of the food supply chain means Americans don’t spend as much of their income on food as most all of the world’s population does.

As a result, we have extra cash in our pockets to spend on making life better for ourselves and our families, leading to a more dynamic and diverse economy.

Rural America protects all of America. Rural Americans make up approximately 15 percent of our total population, but they are more than 30 percent of those serving in the military. Young people living in rural areas understand that our country guarantees their liberty and freedom. And they know that creates a duty to give back. Yet rural Americans often feel as if their contributions to our country and their fellow Americans are not valued or appreciated.

However, by listening, articulating a positive vision for the future, and implementing a strategy to make the vision a reality, my administration made Iowans comfortable with Democratic leadership, values, and priorities. I left office in 2007. That year, Iowans elected another Democratic governor (and it was the first time in history a Democrat followed a Democrat in the governor’s office). Iowans elected Democratic majorities in the State House of Representatives and State Senate. This meant that for the first time in 44 years, Democrats controlled both the executive and legislative branches in Iowa. Democrats won three of five United States House of Representative seats. The Democratic Party enjoyed a 100,000-plus voter registration edge over Republicans. Sadly, over the last decade, Democrats have lost the governorship, both legislative chambers, all but one U.S. House seat, the United States Senate seat held by Tom Harkin, and that 100,000-plus voter registration edge.

During that same period, our national party has lost the United States House of Representatives, the United States Senate, a majority of governorships, state legislative chambers, and the presidency. I contend that many of these losses would have been avoided had the party and our candidates truly shown up in rural areas, talked to and about the contributions of rural America to the rest of the country, and outlined a real, well-thought-out plan to rebuild and revive the rural economy.

We Can’t Beat Something with Nothing

It is bad enough that we didn’t show up, didn’t talk up the contributions of rural Americans, and didn’t lay out a positive vision for real economic change in rural areas, but we also failed to counteract the negative narrative about government that seeped into those rural areas. Democrats offered little to rebut the Republican mantra of a government that was inefficient, ineffective, and rife with fraud, waste, and abuse. We provided no real pushback to the notion that people would be better off with less government or a tax system that favored the wealthy while squeezing the middle class.

If the Democratic Party is the party of government, Democrats need to embrace that moniker and educate Americans on the good work government does every day.

I contend that many of the Democrats’ recent losses could have been avoided had the party and our candidates truly shown up in rural areas.

As United States Secretary of Agriculture, I traveled to all 50 states making that case on behalf of the USDA and the Obama Administration. I proudly outlined that government created the opportunity for more than 1 million families to buy a home that they otherwise could not have afforded, for 18 million rural Americans to enjoy cleaner water in their communities by helping to finance water treatment plants and sewer systems, and for more than 6 million Americans to gain access to high-speed broadband. I reminded audiences that my department had helped to support more than 100,000 small businesses that employed nearly a half million Americans.

I pushed back on attacks aimed at government programs providing help for low-income families and reminded people that the fraud and error rates in those programs were among the lowest in all of government. We prepared state fact sheets documenting the important investments being made by the USDA in a better and more hopeful future for rural Americans.

You can’t beat something with nothing. If the Democratic Party is the party of effective government, we should say so and make the case to all Americans that government plays a positive role in our country. To accomplish this, our party needs to find more creative ways to reach people. But, in doing so, Democrats should make a consistent effort to communicate to rural Americans using local and regional media outlets, those that people in rural areas read and listen to every day to find out what is happening in their part of the world.

All of those media outlets need content to fill space and time. It would take little effort to circulate a constant stream of material educating people about government’s positive impact on their community or region. For example, the local law enforcement agency could be featured for taking advantage of federal programs to purchase the police car that prevents crime or the ambulance that saves lives. The local banker could be thanked for using federal loan guarantees to make home loans that maintain the value of the local real estate market while giving families a piece of the American Dream.

An array of Democratic supporters in rural areas could be enlisted and empowered to pen letters to the editor touting government investments and services. Who knows? Perhaps those letter writers become candidates themselves in local and state legislative races. It might sound mundane, but if you want to win elections, you have to compete and inform every day.

The Democratic Party needs to listen, learn, and inform.

However, our elected officials and our candidates also have to show up in rural areas in order to win. And when they do, they need to talk up, not down, to rural Americans. Acknowledging the contributions rural America makes to the rest of the country is a good place to start. Recognizing their frustrations and concerns, as well as their hopes and dreams, is an important part of an effective and winning message.

Opioids: A Curse and a Symptom

Candidates preparing for a run in 2018 ought to be going to rural areas now. One message they will clearly hear is the deepening concern about addictions—especially to opioids and heroin. In the last year of the Obama Administration, I traveled throughout rural America listening to these heartbreaking stories of a son or daughter lost to addiction. The number of people addicted to, or misusing, opioids is staggering. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die every day after overdosing on opioids.

Rural America has been devastated by this epidemic. To begin with, rural Americans have limited access to health care generally, but this is even more acute with the services needed to combat addictions. More than 85 percent of the 1669 federally designated mental health professional shortage areas are in rural areas. Local law enforcement operating on small budgets cannot afford the rising cost of Naloxone and other drugs needed to save a life in the face of an overdose. Often, whether by pride or privacy, people find it hard to acknowledge they or a loved one has a problem. When they do, they often find limited community support systems in place. The “American Cures Act,” signed by President Obama, will help to expand medication assisted treatment (MAT) but the lack of behavioral service centers in rural areas will still make it difficult for some to access that help. Any change to the Affordable Care Act and its guarantee of access to insurance will disproportionately impact rural Americans.

To combat this scourge in the short term will require physicians trained to use opioids only in very limited circumstances and to prescribe non-addictive pain treatment in most cases. Drug companies need to provide Naloxone in more convenient and easier-to-administer ways while keeping costs down. MAT and full counseling services need to be more accessible to rural Americans. And, we all need to recognize that addiction is a disease just like cancer or diabetes so we can help remove the stigma attached to addiction disorders. Removing this stigma will help make it easier for those in need of help to seek it. What we don’t need is exactly what the Trump Administration is touting: more law enforcement, harsher penalties, and longer jail sentences.

It Will Always be the Economy

Over the long haul, the most successful “cure” to the opioid epidemic will be a rebuilt and revived rural economy. If people in rural areas believe, with good reason, that their tomorrow will be better than their today, we will see a sharp decline in today’s unacceptably high levels of lives lost to despair.

Democratic candidates and office-holders often speak about specific programs and projects such as an infrastructure bank or broadband expansion and attempt to convey to rural Americans the sincere desire to help. Yet rural Americans often misunderstand the message and either assume these programs or projects won’t deliver for them or that government officials view them as in need of assistance because they are unable to help themselves. So, once again: If we are to offer a proactive way forward, Democrats need to talk up and not down to rural Americans. Instead of projects and programs, our message should center on partnerships.

A partnership suggests a collaborative and cooperative approach. No partner is needy. All partners share responsibility and share the benefit of this partnership.

For far too long, we have allowed the rural economy to be an “extraction” economy where everything from crops to coal are being taken from rural areas and transported somewhere else where value is added and opportunity is created. To succeed in rural areas, Democrats also need to offer a “sustainable” alternative to the extraction economy of the past. If not, that extraction economy will continue to slowly bleed rural America of its natural resources and its young people.

A Sustainable Economy—Four Pillars

A Democratic-promoted sustainable economy based on partnerships must sustain rural families, communities, and natural resources in a manner consistent with the values and culture of rural places. During the Obama Administration, we began to build the framework for a sustainable economy constructed around four key strategies: production agriculture and exports; local and regional food systems; conservation, ecosystem markets, and outdoor recreation; and bio-based manufacturing.

First Pillar: Production Agriculture and Exports

Democrats may find fault with production agriculture, since they often believe it to denote only large-scale, commercial-size operations or “factory farms.” But that is not how it is understood in the countryside, where the history and culture are rooted in production agriculture defined as family farms. Indeed, most large scale commercial-size operations are owned and operated by families. The fact is: America has enjoyed benefits from production agriculture. First of all, we are a food-secure nation. Our farmers, ranchers, and producers grow and raise all we need to feed our own people. We import food out of choice—not necessity.

Second, due to the efficiency of our system, food is less expensive here than just about anywhere else in the world. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income for food. Most people in the developed world spend 20 percent or more, while those in developing countries spend up to 50 percent of their income for food. This gives Americans an amazing opportunity to spend paychecks on more goods and services. Just think what adjustments in lifestyles families in America would have to make if they had to spend an additional 10 percent or more for food.

Third, 25 percent of all agricultural products are exported. These exports support both farm families and more than approximately 1 million jobs for workers who process, package, transport, and ship those products around the world. While some in our party criticize trade agreements, they may be painting a picture of the negative impacts of trade with strokes too broad. The fact is that trade benefits American farmers and a million American workers. We would do well to support agricultural trade by distinguishing what works and what doesn’t work in trade agreements. In rural America, trade agreements are viewed positively by most in the agricultural sector. Without robust exports, we would have many fewer farm families because exports help to stabilize prices in most major commodities. For example, dairy exports over the last 15 years have added an additional $1.25 per hundredweight to the value of milk produced, resulting in an additional $36 billion in farm income over that 15-year period. The consolidation in dairy would have been even more dramatic if the industry had not pursued exports. In trade negotiations, Democrats need to articulate the need to preserve what is working in agriculture while fixing what is not working in manufacturing.

At the same time, our party needs to speak to those who wish that farms weren’t so large and so expensive to own and maintain. And our party can offer a positive, hopeful vision for those rural Americans who want to keep farms smaller.

Farming is a tough, risky business. You can be the best farmer in the world, do everything right, and still be financially ruined simply because Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. Keeping a smaller farm profitable creates a real challenge if the crops grown on the farm are commodity crops like corn and soybeans. The price a farmer receives for a commodity crop is based on a world market established somewhere far away from the farm. The farmer or rancher has little control over the price received other than the timing of the sale of that crop. Most farmers must take what the market gives on the day of sale. But, over the last 10 years, an alternative market opportunity has matured that Democrats have supported and should continue to support.

Second Pillar: Local and Regional Food Systems

Today, more than 160,000 farm families have decided to stop playing the commodity game and have begun to develop their own local and regional markets. The benefit of this is that in a local and regional market, the farmer dictates the price.

A key to building a sustainable rural economy is supporting and building local and regional markets where small-sized operations not only survive, but thrive.

Democrats must lead the effort to adequately build more local and regional markets and the smaller-scale operations that need them. Democrats must advocate for more money for micro-loans to help beginning farmers get started. Democrats must also advocate for tailored risk-management tools that enable small-sized operations to survive during challenging times. Democrats must demand more conservation resources targeted to small operations served by a local or regional market. Democrats must partner with private investment firms to finance more food hubs where locally produced goods can be aggregated and sold to large-scale purchasers. Democrats must devise tax and regulatory incentives designed to improve opportunities for the success of local and regional markets.

More than 400 food hubs across the nation support local and regional markets. These food hubs average $4 million each in sales and employ around 4,800 people, including full- and part-time. Promoting production agriculture and local and regional markets would enable Democrats to speak to all of agriculture and rural America, promising more income for farmers, more jobs, and a new entrepreneurial spirit in rural America. I often hear that production agriculture receives erroneous advantages from the government and that those advantages need to be curtailed. When I hear that, I wonder if people raising those concerns understand what the programs do, who receives the benefit, and what limitations are in place to help those truly in need.

It is new farmers, just starting out, who receive most of the low-interest loan money available each year from the United States Department of Agriculture. These loans help beginning farmers obtain the credit history that allows them to ultimately transition to a commercial bank for financing.

Farmers interested in conservation programs do receive cost-sharing help from the government, which makes sense given that we all benefit from healthier soils and cleaner water. Rather than reducing that kind of help, we should be advocating for more conservation funding. Farmers of most crops also receive assistance in buying crop insurance. To receive this assistance, farmers have to agree to a conservation plan for their farms. If this risk management tool did not exist, we would see disaster relief bills passed every year, meaning even more taxpayer money spent. And farmers do have protections against declining prices, but that program helps keep many family farming operations in business when times are hard. In all of these programs there are limits to how much can be received by any one operation or operator. These limits were recently tightened even further by the 2014 Farm Bill.

Local and regional markets will also make it easier for those who wish to get started in farming. The average age of an American farmer is 58 and rising. There are about 3.5 times more farmers over the age of 65 than 35. Many of the young people wanting to farm are returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats should speak to multiple rural interests, including women, by having a robust approach to aiding beginning farmers and ranchers.

Third Pillar: Conservation, Ecosystem Markets, and Outdoor Recreation

Scaled-up conservation is another key to developing a sustainable rural economy which builds on an established value in rural America. Today, a record number of acres are enrolled in some form of land conservation. More than 500,000 landowners receive help from the federal government to help preserve soil, protect water, and clean air. More needs to be done. A good, effective way to do so is by creating more market-based investments in conservation through ecosystem markets.

An ecosystem market is a device to enable a regulated industry or a company with a social responsibility commitment to meet that regulation or fulfill that commitment by investing in land, water, and habitat conservation. If a conservation benefit like the storage of carbon in soil, a more efficient use of water, or filtering toxins from air can be measured, certified, and quantified, a market can be established to encourage investment in these practices.

A regulated industry might have a water quality standard it has to meet. In the past, that would mean an investment in “gray” infrastructure. The company would make a sizeable investment in building the infrastructure to meet the regulation or commitment. After completion, the company would also have to pay staff to maintain the infrastructure. With the development of an ecosystem market, that company could obtain the equivalent of that same result by investing in the green infrastructure of land, water, and habitat conservation. By partnering with a rural landowner, the company can save money, increase the landowner’s revenue, and create jobs for small rural contractors implementing the conservation plan. Today, whole ecosystem markets exist.

Democrats must call for expanded investment in the measurement and certification of conservation results facilitating an expansion of those markets. Tax incentives, increased cost share, and risk management incentives must be part of the Democratic plan to foster more ecosystem markets. The environment and the rural economy will benefit. One immediate benefit from more investment in conservation will be increased opportunities for outdoor recreation. Conservation improves landscape and increases habitat, which increases hunting, fishing, biking, canoeing, and kayaking. Outdoor recreation is a big business—over a $600 billion industry today —and a rural job creator, with many of the 6 million employed by the industry living in rural places.

Fourth Pillar: Biobased Manufacturing

Democrats must bring manufacturing jobs back to rural areas. While some beg for the return of opportunities that have long since left rural areas and are not likely to return, like white appliance manufacturing, I believe Democrats must encourage rural America to look forward. The extraction economy of old is dependent on oil, coal, and other fossil fuel inputs to make everything from plastics to steel. The country needs a more balanced approach to manufacturing that is not overly reliant on those types of inputs. The sustainable approach to rural job creation should, in the future, depend more on bio-based inputs in manufacturing. The use of plants, crops, and animal waste to produce a wide variety of materials, chemicals, fabrics, fibers, fuel, and energy can bring sustainable manufacturing back to rural America. The job-creation possibilities for rural America through a sustainable approach are truly endless.

There are a number of great opportunities that need Democratic support. As the climate changes in the Western United States, trees are dying at an alarming rate. California alone has over 100 million dead trees in its forests. Unless we figure out a productive way to use dead wood, the West will continue to experience more deadly and destructive wildfires. Those disease-ridden trees don’t have to burn. A new product for building beams and supports, cross-laminated timber, can use diseased wood to build multi-story, high-rise residential, commercial, or multi-purpose buildings. Cross-laminated timber can be made into structural, load-bearing frames for those high-rise buildings. In Portland, Oregon, a 12-story building is now being planned and stands as a perfect example of what the future holds. The potential exists for this new industry in the West to repurpose and open mills long ago closed.

The fuel and energy industry provides another real opportunity to create bio-based jobs in the West. Twigs and branches from diseased trees can have a productive use in the development of a bio-based aviation fuel. Recently, an Alaska Airlines plane flew from Washington State to Washington, D.C., fueled by a bio-based aviation fuel made from woody biomass. The aviation jet fuel industry is a nearly 20-billion gallon opportunity servicing 40 major airports.

Even animal waste is now being converted from a problem to a profit for producers. Newtrient is a company, based in Illinois, working on converting manure from dairy operations into a variety of products, from bedding to biogas. The bulk and expense of transporting biomass more easily lends itself to being processed in small facilities which can now be seen in the Midwest beginning to dot the rural landscape.

Democrats must look for ways to increase publicly financed research in bio-based manufacturing. Democrats must partner with the investment community to leverage financial investments to finance these projects. The development of a bio-based manufacturing economy will have the added benefit of helping to justify investments in the infrastructure needed to support the industry, including broadband, water treatment, and transportation. These investments will lead to more and better paying jobs.

Broadband will enable all parts of America to link up to opportunities everywhere in the world. The private sector will never expand high-speed Internet to all parts of the country without government assistance. Democrats championed the electrification of rural America in the twentieth century. Now, Democrats need to be the party that aids rural America in building the information highway to every home, business, and farm in rural America. Investments in water treatment will ensure safe and adequate supplies in every remote area of the country. Improvements in highways, rail lines, and waterways will give rural businesses the chance to get products to market more quickly and efficiently, allowing them to be more competitively priced. Tangible signs of investment, facilitated by government, reinforce the message in rural places that government does work, and plays an important role in improving lives.

A foundation of production agriculture and exports, local and regional food systems, ecosystem markets, and bio-based manufacturing can help build an economy that truly works in rural areas. And advocating and supporting such government action that helps create this kind of economy would give Democrats a successful progressive message for reaching rural areas. Democrats must develop ways to meet and encourage bio-based products and the manufacture of those products. If we want to win the support of rural America, we must offer the young people living there the promise of a brighter future. The sustainable economy offers that promise.

But to construct this foundation with more building blocks, Democrats need our progressive thinkers to devote more time and real attention to the needs of rural areas. The Democratic message needs to be more inclusive, and we need our best thinkers to think more broadly.

I am confident this will work to improve lives in rural areas. When I was governor of Iowa, I worked to build a sustainable economy in rural areas. At one point, Iowa ranked in the top ten states for economic growth, we reversed a 70-year trend of the outmigration of young people, and Iowans were satisfied with Democrats leading their state.

I encouraged the same focus on a sustainable rural economy as the secretary of agriculture. When President Obama left office, two-thirds of rural counties had experienced economic growth and population declines had halted.

I recognize there are many other issues important to rural Americans—ranging from health-care access to climate change—I haven’t touched on. Democrats are already focused on those issues and continue to advance a progressive approach. However, our discussion with rural America needs to be expanded.

You Can’t Make Change Unless You Win Elections

The equation simply stated is this: To help people you have to govern, to govern you have to win elections, and to win elections you have to appeal broadly. For Democrats, that means making a concerted effort to offer a more comprehensive, progressive vision to rural Americans.

All elections, not just presidential ones, have serious consequences. Certainly, the 2016 election has had, and will continue to have, major consequences. Commitments made to universal access to health-care insurance, the environment, and to civil rights are at risk. If future elections are to have more progressive consequences, the Democratic Party, its leaders, and candidates must commit to a more robust and competitive effort in rural America. Democratic candidates who spend time speaking to, and about, the hopes and aspirations of rural Americans, and who recognize the important contributions rural America makes to all of us, will be more competitive in rural areas and increase their chances of electoral success. Democrats must not ignore rural America because, when we do, our candidates lose—and we, and the rest of the country, live with the consequences.

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Tom Vilsack served as governor of Iowa between 1999 and 2007 and was secretary of agricultural during the Obama Administration. He is currently the President and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council.

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