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Hollerin’ in the Holler

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by Carter Turner

As we all know, Donald Trump’s election on November 8 hit Democrats hard.   Mortified by his bombast, misogyny, ignorance, petulance – and his almost cult following by Tea Partiers – we Democrats felt in our cores that Trump was woefully unprepared for the job, and if elected, could do real damage to the country, and perhaps the world.  Our worst nightmares came true, and we’ve been beside ourselves ever since.

One thing is clear, however.  Democrats are not going quietly into the night.  Groups have formed, people are marching, Democratic candidates are springing up, and local committees are looking for larger spaces to meet.   We had eighty at our last Roanoke County Democratic Committee meeting – almost twice our previous high.  Clearly, Democrats are on the move.

But even as more and more Democrats stir to life, we continue to wrestle with questions about who we are as a party, and what we have to do to win more elections.  While Clinton’s loss revealed the urgent need for a hard self-examination, the problems Democrats face obviously go deeper than presidential elections.  From school boards to state houses to governorships to Congress – Democrats are getting clobbered in rural and Rust Belt America.

The question we Democrats face is what to do about it.  There are some who insist we do nothing; that changing demographics will eventually give our party a reliable numerical edge.  It’s certainly true that demographics are changing – and that does bode well for future presidential and statewide races – but it will be a long time before those changes lead to Democratic successes in rural parts of the country.  And for those of us Democrats living in rural America, doing nothing to better reach rural voters beyond waiting for population changes is simply not an option.  We have to promote policies and a message that rural voters find appealing.  If Donald Trump is the disaster to white working-class voters that we think he’ll be, Democrats will soon have an opportunity to offer an alternative vision.  Now is the time for us to put that vision together.

To be clear, returning rural voters to the Democratic Party is no easy task.  There are many forces including cultural and media that present challenging hurdles.  But having run for office in rural Virginia and having recently chaired our local committee, I believe there are some things we can do.  This list is far from exhaustive – but it’s a start.

Broadband, Broadband, Broadband

Democrats have to make the case that broadband access is as much a right as electricity or paved streets.  Without broadband, school curriculums are limited, healthcare is compromised, and communities cannot attract large businesses – especially manufacturing.  Broadband must become the party’s single most important economic investment in rural America.  We have to make this case unapologetically.  The digital divide is leaving many rural Americans behind and it will fall on our party to address this urgent problem.

Be Realistic About Gun Legislation

I know the reaction this will garner but I’ll say it anyway.  Democrats need to realize there isn’t a lot that can be realistically done to drastically reduce gun violence in America.  The country’s gun culture is too old and established to be radically altered.  Any policies we have for curbing gun violence will be limited by the fact that there are 300 million guns in the country.  Until that changes, and it won’t change anytime soon, we’re going to have way more gun violence than we should for a country our size.  That’s not to say, however, we can’t do anything.  We should push for background checks on private sales, limits on magazine sizes, and improved mental health services and communication with law enforcement agencies.  These efforts will save some lives and are worth pursuing, but they don’t need to be the centerpiece of our platform.  We also need to stop talking about banning “assault weapons.” There is no substantive definition for what constitutes an assault weapon so any legislation to remove them will simply be met with stylistic changes by gun makers.  Let’s focus on what will work, but be realistic about the changes we’ll actually see.

Stand Up to Entitlement Fraud

There have been several books published in the last year that shed light on the minds of rural Trump supporters.  Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy are essential reading for Democrats looking to expand the party.  One of the central themes of all three of these books is the value of hard work among rural voters.  Many white working-class voters are struggling to support themselves and their families, but amidst all the challenges they face, they continue to do it on their own.  Self-reliance is as essential value for them.  That’s why so many rural voters react so strongly to those who take unfair advantage of entitlement programs – and the Democratic Party who they see as enabling the fraud.

I’m a strong believer in the importance of government programs that help those truly in need, but we have to be willing to acknowledge that fraud – particularly medical fraud – is relatively common, and we have to be willing to propose policies that help end it.  If Democrats want to gain ground with rural voters, they, too, must champion the importance and value of hard work, and stand against those who want to game the system.  For rural voters who are barely getting by, fairness is crucial – and we must make it clear that we agree.

Allow a Place at the Table for People of Faith

Aside from the large number of attendees at our last Roanoke County Democratic Committee meeting, something else occurred that night that was truly refreshing.  One of our members (someone who will be announcing his plans to run for office later this month) stood up to say the reason he had switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party was because the Democratic Party was the only party that lined up with his Christian values (he’s a Mormon).   As a religious studies professor, I found his statement extremely hopeful.  One of our tasks right now as Democrats is to find ways to weave together the causes of our various identity groups.  The most effective way to do that is to find language that expresses our common values.  Quite frankly, we need to speak about our party and our vision for the world in moral terms.  We need to talk about what’s right, why it’s right, and we cannot be afraid to do so in explicitly religious terms.  Values and morality do not have to be grounded in faith traditions, but we shouldn’t resist those whose moral center is squarely rooted in faith.  Rural Americans are the most religious in the country, and if we hope to attract them to our party, we have to be willing to find common moral ground with them.

Political Integrity

Between last year’s concerns about the DNC’s neutrality during the Democratic primary and worries about transparency and corruption within Donald Trump’s administration, the time is right for our party to lead by example.  From our local committees, to the DNC, to all of our elected officials, we must insist that our party handles its business with the highest levels of integrity.  One of the main reasons many rural voters oppose government is because they believe it’s corrupt.  Democrats must be especially vigilant to ensure that our internal elections are fair, and that our elected officials are honest, transparent, and willing to put the good of the country over personal political gain.  If we hold ourselves accountable to this standard, our party will grow.

This list is far from exhaustive but it represents the essential positions we must take as Democrats if we hope to pull rural, white-working class voters back into the Democratic fold.  Our party is clearly on the eve of a resurgence.  If we can galvanize around policies and messages that expand our appeal to rural voters, we could begin to take back local and state governments.  Our moment is now.  We can’t pass it by.

  • Jim B

    If we do all these things, won’t we be almost like the republican party or republican lite?

    • Carter Turner

      Donald Trump is the Republican Party. We’d be promoting values, integrity, hard work, fairness, reasonable (and realistic) gun laws, and broadband. How does that make us Trump or even Trump lite?

      • God b watching U

        Very well said. We older Virginians have a habit of thinking and speaking in values language. And many rural Virginians across generations have that habit. The so-called ‘progressive’ Democrats do not and will not likely. I can’t tell you how many Democratic Party and ‘progressive grassrootsy’ meetings and events I’ve attended where they consider we older Virginians’ way of speaking – about values, meanings, ontology and cosmology – to be quaint, dismissed with a polite smile, or to be annoying, flicked off like a piece of shit on the toilet seat (really, that sort of annoyed response has happened many times!).

  • Elaine Owens

    Excellent points, except I disagree a bit on the resentment of rural areas to welfare programs. Statistics show that in many rural areas (i.e., eastern Kentucky, rural West Virginia), it’s white working class poor living there who make up the bulk of the recipients. Sometimes, the railing against welfare is a mask that covers racism, the idea that some have that “I need it, but ‘they’ are cheats.” Welfare was “reformed” during the Clinton years. It no longer should be a target for anyone. More likely is white, rural resentment of Democrats supporting minority rights of all kinds, making some people let their bigotry show. Republicans play to that resentment.

    • Carter Turner

      Thanks, Elaine. I know that many critiques of entitlement programs are ultimately driven by racism. What I learned from the reading the books I mentioned and talking to my rural friends, however, is that they aren’t all. J.D. Vance in particular writes about members of his family and community who abuse programs so I had white rural people in mind when I wrote this. But I agree with your point.

      • Yeah, I just read JD Vance’s book — very interesting, also maddening and depressing.

        • Elaine Owens

          Some people read the book as glorifying the people he describes, but I saw it exactly as the title says, an sad elegy for a people who are self-destructive and yet at heart are good people caught up in economic trends they can’t control. They come from ancestors who moved from Appalachia seeking work and a better life, yet they now stay angry and wait for a savior, while their young too often destroy themselves with opioids and other destructive behavior. Vance could have been writing about Virginia coal country…

      • Elaine Owens

        One thing I have heard from friends in rural Virginia (mostly Republicans) is that Democrats are concerned with backs, immigrants, LBGT people, etc., but they don’t seem to care about rural problems or white poverty. They also note that Democrats are in cities, while Republicans are talking to them where they are. And, as you point out, guns and God are very important to them.

        • Andy K.

          Elaine, they’re not entirely wrong about the rural/urban contrast. Unfortunately, we like to believe there’s still a balance between the ways of life, when the Census Bureau reports that 80% of Americans live in cities now. Some states have yet to reach 50% but across the board, rural America is a minority.

          • Elaine Owens

            Andy, Virginia is an example that validates your comments about population trends. Northern Virginia, Tidewater to some extent, and increasingly metro Richmond, as well as smaller cities throughout the Commonwealth, have the majority of Virginia’s population and tend to be more Democratic in voting patterns. However, the majority of Virginia’s land mass is still rural, and rural people – white by a huge percentage and far more conservative – vote in much higher numbers (majority Republican) than urban areas. Example: Roanoke City is reliably Democratic, but Augusta and Rockingham Counties are very Republican. The average voting percentage in Roanoke City is 55-60%, while those counties vote reliably 70% plus and have a larger population overall. So, it makes gerrymandering very easy.

            We have a two-fold problem as I see it. We have to find ways to get Democrats to vote in every election at every level (Trump just might assist this as revulsion toward him grows), and we need to find a way to garner more of the rural vote. We can see another example of our problem in the fact that 17 House districts were carried by Democrats in presidential and state-wide elections, but they have Republican delegates. Dems need to see that they are assisting the opposition in keeping power.

  • Dr. C W Blankenship

    I did economic development in Kentucky for twenty years. I was one of the senior members of the team that recruited Toyota to Georgetown, Kentucky. Democrats did plenty to help rural America but it required them to make some changes and they would not do it. In the 1980s we had a pilot program with Kroger that would guarantee prices for bell peppers, cucumbers, and green beans as replacement crops for tobacco. They would not participate because their fathers and grandfathers grew tobacco. It would take too much change to do it.

    Instead of J D Vance’s book – read Ron Eller’s Uneven Ground. It will tell you all you need to know about economic growth and development in Appalachia. Also an excellent book is White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.

    • Thanks, I actually just took “White Trash” out of the library…

    • Josh Howard

      This is great advice. I’m glad to see someone else chimed in with real experience and to push people away from Vance’s revival of ethnic nationalism bootstrap-ism.

  • Josh Howard

    This article is absolutely on point regarding faith, integrity, guns, and broadband technology. I’m a little confused by the section on fraud though. I agree there is a legitimate perception throughout Appalachia that fraud is rampant. Don’t have to go too far to see someone complaining about “them welfare frauds down the street” all the while ignoring their own realities.

    However, I haven’t seen any real evidence of fraud (“especially medical fraud”) being as common as you indicate. Voters in Appalachia would likely respond positively to reform initiatives, especially if they deployed strong language, but are they really needed beyond PR?

    • Carter Turner

      It’s certainly the perception that it’s a problem. I have several doctor friends in SW Virginia who tell me frequently about the amount of medical fraud they see almost daily. And I’ve spoken with a lot of business owners in the area who hire people who then don’t show up to work – presumably because they only applied for the job in order to continue receiving unemployment. I think a lot of Republicans overplay the amount of fraud out there and I want to avoid that trap. But what I am suggesting is for Democrats to say, “look, if there’s fraud then we’re going to try to reduce it” rather than just responding that “fraud doesn’t exist.” Let’s look into it and see what’s there. It will help the party to make that commitment. If at the end of the day we can say definitively that fraud doesn’t exist, then we can begin to change those perceptions. This isn’t about telling anyone to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, though. It’s about making sure that people in rural areas are being treated fairly.

      • Sandi Saunders

        Where do people think the name “pillbilly” comes from? The opioid epidemic in rural America is coming DIRECTLY from medical fraud. Same goes for the abuses to unemployment and workers comp that employers see every day. These things are real, they may to some extent be exaggerated (as if we don’t do the same) but they are not made up. We have to fight for help for those who need it but admit that the fraud needs to be found and stopped (of course that will take money and manpower to do) because insisting it is a myth is not working for us.

  • Sandi Saunders

    This is so spot on and insightful. It is all within our reach because the truth is that right is on our side if we can just reclaim it. Go Carter Go!

  • Sandi Saunders

    I will throw this out here for suggested reading too (and it is hilarious and enjoyable). The “Liberal Redneck” Trae Crowder and his friends, two other southern stand-up comics, Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan have written a book. “The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark” and they very comically touch on the problems of the elite liberals meeting the truth of the rural south (and rust belt). It has some great comedy (as does their act) but both also bring a real message about how we have to meet people where they are and offer them the tools to see the benefit to them not just look down on them as yokels without brains. Because as these three prove, they are not all lost causes.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HMXRUBE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

  • Paul Goode

    “I’m a strong believer in the importance of government programs that help those truly in need, but we have to be willing to acknowledge that fraud – particularly medical fraud – is relatively common,”

    This is a highly debatable assertion. Estimates of Medicare fraud run from 3-10%, depending on your understanding of fraud, The reality is that a half trillion-dollar program will experience some fraud, and at some point it costs more than it’s worth to eliminate it. If it costs $2 to eliminate a dollar of fraud, wouldn’t that $2 be better spent elsewhere? That’s how a business would look at it, and supposedly a big part of the appeal of Himself is that he’s businessman.

    “must champion the importance and value of hard work, and stand against those who want to game the system.”

    Name a single Democrat who thinks otherwise. For anyone who thinks that rural whites don’t game the system, I have a bridge in Brooklyn.

    The notion that poor rural whites are morally superior to other poor people is wrongheaded and offensive. I’d rather lose there votes than kowtow to that nonsense.

  • wwfleming

    I’ll check out these two books but wanted to make a comment, too: It has been my observation that most of the rural people who are Republican/conservative are the way they are because they have lost a lot economically and socially and feel that they need to conserve what they have. Hence, they go toward the side that seems to address conservative values. Also, the Republicans have spent years and years labeling all Democrats as tax and spend wealthy liberals who are the enemy of conservatives (aka Republicans), and this narrative has stuck. At Indivisible and Democratic meetings I have been to many people have expressed that they do not hear from Democrats what it means to be a Democrat. The Democratic image has been predominantly created by the Republicans.

    As far as Broadband, I had gone to the VA Department of Information Technology when it existed in the 1990s and suggested that they install state owned optical fiber along major road rights of way to create a state information network similar to the state transportation network. The person I was talking to said they had also proposed this but that the idea was crushed by wealthy and powerful telco lobbyists for AT&T, Verizon, and others who were giving money to the mostly Republican General Assembly. One thing a candidate against Republican incumbents could so is point out that Republicans are the ones keeping rural Virginian’s ignorant by blocking inexpensive high speed Internet access.