Home Democratic Party “Rural Progressives”:  It’s Not an Oxymoron

“Rural Progressives”:  It’s Not an Oxymoron

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by Anthony Flaccovento

For the past several years, as most of rural Virginia has become increasingly “red,” a number of us have been arguing that this shift is as much about a lack of real alternatives as it is about a genuine change in values.   As someone who has lived in southwest Virginia for the past 32 years, who has worked with farmers, loggers, miners and small business people, I’ve found as many places of agreement as disagreement, particularly on basic economic issues.  During my run for U.S. Congress in 2012, I fared better in the coal counties of the 9th District than overall, with a message that attacked inequality and trickle-down economics, and proposed leveling the playing field with “bottom up” economic policies.  A message I might add, that didn’t shy away from the need to care for our land and to transition beyond coal.

So for folks like me, it’s been particularly painful to see our region become such a tough place for Democrats seeking office, and to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump for president.

There are many reasons for this steady movement to the right, from the outsized impact of Fox News to the role that churches have played in shaping perceptions of their congregants.  But one reason that simply does not get enough attention is this: the Democratic Party and the progressive movement both have, for the most part, written off rural America.  It’s true.  I’ve experienced this first hand, not just as a Congressional candidate, but in my speaking, writing and advocacy work intended to elevate both the problems and the solutions emerging in small towns and rural communities.  Whether focused on politics or the economy, progressive and liberal organizations are largely clueless when it comes to rural communities.  And it’s not a priority for them to change that.

A month after Trump’s election, a dozen or so folks from southwest Virginia began meeting to consider what we could do, and especially, what we needed to do differently. This group, which calls itself Progressive 9th, includes farmers, academics, working people, students and activists. Some are long-time Dems, while others lean more towards being Independent.

With the goal of changing – and greatly improving – our politics and public debate, our group has just completed and released the Rural Progressive Platform.   You read that right: it’s a Progressive Platform, written by rural residents, grounded in rural values, priorities and language.  The full platform is four pages long and is accompanied by a one page synopsis, both of which can be found here (also, see below).  They are not intended to address every issue of importance to rural people or to political progressives, but rather to fundamentally reframe the debate and to offer more authentic and constructive ways to discuss economic, environmental and community issues.

We invite all readers of Blue Virginia, rural and urban alike, to read and consider the Rural Progressive Platform, to share it widely, and to use it or adapt it as you need.  We particularly hope that local and statewide elected officials, candidates for office and Democratic Party leaders at all levels will review the platform.  We believe that it could help us begin to overcome our severe polarization and political dysfunction, not by aiming for some lukewarm middle ground, but by identifying and prioritizing the core values shared by both Progressives and rural people.

Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer and sustainable economic development consultant from Abingdon, Virginia, who was the Democratic candidate for Congress in 2012.  He started Progressive 9th, along with Michael Hudson of Blacksburg, and a dozen other people from eight different counties in southwest Virginia.  For more information, please visit the Rural Progressive Politics website at https://ruralprogressivepolitics.wordpress.com/

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Rural Progressive Platform
June 2017

Rural Progressive Platform must be built upon three central elements:  land, livelihood and community.  Over generations, these three pillars of rural life have shaped the economies and cultures of much of the countryside; they have forged our commitment to self-reliance and belief in hard work.   Though much of rural America has changed greatly over the past several decades, land, livelihood and community continue to shape the way we see the world, ourselves, and therefore our politics.

What follows here is a framework for Progressive Values within a rural context, particularly that of Central Appalachia.   It frequently uses “us” and “we”, not to stereotype or diminish others – “them” – but because we write from our own experience, in our own words.  This platform is not intended to be comprehensive, but should be understood as a background document from which rural progressives can develop more focused and fully developed positions, or platforms better suited to their particular regions.  It is accompanied by a one page summary, which we hope will help spread the ideas more widely.

Our land

In southwest Virginia, our forests provide lumber for building, wood for heating, deer and turkey for food and ginseng for a little bit of cash.  Cattle and sheep graze on lush pastures, while narrow strips of bottom land have grown tobacco, produce and home gardens.  Creeks and rivers offer bass, trout and perch, as well as irrigation for crops.  And underneath all of this, in some parts of our area has been coal, which historically provided well-paying jobs and a good chunk of the tax base for many local services.

In Kansas, they have prairies; in Louisiana, bayous.  Though each place is different, rural regions share a sense that nature is part of how we meet our needs, feed ourselves, create jobs and livelihoods.  That the mountains, forests, valleys and streams are a practical part of our lives and economies.  No doubt this is at least part of why we look at a chainsaw or a rifle so differently from most city folks.  Yet it’s also true that many urban communities have begun to revitalize and rebuild their own land base, whether as community gardens, farms or public parks.  The time is right for rural and urban folks to come together around the idea of working landscapes that respect the environment while helping people meet their needs.

Our livelihoods

There are “environmentalists” in rural communities and small towns across Appalachia, the Midwest and every other part of the country.  Nevertheless, because the environmental movement has emerged most strongly in cities or suburbs, its focus has been on protecting the environment, more so than using it well to meet people’s needs.   It often seems that environmentalists forget just how much everyone depends upon the food, materials and energy that primarily come from rural areas, thanks to the work that rural folks do.  Raising food, cutting logs, mining coal or minerals, drilling for gas – these are some of the jobs we do, along with the mechanics, the welders and carpenters, the engineers and the truck drivers that finish the work and get these products to market.  If we seem to resent people telling us how to manage our land, it’s because we do a lot of the work that enables so many others to eat well, be warm and live comfortably.

Of course our jobs are far more diverse now, and many rural people no longer even raise a garden, let alone work in the outdoors.  But the sense of ‘livelihood’, of taking care of our own needs through hard, sometimes dangerous work, of being self-reliant, that sense is still strong in most rural people, still part of what we believe and what we want.  We’re encouraged to see that an increasing number of people in cities, especially young people, are yearning to work with their hands, to learn how to raise food or live closer to the land.

Our community

In rural places, family and neighborliness are the starting point for community.  And church.  Small towns and rural places, like many bigger cities, have seen community eroded by empty store fronts, consolidated schools, addiction and more.  Even so, we still tend to set down roots in our place, so when we’re told to just ‘move to where the jobs are’, we think it’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make.

We believe that a caring local community offers the best means to support and help our neighbors.

It’s true that too often we’ve not welcomed people who look or act differently from our norms.  But not always.  After 911 and Katrina, many first responders traveled from rural towns to New York and New Orleans.  For years, the UMWA offered help to Chinese miners in their struggles to make their coal mines safer.  We can be neighborly to others, far away.  But we need to believe that our own communities are valued and respected, not dismissed or ridiculed.

 

If land, livelihood and community are central to rural identity and culture, what would a progressive platform look like in these places?  How should it be different from the progressive ideas and language that we usually hear?  What are some examples of public policies to support these values?

 

Rural Progressive values and the land:

We love the land and all it has to offer.  However, we want people who don’t live from the land, who experience nature mostly through tourism or recreation, to understand this:  It’s hard to make a living from the land without harm, without impact.  Farmers understand this, as do fishermen, hunters, loggers and miners.  Those of us who farm, fish or hunt see ourselves as good stewards, because we know that our livelihoods depend on healthy land.

If we’re going to do a better job sustaining the environment while still meeting people’s needs, progressive policies must make partners of those who live from the land, rather than just regulating and restricting what happens in the countryside.  Progressive policies should make major investments in the most promising rural sustainable businesses, particularly in communities historically dependent on coal.  Rebuilding local economies so that people can care for themselves and their families should be as much of a priority as protecting the environment.  We need to see that we are truly in this environment thing together, sharing the challenges equally.

Policy examples:

  • Increased investment in sustainable farming, fishing, forestry research and practices, rather than subsidies for corporate farming, fishing, and forest products
  • Support for the RECLAIM Act and reinvestment in coal communities
  • Investment and tax credits for community wind energy, solar gardens and other renewable energy that also provides revenue to local communities, in combination with a modernized electric grid that supports distributed energy
  • Environmental regulations that are ‘scale appropriate’, ie less burdensome on small to mid-sized farms, businesses and manufacturers

 

Rural Progressive values and livelihoods:

We say without hesitation that working men and women must be at the center of a Rural Progressive platform and must form the foundation of the broader progressive movement.  Working folks in rural Appalachia and urban Baltimore might look different, but in city and country alike working people often do work that is physically demanding, work that requires a practical intelligence, and jobs that so many others have come to take for granted.  We think it’s long past due that rural and urban workers share in the wealth our work creates, and be respected by politicians with their actions, not just their words.

We come from generations of resourceful people, folks “who were poor but didn’t know it” because they made the most out of what they had.  A Rural Progressive platform should thus be built on responsibilities at least as much as rights, with policies that help people help themselves, and build on our strengths and assets.

Policy examples:

  • An end to policies that undermine organized labor
  • Increase in Earned Income Tax Credit , and other savings vehicles for lower income and working folks;
  • Policies and programs that build the wealth of workers, including cooperatives
  • ‘Asset-based’ economic development that addresses real community needs, rather than subsidies for big boxes and outside corporations
  • Free community college
  • College education without onerous debt, in part through reduced university administrative costs, and income-based loan repayment
  • Dramatically increased internet access, including publicly owned options

Rural Progressive values and community:

We’ve not yet given up on community – real community, built around a place.  We need progressive economic, tax and trade policy that supports healthy, self-reliant local communities, instead of polices that suck the life out of our businesses, homes and downtowns.

Strengthening local communities should be a central goal of progressive policies.

Policy examples:

  • Tax incentives for regional manufacturers and other businesses that commit to long-term local employment, rather than supporting corporations who offshore jobs.
  • Regulatory relief for community banks, and support for credit unions and community development financial institutions
  • Expansion of rural health clinics, addiction treatment and prevention, and incentives for doctors and health practitioners to work in rural and underserved communities

Rural citizens believe in fairness and understand that some people start with advantages that ordinary people just don’t have.  After all, Jesus honored the widow, who gave in spite of her poverty, and rebuked the Pharisees, who gave only from their surplus.   It seems fair, then, to ask more of those with wealth and privilege, to oppose policies that further their economic or political power, and to protect and care for those who are struggling.

Policy examples

  • Dramatic changes in campaign financing and lobbying laws to eliminate the extraordinary influence now exercised by the wealthy and big corporations
  • Full support for veterans’ health, mental health and job training
  • Long-term support of Social Security and Medicare, by requiring the wealthy to pay into the system on all their earnings, as working and middle class people already do
  • Taxing dividends, capital gains and other unearned income at the same level as earned income, so that we all pay our fair share
  • Maintaining full rights and protections for all people in our country – who are, after all, our neighbors – regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or ability.

 

Download a PDF of the platform here.
Download a one-page synopsis of the platform here.

  • Denise Lambert Skeen

    Anthony’s chosen dozen reminds me of the Senate cabal on healthcare. He is very correct on a lot of things but he has a way of alienating natives. And nowhere does he share who his hand chosen dozen are. Remember that he left ASD under some questionable circumstances involving mismanagement.
    “ASD’s organizational culture[as run by Anthony Flaccavento] was to operate “by the seat of its pants” or “on a wing and prayer.” There was a similar culture at Sustainable Woods. In both organizations, there was relatively little planning and big picture direction. Instead there was a hope that everything would work out. Several respondents outside of ASD stated that this showed, that you could tell that ASD engaged in relatively little planning.”
    http://www.ruralsupportpartners.com/docs/ASDSustainableWoodsCaseStudyReport-Final.pdf

  • Rees Shearer

    Denise, I think it would be more productive to direct your support or objections towards the document rather than focusing on Anthony Flaccavento’s leadership in a forestry products cooperative ten to twenty years ago. I do agree that the website for Rural Progressives should name and give brief bios for those persons who contributed to the “Rural Progressive Platform,” but I wouldn’t compare it to the “Senate cabal on healthcare,” the consequences from that closed, male-dominated group are so many orders of magnitude greater than this project that the comparison is ludicrous.

    I wish the platform focused squarely on why we are unable to successfully transition to a renewable solar energy economy in SWVA. The reason is a particular corporation that corrupts Virginia politics on a scale all to itself. Dominion Energy buys support with generous campaign donations to General Assembly members and statewide officers, across party lines. Dominion and Appalachaian Power’s intention is to prevent the state’s transition to a renewable energy economy, except that it be as slow and utility-dominated as possible–Dominion and Appalachian selling you solar and wind power, generated in other states, at unreasonable rates. Dominion’s pipelines, carrying fracked gas, will despoil rural Virginia, just like TVA’s demand in the 1950s for low-priced coal created demand for stripped and mountain-top removal coal. This destruction of our land in the past and its threat to our economic and environmental future, Denise and Anthony, is a true cabal’s attack on rural Virginia.

  • old_redneck

    I know Anthony, having worked on several projects with him between 1995 and 2001, when I was working in the coal fields for the Methodist church. Given a choice between Denise’s carping and Anthony’s action, I’ll take Anthony any day.

  • God b watching U

    WE have been saying similar things for a long time, having been born and raised in rural Shenandoah Valley, and living most of adult like in rural central piedmont. Our family was among the first Europeans to settle in the wild mountains of the northern Blue Ridge/Shenandoah Valley (in the first half of the 18th century).

    Among observations that we add to the very insightful and helped article:

    a. highly developed and highly infra-structerd urban and suburban places have achieved their development, economic growth, and generations of privileges and amenities through extraction from rural places. What did they extract: cheap energy, cheap minerals, cheap forest products, cheap food, etc, Why was it cheap: corporate commanders of the resource chain ensured cheap or relatively cheap labor, by many means: violently and legally undermining collective bargaining, manipulating employment of undocumented labor, using oligarchic political power (that allowed, or even required, for example, unsafe mining, low wages/no benefits in agricultural work, lack of convenient access to health/mental health/education resources, etc).

    It is not enough just to condemn oligarchic, unethical and immoral corporate power; just at White folks need to acknowledge how affluence (wealth gap), power, and privilege has flowed to many White communities historically because of social-structural aspects of White Supremacy ideology, urban and suburban folks need to acknowledge how affluence, power, privilege flowed to many in urban and suburban communities through the suffering of many rural communities.

    In this discussion it is not outlandish to discuss reparations to rural Americans. If documented descendants of enslaved persons properly demand reparations – which they likely should receive in some form – then documented descendants of rural people who were extraction workers, agricultural workers, etc may properly demand reparations.

    b. highly developed and highly infra-structerd urban and suburban places not only achieved their high degree of affluence, power and privilege through cheap extraction – of energy, resources, food, etc – they continue to do! CONTINUE TO DO! TO VERY HIGH DEGREE! Can any urban place in Virginia feed its population from within City limits (urban gardens and edible landscapes are great, but …. )? Can any urban place in Virginia produces its own energy from within City limits (perhaps they are working toward that goal which would be great but how will they repair the damage of taking a whole century of cheap energy out of rural places?)? etc.

    c. highly developed and highly infra-structerd urban and suburban places have been CONSUMED the natural world aggressively and continue to consume the natural world AGGRESSIVELY.

    d. highly developed and highly infra-structerd urban and suburban places not only consume aggressively they SH*T aggressively: in other words, they send their nasty SH*T into rural places AGGRESSIVELY. Do any Virginia cities handle all their own WASTE in city limits? Are landfills within CITY LIMITS? Are toxic waste sites within CITY LIMITS? Do they clean up all their human waste within CITY LIMITS and re-use the processed solid matter and the processed liquid matter in city limits? In other words: is the purified PEE kept in the City and re-used in the City? it the purified FECES kept in the City and re-used in the City? You can answer that question can’t you: where are the landfills? where are the toxic waste sites? where are the waste management, filtration, and effluent sites?

    Yet again, an example, of the need for PROPER PAYMENT and REPARATIONS to rural places.

    c.

    • Raffey

      We share the same experience here in rural California. If that shocks you, that only goes to shows how successfully corporations and their politicians are at hiding the facts from American voters.

      California farmers raise a whopping 80+% of the table food consumed by Americans. California’s $30+-Billion agricultural industry could not survive without legal and illegal farm workers from Mexico and South America. Our almond crop brings in billions from buyers overseas. America’s largest oil producing counties are in California – not Oklahoma or Texas. California has enormous working mines, including the largest borax mine on the planet, gold mines and cement plants. You can find California’s old oak forests in railroad tracks laid across the entire nation.

      Rural America remains under colonial rule who created corporations for the purpose of controlling colonies. Corporations that reap a fortune exploiting foreign lands and people are as well rewarded by their Kings and Presidents today, as they were in 1776. Kings and Presidents have always lent armies to corporations and they still do.

      Rural Americans today still wear the yokes of colonialism. It is a heavy burden, the work of colonial people is hard and it breaks your back and saps your spirit. You feel cheated, wronged and angry because you are cheated. The author is correct.

      Rural Americans break their backs, working the land, only to have the profits sucked out of our pockets by corporate masters and their politicians in Washington DC.

      So why did rural Americans vote for Trump? The first signs of corporate influence emerged within the Tea party. At first, the Tea Party made sense and rural Democrats including me attended meetings. But when big Republican donors began preying on us, there was not a single big Democratic donor to help combat a take-over.

      The so-called Tea Party candidates who were chosen and funded by big Republican donors were, to put it bluntly, dumber than hammered owl shit. Just like any other colony, Tea Party candidates can’t figure out how an anvil works, let alone taxes or public policy. For that reason, they have no choice. They hold onto their “jobs” by answering to their masters and shouting about cultural issues till you wanna puke. But the Corporate line, the donor line, the Republican line run in a straight line back to donor pockets, none of whom live in rural America.

      Running across this website really made my day (thank you Vox). I’ve lived and worked in rural America for 30 years. I KNOW Democrats can beat Republicans here. I KNOW that for a fact. I know because I did it. This well known, vocal rural liberal won election in dark red, gun totting, bible belting Republican California by a whopping 64% of the voters. Unless or until the Democrat elites get off their high-horses, Trump will flame the fires burning here. Colonial America longs to be free.

      • “dumber than hammered owl shit” is the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. Thanks! 🙂

        • God b watching U

          …. perhaps that ‘dumb’ … but guess what Urban Elite Apparatchiks? …. GUESS WHAT? …. most of them WON! So, what do Democratic Party Elites – many to them lauded, praised and very WELL PAID have to say about LOSING? … and what to all the ‘resisters’ and ‘indivisibles’ in urban American have to say about LOSING? In part we know that the Elites in urban American like to lose because it reinforces their ‘echo chamber social media world’. And we know that WEAK MINDS need solipsistic reinforcement. YES, its true, and don’t deny it: a lot of urban elites are SO WEAK MINDED they wouldn’t survive a week, much less years, or for a lifetime, in many rural places, without Internet access, where it takes a hour or more to get to a grocery store (with a special on bologna, and French’s plan yellow mustard – the ‘toxic yellow’ color kind – not imported olive spreads, and artisan condiments), and where Amazon won’t deliver reliably. Yet, of course – because it is a VERY AMERICAN STORY – most rural folks can get themselves to the City and find a way a life, if they want one there.